“I believe it takes the study of film to be a good filmmaker, but you also need to be a filmmaker to really understand film.”
-Karen Mitchell, high school teacher
You’d be surprised how many articles have already been written about cineliteracy. (You thought I was the first? I wish!) As part of my ongoing cineliteracy project, I’ll discuss articles and resources from time to time. Yesterday I highlighted a single line from Jim Emerson’s blog. Today, I’d like to draw your attention to a trio of articles that appeared back in 2003 in Tech & Learning, an online education magazine. All three were written by Lea Anne Bantsari. They covered the efforts of two high school teachers to bring filmmaking into the art curriculum at West Linn High School in West Linn, Oregon. The first article, “Visual Storytellers,” gave an overview of how and why TV and film classes were introduced. “Clay and Animation Class,” you may have guessed, gives us the lowdown on teacher Lynn Pass and her course on clay and animation techniques. The article that drew my attention, however — a.k.a. the one that turned up on my Google search — was “Cultivating Cineliteracy.” Karen Mitchell was the originator of the TV and film course discussed in the article. Both teachers were pioneers, developing the film curriculum by trial, error, and intuition. The fact that both the animation and film studies classes are still being offered proves that there is an appetite for them, and that even educators without formal training in film studies can successfully integrate cineliteracy into an established curriculum.
What struck me most about Mitchell and Pass’s classes is that they emphasize practical filmmaking experience alongside the more academic aspects of film studies. This may seem like common sense: many higher-level institutions have some crossover between theory and practical application of the techniques. But at the high school level, where resources are tight and arts programs are often among the first to have expenses slashed when budgets shrink, the kind of equipment necessary for this kind of multi-pronged approach seems to lead teachers to lean more heavily on book-and-movie-watching learning, rather than hands-on experience. With ingenuity, Mitchell and Pass worked with the administration and local patrons to secure funding and technology.
Another excellent by-product of this curriculum is interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. To wit:
Integrating technology helped attract a wider range of students to the art department. Their two courses have also proven a springboard for other art classes. For instance, recognizing that an essential building block to film and visual storytelling is a good photograph, some students will enroll in a photography course.
This particular paragraph intrigued me because it highlights the way in which the cross-fertilization is spontaneous and unstructured. Students who are stimulated by the film classes may be naturally drawn to explore other subjects. My question is what would happen if this kind of cross-fertilization were more structured? As any good cinephile will tell you, film is special because it combines several different historical disciplines into one. Photography, performance, music, sound, narrative, etc. are all combined (not to mention that, because of the scale, film is a naturally collaborative medium, another aspect the articles emphasize, and to which I’ll come back). Perhaps another avenue that can be explored is how cinema interacts directly with other subjects, whose relation to film may not be readily apparent. Twentieth century history in the West is practically defined by the interaction of motion pictures with economics and politics. The chemistry involved in the production of film stock makes it relevant to science; human psychology dictates that certain film techniques work more commonly (and more powerfully) than others, which is why they’re conventions, so psychology is relevant; the advent of digital technology makes cinema integral to virtually all practical aspects of information tech programming; English courses have made use of film for decades to illustrate literary narratives. I’m sure even more innovative intersections can be located and developed. The point is that students are already interested in the ways in which cinema intersects with their other studies. All educators have to do is exploit that.
Then there’s the collaborative aspect. As the teachers and author note, the process of making a film forces students to interact and work with each other. When I was in school, I always thought that it was a bit awkward to shoehorn group projects into some subjects. Obviously, gym classes lend themselves easily to team sports. Civics courses led to some spirited debates. But I hated it when a chemistry, history, or English teacher would say “partner up” for a project that could just as easily be completed on one’s own. Collaborating inevitably made things more complicated, and as far as I can remember, never resulted in a heightened educational experience for me — unless you count the times I had to pick up the slack for group presentation members who didn’t do their work, in which case I did learn more than I bargained for. But again: for all that, I might as well have done the project on my own.
Cinema is a singular medium: any discrete aspect of it could, theoretically, be done by a solitary individual, but the work of that individual achieves no meaning unless it works in concert with the work of everyone else involved. And there is so much diversity in the functions of film production that there is a place for virtually every kind of talent. The natural tendency of film production is to elevate the contributions of individuals, rather than marginalize them. This could be potentially transformative in a high school setting, where socialization is a process fraught with psychologically lethal consequences for something as simple as saying “Good morning” to the wrong person. Not that egos and rivalries and screw-ups don’t happen in film production — if those things didn’t happen, tabloids would have to start reporting actual news — but there is something at stake for everyone to do his or her job the best s/he can. I think it’s potentially more naturally inclusive as a group project activity than virtually anything else, outside of choir or theatre. The fact that it includes a distinctly academic aspect — as opposed to leaning most heavily on physical gifts or charm — makes it essential.
I’m fairly confident that there are more stories out there just like this one. Mitchell and Pass took the initiative to develop a program that has concrete, real-world applications in addition to the academic benefits. I’ll be posting more along those lines in the future. ☕