Maximums and minimums

On the second day of the seminar in Berlin, seeking to develop a Film Education Framework for Europe, Mark Reid (British Film Institute) asked us to spend 5 minutes ‘free writing’: writing (in proper sentences) any key points that might have emerged from the first day’s discussions. I started to write the following text, but couldn’t finish it in 5 minutes. So I returned to it when I got back to Glasgow:


The morning after our first day’s discussion of film education, Menis sat down opposite me at breakfast. Frowning, he described our ambitions as ‘maximalist’; I asked him to explain. I understood him to mean that the outcomes our group is seeking to ascribe to film education are vast and all-encompassing – and indeed, so they are, or can be. We might expect nothing less from education about an art form that sits at the heart of our culture, politics, society, economy, and pleasures, and has done since before we all were born. But – asked Menis – what is the essential core or minimum that we want to see in the Framework? It’s a good question.

For me, that essential minimum is knowledge, skills and understanding of ‘the film sentence’, to use the late Anthony Minghella’s phrase: the ability to read (actively, critically if you will) and write in the moving image. I interpret ‘the film sentence’ to refer to film narration, the telling of the story using film’s ‘expressive resources’ (in Montserrat’s formulation), second by second, minute by minute. (This is not the same as a film’s narrative, which is the story told, whose shape and structure and meaning can be compared to stories in other textual forms, written, spoken, sung, comic book, etc etc). No other narrative form uses moving images and sounds in combination (duh…!! the sine qua non of film!); so, as a unique and defining feature of film (NB: a unique feature, not the unique feature), it is axiomatic that film education must address film narration front and centre. Because, as we all know, while most film narratives present as obvious and transparent, their language is extremely dense, complex, and highly evolved: that language took half a century and billions of iterations between producers and audiences to reach anything like maturity, and it has continued evolving in the seventy years since. Film language did not arrive ready-made with the enabling technology, it was not self-evident, and even when producers stumbled upon narrational solutions and techniques (eg, how do I communicate concurrent actions in two different places?) they did not necessarily learn from their stumble-across, or even realise what they had done, but often forgot about it and never used it again. We might, in retrospect, say: ‘Ah! the first example of cross-cutting!’ or: ‘Wow! a mega-early example of point-of-view construction!’ When actually, the producer did not recognise the innovation, nor its expressive potential. Just as film language was obscure and difficult to its first makers (an obscurity and difficulty that was renewed with the coming of sound), so is it obscure to most people.

So a key minimum for me is a pedagogy that makes this invisible language visible.

Further, it seems to me that ‘film literacy’ (the ability to read and write film sentences) is the common thread across all three ‘C’s. Understanding film language, you can make conscious choices in your creative filmmaking among the expressive resources afforded by moving images and sounds, to say what you want to say; understanding film language, you can take pleasure in the particularities of style and form unique to particular places, cultures, or moments in history, differentiate among them, and relate them to the wider cultural context; understanding film language, you can track the meaning of the text to its lair and expose it in all its ambiguous glory or infamy…

To me, this seems obvious, but during the discussions in Berlin I sensed that such an emphasis on film language might be seen by some as restrictive and reductive, that it might be ignoring the art of film, and the pleasures of film. I may be entirely mistaken in this, but in case I am not, I would offer the following clarifications and disclaimers:

Disclaimer 1: Didactic, not. Ginte asked (post on 6 Nov): ‘do we mean that knowledge and tools for experiencing cinema should come first, before cinematic experience? If yes, how can we assure that these knowledge and tools do not channel viewer‘s experience into the direction we have constructed?’

We didn’t get the opportunity to discuss pedagogy in Berlin, that will come further down the line I expect, but I’m sure none of us would see ‘teaching’ film language as the sit-down-shut-up-and-I’ll-tell-you-what-you-need-to-know variety. It could be taught in this Gradgrind manner, as can any subject matter, and such pedagogical approaches have long been the subject of criticism as producing all kinds of negative results (albeit they may be thriving in many contexts across Europe…). The answer to Ginte’s question, then, lies in the pedagogy, rather than the outcome: it’s about helping learners to explore and recognise the ‘internal’ landscape of film for themselves, helping them to look again and notice new plants and creatures they may never have noticed before, even though they’ve ‘seen’ them a thousand times. Inductive learning (from the film library in their heads), not deductive teaching (‘here are the principal features of the continuity system, repeat after me 1/cross-cutting 2/etc…’)

Disclaimer 2: Formulaic, not. ‘Teaching’ film language is not mechanistic painting-by-numbers. Like verbal language, film language offers infinite expressive possibilities. Learners can invent and reinvent, there are no ‘rules’, but your expressive capabilities (in the film medium) depend in part on your familiarity with the vocabularies and syntax of existing film language, your sensitivity to its nuances (and to the non-film-specific languages mobilised by film, eg verbal language, performance, music etc etc). Equally, the meaning of a particular film sentence or text is not fixed, and infinitely contestable: anyone who’s ‘taught’ the same film with several different groups of learners will know how widely spread interpretations can be, no matter how closely argued and credible each point of view might be. (And each group’s perspectives enrich and complicate teacher’s appreciation of the film…)

In sum, it’s not film-language-by-numbers, it’s not copy-and-regurgitate, it isn’t a set of rules, it is not finite but inexhaustibly various. But we still need to make visible for learners the film language/s that has/have developed over the past 120 years. Klee developed a colour theory and used it in his teaching. Kundera wrote ‘The Art Of The Novel’. David Byrne wrote ‘How Music Works’. These are exciting revelations in themselves, not mere mechanical instructions.

Absolutely: it is about the art, and understanding film language is fundamental to the art.

And so: respect the tool. ‘Tool’ is an interesting word, one that comes up repeatedly in our discussions, eg:

Petra (post 31 Oct): ‘The critical group was discussing what is essential for a film education: is it providing knowledge about film to young audiences and their adults? If yes, what is knowledge about film? Perhaps knowledge on its structure – narrative, language. But no, we’ve decided that such knowledge might be a tool for something more important: experiencing cinema. This is the essence of film educational work: how to raise a sensitivity for film…’

We disparage ‘the tool’ as the lowly means for achieving more lofty ends. If the tool in this case is knowledge of film language, I would say that this language is no mere ‘tool’, but a thing of beauty in itself, just like verbal language, or like the craft maker’s perfectly formed tool, honed and refined over generations, with centuries of creativity, culture and life embedded within it. The words of a novel are not the tool for achieving the novel, they are the novel.

Which is not to say I disagree with Petra’s formulation: we do seek to grow the learner’s sensitivity to film (or ‘audiovisual art’, see Menis’ post 6 Nov), and understanding film language is an essential ‘literacy’, a fundamental ‘tool’ that can amplify and multiply their engagement and excitement. But I wonder if we should lay claim in the articulation of our outcomes to the affective domain, the emotions and pleasures of the learner? I think I would answer that the scale and nature of their personal response is actually beyond us, unknowable and unpredictable (unique and idiosyncratic, like the individual stories in ‘Cet Enfant De Cinema’): a ‘side effect’ of our film education, rather than its stated aim. Hoped-for and wonderful, but outside the scope of our stated outcomes?

I am struggling to express this clearly: perhaps a different way of saying it is: we can easily say what kinds of activities film education may provide, but we cannot say what experiences the learners will have (since these are subjective and not biddable by teacher). I guess the word ‘sensitive’ works fine in the sense that it means ‘able to perceive’ (because the learner is ‘film literate’); this doesn’t mean that the emotional axis isn’t present, isn’t discussed in the educational context – no, it is at the forefront in the classroom and the cinema, where we will ask ‘how is this affect generated?’ – but the affect itself lies beyond the competence of ‘learning outcomes’. To cite a similar example, an upside-down mirror image: there is a common perception in various education policy contexts that the purpose of film education is: 1/to educate future filmmakers; 2/to develop future audiences (ie: it’s about the economy, stupid). Of course, this is a misconception: film education and film literacy is a fundamental entitlement of all, it is for the benefit of the learner, not the economy. That said, more and better film education is highly likely to develop film talent and film audiences, but as a side effect, not the core and stated aim of film education.

Disclaimer 3: knowledge, skills and understanding. We debated the validity of this formulation of categories for our outcomes; they are contestable for sure, and I wouldn’t argue they are entirely adequate to the task we aspire to. No words we might use to describe aspects of cognition can really be accurate, we are caught in a circular frame of reference. Do I understand what it is to understand? Can I find other words to describe understanding? However, in English-speaking education contexts – assessment of outcomes particularly – this trio is standard. Do other European countries have different formulations?

And the maximum? This remains to be discussed. There are many outcomes we know film education can ‘deliver’, but which are not necessarily unique to ‘film education’, but which it may share with other educational activities: personal development and social skills, development of other aesthetic capabilities, linguistic capabilities, fields of knowledge (history etc).


Forgive the long ramble. Making the long story short, for me:

  • the minimum outcome of film education is knowledge, skills and understanding of film narration: this is film literacy
  • this film literacy is a joy in itself, but it also opens the door to all three C’s, and into aesthetic and affective experience

The Cinema & The Film


An ongoing debate within our film education community concerns both the subject of study, and the place of study:

1/Place of study: The cinema? Is the best film education that which happens in the cinema? Should we advocate principally for the expansion of in-cinema film education? Is the ultimate purpose of classroom film education to encourage viewing in the cinema, and/or to enrich/support the experience of viewing in the cinema (pre- or post-).

I would answer ‘no’ to all of these questions, for the following reasons:

  • The cinema is a place primarily of (communal) full-on film experience, pleasure, and consumption, rather than interactivity and collaboration, the lifeblood of education and learning.
  • Creative filmmaking doesn’t happen in the cinema, but elsewhere, and the creative side of things is essential to film education. It is good if learners’ films can then be shown in the cinema (as often happens) but if we aspire to make film education an entitlement for all, there will not be enough screen time to accommodate cinema screenings for all.
  • There are not enough cinemas to go round. Many young people in Scotland, as elsewhere, have no access to any cinema at all; of the cinemas that do exist, only a few offer education activities or have the curatorial expertise we would want learners to access.
  • Most cinemas show more of the same and less of the different. There’s actually a much richer offering of cinema (and other audiovisual art) online and on DVD! Doesn’t look or sound as good as it would in the cinema, but it’s not on in the cinema and most of it never will be.
  • What is a cinema? Community screenings and film clubs aren’t cinemas, they may not have the comfort, blackout and projection facilities of the cinema, but they do offer key elements of the cinema experience: 1/communal experience; 2/no pause or fast-forward buttons. I hope we will see more such spaces develop over the coming years, especially in Scotland, where many rural areas are hours from the nearest cinema (they’d need to fly there, take a long ferry journey, or drive for hours…).
  • Reductio ad absurdum: Is visual art education only possible in the gallery? Only truly achievable in the presence of the original? Is music education only possible in the concert hall? If I watch a film at home on the TV, alone or with others, I am still inspired and excited by its art.

Disclaimer: Cinemas are still uniquely valuable. As the place to enjoy and be moved by films, the cinema reigns supreme. In-cinema education activities have their own own unique value and contributions to make to film education. Unquestionably, it would be desirable for learners to go to the cinema as part of their education, but, as above, this is only possible for a minority (certainly in Scotland).

2/Subject of study: Big screen films? Is film education (mostly) about feature films (and other cinema-friendly forms like surrealist film or artist’s moving image); or is it about all audiovisual forms (including TV, YouTube, maybe even video games); or is it about all audiovisual art (a helpful coinage from Menis, see post 10Nov).

For us in Scotland it must be wider than feature films. I find Menis’ formulation of ‘audiovisual art’ very useful here. Leaving aside the ‘what is art?’ question (‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves’ – Rilke via Mark Reid), it provides a useful distinction between film education and media education: if film education concerns itself with audiovisual art – ie is informed always by aesthetic questions – media education concerns itself with all audiovisual media (and all media of course), and does not always or necessarily bring aesthetic questions to bear (its questions may relate to rhetorics, linguistics, economics, politics, sociology etc – film education may ask these questions too, as and when).

Hold on though/i: what about ‘film heritage’ which is not particularly ‘artistic’, which wasn’t produced for artistic purposes but might be amateur or corporate? For example, is our teaching resource ScotlandOnScreen (in need of updating…), which comprises predominantly factual film clips (1890s – 1980s) a true ‘film education’ resource or merely a support for other subjects (especially humanities)? Is it merely education through film not education about film? As has been said many times before, education through film (film as ‘tool’) works best when it is also education about film. Obvious example: a key activity for the historian is interrogating historical texts – what can we learn from it, how reliable is it? Interrogating the historical film text requires film literacy. Which is to say that the knowledge, skills and understanding of film education (education about film) has immense value and relevance across the curriculum, even maths, not as mere tool, but in a rich dialectic with everything else – just like verbal language.

Hold on though/ii: does the ‘audiovisual art’ formula put Fast and Furious 9¾ beyond the scope of film education? I would say not, it merely means aesthetic questions and values are deployed in its analysis, in the same way that they would be in approaching Triumph Of The Will or Olympia, where other socio-political-economic-cultural questions probably loom larger than they might for other texts.


I think we should be inclusive in our conception of ‘film education’: it is defined by the questions we ask, not the texts being studied. Moving image forms and platforms are changing, driven by technology and other forces. Audiovisual art is being made and shared in all kinds of contexts; we don’t know what the future holds.

Marrying the Creative with the Cultural and Critical

The history of film education is peculiar. It has always been undervalued within aesthetic education in schools, and has usually found a more secure place within the various European nation’s home language education – if it has found a place at all. In Scotland, for example, film is explicitly articulated within the definition of literacy, both within the curriculum and in the biennial survey of literacy – and this is an excellent starting point. However, full-on aesthetic education in most places has tended to prioritise music and visual art, with some theatre and dance. My experience in the UK is that film education as it has developed in schools has concentrated very much on watching, analysing, discussing; at more advanced levels, the ‘film studies’ approach has often taken its cue from established approaches to the study of literature: read, discuss, write essay; watch film, discuss, write essay.

Meanwhile, outside the school environment, filmmaking projects with groups of children and young people (and occasionally older people) have been going on in all kinds of contexts, for all kinds of reasons, led by all kinds of different people, filmmakers, youthworkers, arts workers, and others. Usually, such work is project funded, one-off and insecure; recursive and long-term development is rare. Consequently, extended viewing, analysis and discussion of films has not been part of the filmmaking pedagogies that have developed in these contexts. This is in contrast to the developed curricula in schools for visual arts, music (etc), which include studying examples of visual art, music (etc), discussion and critical response, as an integral and essential component of a primarily creative programme.

There are a few examples of this in creative filmmaking education: for one, the Cent Ans de Jeunesse programme, led by the Cinematheque Francaise, has been very influential. Rather than starting filmmaking projects with ‘make a film about X’, it starts with a formal aspect of film language: camera movement or mise en scene or cacher/montrer (shown/hidden: what’s on-screen/off-screen?). Watch various examples of these formal aspects, taken from a wide range of films, then start exploring what you can do with them yourself. The BFI Film Academy programme also mandates watching films as part of the filmmaking curriculum. Northern Ireland’s Moving Image Arts takes an ‘expressive arts’ approach, and includes watching and analysis as well as making.

The cultural and critical aspects of film education have a huge contribution to make to creative filmmaking; these areas of work have been lonely and courting for too long, it is time they got married. Nathalie Bourgeois from the Cinematheque is right to insist upon it. It will be interesting to see how we are able to express this in the framework, through the combination of the 3 ‘C’s.


Defining Art

We ‘film educators’ often get stuck on definitions. What do we call it? Is it film education, or audiovisual education, or moving image education, or film literacy or…? I was reminded more than once during our recent seminar in Berlin of a wonderful aesthetic treatise and mentioned it to Simone Moraldi, who was also familiar with it, and had been reminded of the same bit in the same book at the same time!

For fun, then, for those who don’t know it aleady, it’s Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, an analysis of the art form that is the comic. He explores what it is, what it isn’t, how it works, how it is different from and similar to other art forms (including cinema). During our discussions around the ultimate purpose of film education and where the art was in all of that, Simone and I had  been thinking of the section in McCloud’s book where he debates the nature of art, and the six steps on the path to art. He takes his enthusiastic but frustrated wannabe comic artists through the six steps, from a childish enthusiasm for the comic form to the core purpose of art: surface>craft>structure>idiom>form>idea/purpose. Bowdlerised here it sounds simplistic, but he wraps an extremely subtle and entertaining discussion around it, highly recommended.

The other bit of the book that makes me laugh is the opening, where his avatar in the book tries to define what comics are, on stage in a club, heckled by the audience:

  • Let’s start with Eisner’s definition: ‘Sequential Art’ (audience: Too general, be specific!)
  • Sequential visual art (What about animation?)
  • Juxtaposed sequential visual art (‘Art’ is judgemental!)
  • Juxtaposed sequential static images (Sounds arbitrary!)
  • Juxtaposed static images in deliberate sequence (What about words?)
  • Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence (What about Batman?)

And so it goes. In the end he plumps for: ‘Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.’

It’s a wonderful read – very educational!

Responding to the use of the term “Film Education”

Film, to many people, refers to a thin celluloid layer. In this sense, Citizen Kane on a DVD is not film. It may be movie, moving image, it may be cinema or, better, artistic audiovisual expression. Or, alternatively, right from the start of our final report, appealing to historical reasons, we may redefine “film” as an artistic audiovisual text, regardless of its storing technology.
A whole different discussion would also consider how films share common characteristics with other forms of artistic audiovisual expression (animation, video-art, creative recording etc) as well as other forms of audiovisual media expression (electronic journalism, advertising etc) which, undeniably, would contribute to the development of critical understanding.

“Meeting Points” (as a response to our relevant discussion in the Critical group)

An artistic audiovisual text (film) is not only “the meeting point between a creator and a recipient-spectator”, but also each film constitutes a mental meeting “place” (in the sense of Trafalgar Square or Alexanderplatz) where different individuals with different cultural backgrounds who agree to meet there, share the same experience and, potentially, communicate-exchange their differing points of view. This is a major component of cinema (an invention aiming to show moving pictures on a screen for the public). All audience-centered arts share this (opera, theater, musical performances etc though, there, the role of the audience may directly affect the final outcome). In a concise form, cinema may be a common experience between 3-10 children viewing a DVD in a classroom. While private experience of the same DVD in a laptop or home TV, can be a “study” activity practiced by an enthusiast. A Film Literacy project then, may focus more in developing conscious cinema audiences with critical skills, than developing critical skills for private cinema aficionados.

Response to the importance of experiencing films (as discussed in the Critical Group)

Experiencing films is of primary importance. But Film Education cannot just be random film experiences. Education may provide a systematic context for experiencing films and reflecting on them. Discourse elaborating on a film experience will encourage the “translation” of personal impressions into communication between the members of an audience which shared the same experience. Two examples for providing and organizing film experiences in an educational context:

  • The educational power of categorizing:
    Primitive and crude (often simplistic) categorizations of films by the pupils can be a powerful educational tool enhancing their argumentation and negotiation skills, essential for the development of critical thinking. Each time pupils watch a film or a film’s excerpt, it may be useful asking them to agree categorizing it in simple categories (e.g. silent – sound, color – BW, fiction – documentary, simple film technology – extravagant film technology etc) and to try to support their choice with an example. A template suggesting pairs of categories would be useful for the teacher.
  • The educational power of comparisons:
    Comparing films that share one major common characteristic (e.g. theme) made by different directors and representing a variety of film aesthetics (not only European), can reveal issues of film aesthetics beyond the common remarks of “what the story was about” to which the pupils usually focus. Do they tell similar stories? How do they differ? Can we describe our different impression for each one of them? Through comparisons children will develop their own perspective of film history.
    e.g. Films with trains:

    Clement's "Battle of rail", 1946

    Clement’s “Battle of rail”, 1946

    Keaton's "The General", 1926

    Keaton’s “The General”, 1926

    Lumiere's "Arrival of a train", 1896

    Lumiere’s “Arrival of a train”, 1896

    Frankenheimer's "The Train", 1964

    Frankenheimer’s “The Train”, 1964

    Hitchcock's "The lady vanishes", 1938

    Hitchcock’s “The lady vanishes”, 1938

(Slides from PPT used in teacher training to encourage comparisons. The corresponding DVDs are easily accessible in the Internet or in DVD libraries).