How after-school film clubs encourage thinking

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Film clubs provide young people with a rare opportunity to be part of something fun, creative and sociable. Sabrina Broadbent reports on an exciting initiative to give more children the chance to get involved.

Ask anyone over the age of 40 if they had a film club at school, and the chances are they will tell you that they did and it’ll be hard to stop them telling you what they saw. They’ll remember the teacher, the magic of having a familiar space transformed into a screening event, and they’ll always remember the film.

Sadly, those film clubs in the 60s and 70s rarely lasted long - sourcing the film reels was difficult and expensive, lacing up the projector was complicated, sound systems were unreliable and the teacher usually worked alone without support or encouragement. Nevertheless, the films that were screened remain as memorable events in the minds of the young people who saw them.

What is a film club?
A film club, like a reading group, is an intimate and informal gathering where people can encounter ideas, experiences and emotions that may not be everyday topics of discussion but which shape all our lives.

Film is a vast vault of stories stretching back one hundred years, across every continent and told in every language. It is an extraordinary cultural asset, yet British children see practically nothing of it. The theatrical releases represent a tiny and culturally skewed percentage of this archive of creative and intellectual endeavour.

Since its roll out in Spring 2008, FILMCLUB has curated and made available thousands of films to state schools. The idea behind FILMCLUB, brainchild of film director, Beeban Kidron and educationalist, Lindsay Mackie, was to give every child the chance to watch one film a week, free of charge, from beginning to end, with a chance to talk about it afterwards.

Now that both the technology and distribution methods are at a point where a model film club could be reproduced in as many schools in the country that wanted one, Kidron and Mackie decided the time was right for school film clubs to become a government-funded entitlement for all school children.

There are now over 7000 film clubs across all four nations of the UK, reaching over 200,000 children and young people every week. Based on a general survey with film club leaders on the impact of FILMCLUB, teachers report that the educational and social benefits to the children attending are considerable. 81 per cent say it develops children’s critical reasoning skills, 80 per cent say it makes children more positive about school and 81 per cent say that it integrates isolated or disengaged children.

An opportunity to be a part of something
Cinema, like theatre, was originally a social act – a collective spectatorship of a story played out upon a stage or screen. Sitting together, but apart, in the darkness and the warmth was integral to the experience. Many people experience film quite differently now and viewing is often an isolated act – on computers and phones. FILMCLUB is changing that.

‘A lot of the disaffected kids are smiling – you don’t often see those children smile,’ observed one teacher from a secondary school in Hastings.

A film club is one way that a school can help children to feel a part of something, not apart from everything. Inclusion is a central aim of many teachers’ film clubs, and headteachers are quick to see that a film club can make children more emotionally receptive to learning.

A film club audience is a unique, self-selecting group of children. It’s unusual to find a grouping quite like it at any other time or place in the school day. It cuts across age, class, ability, gender and ethnic boundaries and it is often a magnet for curious, shy and unusual minds who find their way each week to sit in the dark to watch what film writer, David Thompson, calls ‘the frenzy on the wall’ – who linger afterwards to listen and share their thoughts on films as diverse as Wall-E, Spirited Away, Madagascar, Shaolin Soccer, Mad Hot Ballroom and The Story of the Weeping Camel.

An opportunity to be creative
Schools are frenetic and noisy places. Requests and demands to ‘do’ things can seem relentless – from a pupil’s point of view, most days are fragmented and repetitive. Coherence, especially in secondary schools, is hard to achieve. It is unlikely that creativity thrives under such conditions.

As a teacher and a novelist, I know that the creative process is a mysterious one, but what it does require is time and space to think, muse and contemplate. Also useful is stimulation and ideas – to encounter the creative efforts of others. A film club offers all these things.

For many, it is a rare moment of calm. A well chosen, unusual film like the mostly silent The Red Balloon can be an inspirational turning point, opening up all sorts of possibilities in the mind of the spectator about the ways that stories can be told:

‘This is one my favourite films ever which is amazing because it is only about thirty minutes long. My favourite part is when all the balloons fill the sky. I think it’s amazing how someone can write a story with barely any words.’ (Isabelle, 8)

An opportunity to reflect
As a platform for unmediated pupil voice, FILMCLUB’s interactive website, on which students can review films they have watched, is unique.

Their reviews reveal emergent critical and creative skills. By using the website’s tools, a teacher may view all of one pupil’s reviews at the click of a button which gives a snapshot of progression over time. Given the many requests made on pupils in school to write, a surprisingly large number choose to write on FILMCLUB’s website – on average 600 a week.

The pupil voices gathered here are enormously diverse, as is the sophistication of their response to film – some writing in ‘text-ese’, some writing well honed and sustained critical pieces. It’s clear that children frequently rise to the challenge of films that might be thought too difficult or serious for them. As William Blake said, ‘the eye sees more than the heart knows.’

Other than the phrase, ‘learning by heart’, we rarely use ‘heart’ in the figurative sense meant here although, interestingly, children use it quite a lot:

‘This film (Les Enfants du Paradis) made my heart stop and shudder with sorrow. I absolutely loved it.’ (Maeve,12)

Nadeem, a 17-year-old who attended a FILMCLUB preview screening of Burma VJ, said: 'I've seen many deaths on film before, Hollywood deaths, but this is the first time I've seen an actual person die on film. Now I know the true meaning of the word courage.'

Quite a lot of crying goes on at film clubs: ‘I feel really silly saying it, but I was actually crying through the whole film,' said a sixteen-year-old during a post screening discussion of Hotel Rwanda. Blake also said, ‘a tear is an intellectual thing,’ by which he perhaps meant that being moved by an idea or an image is one of the higher order skills that differentiate us from animals. We may be unable to articulate what precisely has moved us, because the eye sees it while the intellect may not be able to fully know it – we cry because we have recognised something of what it is to be human.

An opportunity to improve
Not only is film a universal language, it has the advantage of crossing cultural boundaries with ease. Film club audiences are often vertically grouped which can make for interesting post-screening debate.

While FILMCLUB selects Reviewers of the Week, it does not edit or correct pupil reviews. It is rare to see raw, uncorrected pupil voices in printed form. Not only can it illuminate pupil strengths, weaknesses and interests for the teacher, it can be a powerful form of peer group learning. By reading their own review among the reviews of others, the bar may be raised by the pupils themselves for literacy skills, reflection, critical skills and cultural awareness.

Here, three film club members write about the same screening of Persepolis, a recent animation about a girl growing up during the 1979 revolution in Iran. In line with FILMCLUB's policy, none have been corrected or edited:

‘I think that Persepolis was quite boring because it was black and what on some parts and on some parts colour. The cartoon was very flat and looked like paper. I also didn't like it because it had rude words. It was disgusting on some parts. There was some parts that were funny thats the only reason why I liked it.’ (Stephanie, 13)

‘I think that the film was very interesting and as I am from iran some in the school or who know me do not know my history or my backround or think that my country is a normal one but this is a very good point to point out your history. I love this film and think its fab. Mum always explained what she went through this made it clear. it was funny, sad ,trajic and everything a great cartton needs.’ (Kimiya, 13)

Persepolis, in all honesty, did have a rather surprising effect on me. It was strange to see such a far-reaching and mature concept be interpreted in such a medium. Whilst I do often detest the use of dubbing, the voices were believable and I was impressed by the perceptive use of colours and light. The delineation of present and the past with the use of colour seemed innovative as well. However, I must admit that the movie often strayed from the important themes in a bid to retain it’s almost childish charm. There tended to be an awful lot of repitition of phrases such as "remember where you came from...don't be afraid of who you are" etcetera etcetera. In general though, a nice take on a subject many of us are not familiar with (social and political issues in Iran) and an innovative use of art and music to generate a film for a range of ages.‘ (Jack, 18)

An opportunity to explore
One obstacle to thinking and creativity in the classroom is the dead hand of repetition and familiarity. FILMCLUB’s website opens all kinds of possibilities for discovering the limitless world of film. Its great advantage is that searching for films can be done through any number of ways – creativity and interesting thinking often come from a place less obvious, from an angle that is askance or a view that is below the radar.

The various Search tools on the website and the FILMCLUB Recommends flag allows users to encounter extraordinary films saying important things in surprising and unexpected ways. A simple curiosity about celebrities might start this journey. For example, in the FILMCLUB Profiles section of the site, a pupil might click on Dev Patel, star of Slumdog Millionaire, and discover his Top Five films, many of which will take them beyond the familiar and the mainstream: Rize, Quiz Show, Millions, Panther Panchali, City of Men.

For the bolder or more curious minds, the site’s Adventurer Rating is a search filter that will show more challenging films in the categories selected. If you select the 5-7 Age Group with Adventurer Rating 1, among the seven pages of suggestions, you’ll find few surprises: The Jungle Book, Mr Bean’s Holiday, Polar Express and so on. Select the 5-7 Age Group again and click Adventurer Rating 4 and suggested films include the bizarre and fabulous The Singing Ringing Tree, the brilliant and anarchic Horse Feathers and the silent classic, Modern Times. Alternatively, throw in a wild card by clicking another filter: ‘Year Produced: Oldest First’ and you’re offered: The Adventures of Prince Achmed, (Lotte Reiniger, 1926) The General (Buster Keaton, 1927) and Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1987).

Often a film resonates powerfully because it articulates the unsayable. An eight-year-old from a primary school in Northern Ireland echoes Blake’s ideas about the heart and the intellect. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets several odd characters – a lion who wants courage, a tin man who wants a heart and a scarecrow who wants a brain:

‘I hope this film’s award winning and I would personally recommend it to families and every single age group. It shows a lot of separate emotions and can really touch your heart. I am not too keen on the black and white but love the coloured. It also shows that even if you feel that you have your brain missing, doesn’t mean you haven’t got one.’ (Georgia, 8)

Many children would sympathise with her sentiments about thinking, emotion and learning in the classroom. As teachers we might do well to heed her words. In an education system so shackled to print and the written word, perhaps it is not surprising that 81 per cent of children say they enjoy coming to school more because of their film club. As Jean Luc Godard said: ‘Let the images speak.’

Sabrina Broadbent 

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