Finding that right movie

Around this time of the year, every year I am faced with the same challenge; trying to find the right feature film to show to the fifteen and sixteen year olds who I teach a broad cultural education program to.

Although the course as a whole covers all sorts of artistic disciplines I like to start the year if possible with a movie, for the pupils its familiar territory and compared to some areas of art and culture film is generally quite accessible to them. The idea is to watch a feature film together and then become engaged with a little film analysis to give them some insight and appreciation of the craft and practices of film making.

babadookI said at the beginning that I try to find a suitable film, well actually I try to find several. I teach three parallel classes of twenty five to thirty pupils, so this year a total of eighty two pupils, and importantly for me that means eighty two reflective essays at the end, each of around one thousand words. I don’t Think that I have to enlarge on what eighty two films about the same film does to your head when you’re marking them!

So with this in mind I often return to films that have proved popular  and effective in the past, but also try to add at least one new one each year. Last year I wrote here at some length about the response on my class to Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary entitled Senna about the formula one racing driver Ayrton Senna. So struck was I by the class’ response to the film last time that I had no hesitation in showing it again this year to one off my three classes. Once again the atmosphere in the classroom at the end of the movie was amazing, a hushed stillness as the pupils took in and tried to order and evaluate the captivating climax of the film. So much of the average teenager’s entertainment world is often trivial, violent or superficial it is truly fantastic to show them something that has been constructed with such skill that the narrative that all the film fragments carry take us right to the heart of a high profile sportsman’s world, it’s pressures, it’s challenges and ultimately it’s horrendous risks. For many it was wide open eyes and hands on mouths at the end!

You can find further reflections on Senna by clicking here and here for posts from last year.

A second film I chose to use this year was Australian director Jennifer Kent’s excellent The Babadook.  For several years I have wanted to take a look at a horror film with my fourth year groups. But trying to find an appropriate movie has been so difficult. Many teenagers in the fifteen to sixteen age bracket love horror films and have seen many. Others in the class though have seen virtually none or doubt whether they want to see one. Some pupils seem largely insensitive to the tensions of a horror movie whilst others struggle to cope. Add to this a personal requirement to only use a film that I feel comfortable myself showing, also  keeping in mind that I too am a father of a fifteen year daughter. What wouldn’t I mind her seeing at a school screening? With all these points to consider it has been difficult, I’m not happy to show excessive violence, blood or gore, I am also cautious of using a film with a huge number of ‘shock’ moments. Finally though, The Babadook has come along and after watching for myself I felt relatively sure that this could be the one. It has more of a creeping tension, as with many of the best horror movies, the fear is more in what you imagine rather than what you actually see. It also makes use of a good number of ‘classic’ horror film elements, a scary domestic context, relatively innocent key characters, sound effects and ultimately a monster. All good stuff when it comes to critically trying to unpack the movie with the pupils afterwards.

Below is a review of the film by Mark Kermode on BBC radio.

As I write this I am half way through the class with class V4D. I offered an alternative film to anyone who really didn’t fancy a horror film. Three chose that option, which was fine, and a fact that went uncommented on by the rest of the class. I watched the first fifty minutes together with the class this week. I’ve already of course watched the film several times and so regularly found myself watching the pupils watching the film rather than focusing on the film myself!

Reading the reports at the end will be the ultimate test of the enjoyment. But as far as I could see there seemed to be three categories of viewers:

  1. Viewers (most often, although not exclusively boys) who were just lapping it all up, completely enjoying themselves
  2. Viewers who whilst regularly seeming to be frightened by occurrences or frightened in the anticipation of what was going to occur, but who nonetheless were still enjoying the experience
  3. Viewers who when you looked at their faces were either transfixed by the action or turning continuously away.  Were these pupils actually enjoying the experience? Or was it more a question of endurance?

I worry a little about the third category, have they felt pressured to stay and watch? Are they wishing that they had chosen the alternative. I offered the choice again, nobody wanted to leave.

When it comes to writing about their cultural experiences and their opinions pupils are in my experience extremely open and honest, so I expect I’ll get a clearer picture in the end, but for now it’s another forty five minutes of pupil watching as the climax of the movie comes closer and I look forward to the discussions afterwards!

Advertisements

Three films, three classes and three reactions

My art and cultural education course that I teach to my groups of 15 and 16 year olds normally begins with a module about film and filmmaking.  This year has been no different. Film as a cultural experience is close to the world of the teenagers and easily accessible to them. With three large groups to teach and a total of 90 one thousand word essays to mark at the end, I chose, for my own sanity to use three different films. This way I would at least have some variety in the resulting report reading.

I like to select films that are just outside the pupils own film going experience and ones that challenge the to consider certain choices made by the film makers concerned.

The first class are now half way through watching the Schulman brothers’ and Henry Joost’s film Catfish and are absolutely loving it. It’s a film I’ve used before and knew that I was on fairly safe ground. The Facebook relationship story with its documentary style and tense moments works tremendously well.  It is a scenario that they can easily identify with.

The second class are now half way through Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna. The initial reaction of the class to watching a documentary film for two hours was fairly sceptical. They want a good story…..they said.  I asked them to be patient with the movie and after fifteen minutes of watching it was clear to all that a good story is exactly what the film delivers. I explained before the start that I had thought long and hard about whether I should show this film. The film uses only genuine footage to tell the story of the life and death of the formula one driver Ayrton Senna.  The car crashes in the movie are a crucial part of the narrative.  A genuine death on film is course different to the countless deaths that teenagers observe in the more normal film fodder that they consume. I discussed this with the class before the film and offered an alternative to anyone who really didn’t want to watch. We are at the moment half way through watching the film, it hasn’t reached its climax yet, although the film is being watched in a focused silence….not always easy to achieve in a classroom of 32 watching a film together. They seem to realize that this is something different and that from my perspective is exactly the point. Senna is an excellent movie when it comes to throwing a new light on the sort of detached sense of realism with which we approach most films. Normally we have to give ourselves over to suspending our disbelief, but here we are living and thinking along with real people, their conflicts, their relationships and the risks they take. I’m curious to see how the second half is experienced.

In many ways, my third choice was the one aimed most specifically at my teenage audience. I wanted to make use of a film where music played a strong part. Sometimes I look a little bit further back into film history to find films that nobody in the class is likely to have seen. This is what I did and chose Alan Parker’s 1991 film The Commitments, a film about a struggling and ultimately, failing, bunch of teenagers trying to form a band in Dublin. The movie is packed with music, has a lot of humour and the leading roles are almost exclusively filled by teenagers. On the face of it you would think a highly appropriate film for one of my classes. Here too, after one lesson we are about half way through the movie, but I find myself perplexed by the reaction of the class to watching it.  It is a film that is heading towards being 25 years old, but I certainly feel that that isn’t the problem, it has aged relatively well. When a class is watching a film I often find myself watching the class, gauging their enjoyment.  The problem we are having is that they aren’t getting the humour. I can see that there are one or two in the class who are getting it, but the majority are watching in something of a stony silence. So why is this……? At the end of the lesson I had no time to quiz them; it could be a language issue, the strong Irish accents aren’t always easy, but then I have subtitles on to make it more accessible (they are after all watching in their second languages – Dutch being their first). Or is it that the Irish/British humour is so different to that of the Dutch? This is a regular topic of discussion with my Dutch colleagues at school. In our bilingual department we use so much British or American material to support our educational programmes, and humour, particularly British humour, is so often problematic. How can sensibilities in this area be so different? A point of discussion for another blog post perhaps, but for now I am spending the weekend wondering whether to scrap the second half of The Commitments and try something else!