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

3 thoughts on “Maximums and minimums

  1. Interesting stuff. I think my research has come to similar conclusions. I found there are some aspects of film language which are more / less visible to children and some approaches to enabling very young children to make explicit their existing intuitive knowledge and extend their understanding of spatial, temporal elements. Good to get involved in the discussion more – if possible – as this is hopefully a next area of research for me.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. To the disclaimers too.
    Film Education should develop a pedagogy that makes the invisible audiovisual “language” visible. As a minimum level of “reading”, pupils and students may become aware of how an audiovisual narrator (story teller, reporter, documentarist) makes use of the audiovisual tools to express him/herself and communicate his/her personal views, feelings and ideas. The underlying dimensions of this, is in Scott’s words:
    “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…”
    As a minimum level of “writing”, pupils and students should also be able to collaborate using simple, domestic audiovisual tools to create very simple audiovisual texts with fairly adequate coherence and structure, while being aware of their potential audience.
    (all terms such as “very simple audiovisual texts” or “fairly adequate coherence and structure” can be the object of pedagogical discussions and clarified by examples before our final proposal).

    As for the maximum, hopefully it will emerge through film literacy projects financed by the EU after they have been evaluated according to minimum prerequisites suggested by our project!

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