Film Literacy Lab: How to Teach About Film?

Ten professionals from across Europe shared their knowledge regarding film and media education in Prague

Photo: Doc Alliance Academy

Paradoxically, their focus shifted from lessons for film students to the education of teachers, who often limit themselves to explicating the message and artistic value of films presented in their lessons.

The conference entitled How to Teach About Film and held in January in Prague brought together about a dozen of experts from various European countries thus creating a colourful kaleidoscope of ideas, observations and reflections centred on a single topic – film education. This became the main focus of a debate organised by the Doc Alliance Academy, in response to the current deficiencies in the field of film and media education.

“In many countries including the Czech Republic, the development of film literacy at schools is so vaguely structuralized and, in many cases, documentary cinema is not even covered. That is why efforts to provide a deeper insight into filmmaking come primarily from non-profit initiatives and film festivals,” said the moderator and programmer of Jihlava IDFF, Andrea Slováková, at the conference’s opening.

The discussion on film literacy was initiated already in the 1990s when this topic came to the forefront especially due to concerns regarding violence in film and its effect on the audiences. However, the envisaged progress did not occur. Twenty years later, we are still lacking the ability of critically reflecting on (not only) film works. The coordinator of the German programme DOK Education, Luc-Caroline Ziemann, said: “When organising our educational activities, I very often hear that children see documentary film as a direct representation of reality. I always try to show that it is primarily an artistic view of the world. However, the problem is that there is little knowledge about the making of documentary films. Not every teacher introduces their students to the film language that is employed not only in fiction but also in documentary works. Aside from teaching about the content of film works, we’re thus trying to explain how films are structured and what the methods of filmmaking reveal.”

Among the conference’s main topics was the ability of the spectators to distinguish between fiction and reality, between informative and commercial content, and to understand the commercial background of content production not only in news reporting. “Film literacy primarily means a command of certain cognitive competence and interpretation strategies – not only in relation to students but also in relation to the teachers,” said Andrea Slováková, articulating the challenge all the conference’s participants have to face.

And yet, there are efforts to teach film theory not only to students, but also to pedagogues and even directors across Europe. Some European countries such as Switzerland have their film education firmly rooted in their curriculum. Presentations by the conference participants made it clear that there is no overall education strategy on the European level and that film festivals are the only platforms that consistently offer sufficient space to film and media theory.

Photo: Doc Alliance Academy

One of the most radical opinions of how to show students what documentary cinema is and whether it is a representation of reality, was articulated by the executive direct of Visions du Réel, Philipp Clivaz (Switzerland): “Let students make films so they themselves can find out what documentary filmmaking means.” A similar attitude is also promoted in Germany: “From my own experience I know that children who unanimously claim at our meetings that documentary represents reality as it is are quickly able to expand their perception of documentary film. It often suffices to make them think about how they would make their own documentary and what questions they would ask their classmates. They will very quickly and easily realise that more than anything else, a documentary film is a personal view of the author,” added Luc-Caroline Ziemann.

In Switzerland, not only film students but also festivals such as Ultrashort or Reflex focus on the filmmaking practice, leading their visitors to make and reflect on films themselves. They organise workshops offering everyone a chance to make their own films, to submit them to competition sections or write critical film reviews.

The Jihlava International Documentary Film festival has adopted a similar approach to reflection on documentary film. JIDFF’s representative, Tereza Swadoschová, introduced the festival’s Media and Documentary platform, the aim of which is to provide space mainly to students of journalism thus allowing them to improve their critical skills. Within the very framework of the festival, students take part in a five-day seminar during which they can step into the shoes of film journalists. Under the guidance of experienced lecturers and active journalists, they produced several genre-specific texts dedicated to films and activities presented during the festival. The festival also operates a year-round platform, the Center for Documentary Film, represented by Šimon Bauer, which strives to foster critical thinking on audiovisual content in secondary school students as well as wide public.

Education methods offered by festivals in each country are rather diverse. But they frequently share certain aspects. In order to understand film, it does not suffice to watch films – they also have to be subsequently analysed, and not only in terms of their content. Many experts found it efficient to prepare students and teachers for the film they were about to see. The second most often mentioned aspect was the importance of the presence of filmmakers at discussions – the Polish pedagogue from the department of journalism of the Warsaw University, Jacek Wasilewski, was the only participant who objected to this practice: “Directors are always talking about the things they had to go through when shooting their film and how difficult it was and what they had to deal with. I prefer having experts speaking on a given topic who are thus able to expand the audience’s horizons and in some cases even refute the message conveyed in the film.”

However, some festivals devised more specific methods of improving film literacy. Anais Fontanel from the French Institute in Paris participates in the online platform entitled IFcinéma  where films can be downloaded for non-commercial use. “Teachers can download instructions on how to use films in their lessons. Subtitles as well as reference materials can be downloaded for each title produced by the French Center directly in collaboration with the pedagogues. The only downside is that the whole system is in French,” said Fontanel. Therefore, the French Institute has initiated a new international project called CinEd. “Several countries are involved in the project and the reference materials and resources for the lecturers and teachers have been designed so that they are comprehensible for young people in any European country who are thus able to learn how to critically reflect on films and filmmaking methods,” added Anais Fontanel.

The representative of the Portuguese Doclisboa festival shared her experience with the organisation of regular seminars for teachers that take place a month before the festival. Their aim is to make sure that in addition to entertainment, the festival also offers education to the participating students. “Instead of a starting a discussion with the teachers at my workshop as expected, I directly started shooting, working with them as I normally would with children. They found it very surprising and interesting. They themselves have no direct access to camera work and it is crucial for them to obtain practical experience with what they theoretically teach in their classes with different specialisations ranging from general to artistic classes,” said Claudia Alves, a pedagogue and filmmaker.

Photo: Doc Alliance Academy

Organisers of FID Marseille, in turn, have one all-student jury to teach students to regard films from a different angle and to be fully responsible for their decisions. “Selected students are being prepared for their role of jurors in advance – a month before the actual festival. They can attend film review workshops. During the festival, we make sure that the student jury works just like all other festival juries. We’ve so far had an excellent feedback,” said Céline Guénot, a festival programmer and lecturer, describing the festival’s educational activities.

Another unique project is Everyday organised by the Danish CPH:DOX festival. It is an interactive website making use of modern technology and taking advantage of the fact that anyone can be a director and a cameraman in our day and age. Anyone can upload stories from their everyday life onto the website. “We want to offer an alternative medium. A platform that will eliminate any mediators in the dissemination of information, i.e. media and journalists, who tend to reduce a complex story to a single sentence. We want to enable people to share their stories in full thus enhancing the quality of web-based documentary production,” said Everyday’s manager, Marie Orbaek Christensen, about the project.

The second, a slightly bitter but a highly relevant topic was education not only of students but also of their teachers.

Philippe Clivaz and Christian Georges of Visions du Réel shared their Swiss experience with the participants. Although film theory in our country is taught as part of the official curriculum and we have ambitious educational plans, they are often unrealistic. It is both due to the fact that not even one lesson per week is allocated to film theory, but also because of insufficient capacities for training of the teachers themselves. Christian Georges admitted that “teachers very often dedicate too much attention to the film’s content and artistic quality,” which is very unfortunately why artistic and creative documentary films are seldom used as educational materials, said Luc-Carolin Ziemann of Dok Leipzig. “Children can also watch experimental documentaries, if they are well prepared in advance and taught how to watch them. It is also important to provide education to pedagogues themselves and every screening that we organise for students is preceded by a debate with the teachers,” she explained.

The issue of a lack of professional skills is also addressed by the representatives of Doclisboa festival, Amarante Abramovici and Cláudia Alves. Their annual workshop “Teaching with and for Cinema” features a film that is premiered at the festival, and the screening is followed with a Q&A with the director. At the end of the workshop, each participant is given hand-outs to help them pass their knowledge on to their students.

The debate was joined by Polish pedagogue Jacek Wasilewski: “I often have to emphasise to the teachers what I believe is worth saying. Some of them sadly complain: our children refuse to watch art films. But we have to support them – don’t be afraid and don’t back off, start for instance with Rambo! That’s what I tell them. I have organised a demo course which has proven that many teachers find it very difficult to tell what is valuable and what is not.”

And since the development in the domain of film education not only in our country is still at its cradle, Andrea Slováková’s concluding summary of the outcomes of the conference conveyed the same message, accentuating the most serious deficiencies of the current system of education: “Teachers form a complex component in this system, and ongoing training and dialogue as well as their engagement is crucial in almost all countries,” concluded Andrea Slováková.