Film in the high schools: toward a new kind of literacy
Film in the high schools: toward a new kind of literacy
WHEN YOU sit in front of your TV set, sighing, “There must be better shows than this,” or when you leave a movie theatre grumbling, “At least TV is free,” consider that deliverance from the wasteland of bad entertainment could come from your own children. Yes, the ones who spent all Saturday morning on their bellies watching cartoons, who talked for a week about that Woodstock Festival film.
Your kids are members of the first generation that never lived without films or TV. They have none of the reverence for the darkened projection room, for the pulsing television image, that instantly unites five million households across the country. And they have none of the lethargy or fear of the Americanization of our television, that your generation has so frequently expressed.
The schools are beginning to recognize the kids’ fanatical interest, their familiarity and involvement with film. Look at London, Ontario, where last October 20 students from grades 12 and 13 produced a feature documentary on shoplifting. A Castleless King was deemed good enough to broadcast on local television four times! And look again: until September, one month before the filmmaking began, none of the 20 had held a movie camera, let alone handled the sound equipment, the lighting bars, or worked the editing machines that the assistant head of South Secondary School’s English department, Fraser Boa, obtained for them.
It was Boa’s personal love of film (born in a film-mak-
ing course at UCLA) that led him to set up the course. With the support of Principal Bob Mann, Boa was able to obtain from the London Board of Education $8,000 in equipment and materials needed to start the course last fall.
“It’s worked out better than anyone predicted,” says Boa in the school’s small film workshop. “I was told that the course couldn’t continue beyond the Christmas holidays — simply because the kids would systematically destroy thé fragile equipment. In fact, the camera, splicers, tape recorder . . . they’re all handled like gold. Nothing has been broken. The enthusiasm is unbelievable: that Bolex camera has been out every day — school days, Saturdays, Sundays. They start shooting at dawn and finish at dusk. The kids haven’t let me down at all.”
Nor did they let down the London Chamber of Commerce, which volunteered the $1,800 the film makers needed for A Castleless King. But such enthusiasm has greeted several film-making courses. Edmonton public library has been holding film-making sessions for 150 to 200 kids Saturday mornings. Next fall, the library will begin an organized course for cinematographers.
Alberta’s department of education is investigating how film study could be included as a more thorough subject in the curriculum. Jn both Calgary and Edmonton there are almost a dozen schools using super-8 mm equipment, to permit students from junior high school up to make films as
an elective part of art courses.
Ian James, Alberta’s co-ordinator of visual education, reports that children in grades four and five are given colored felt pens; they make ‘psychedelic’ films by drawing on the transparent celluloid of old films, from which the emulsion has been stripped. “Our aim is to permeate their learning environment with visual literacy,” James says. He compares one generation’s effort to read books to another’s effort to read film. “At some schools, students are given the use of a videotape recorder as a research tool for social studies,” he notes.
For Fraser Boa, two elements are vital to the success of a film course. “Film making has to be accredited as a regular school subject to get anywhere: at South, the last period every day is for film-making. In the Toronto suburb of North York, they also have 16 mm equipment, but film-making there is just a school-supported extracurricular activity.”
Boa also insists: “Several manufacturers are trying to sell super-8 mm film as a good, economical way for kids to learn to make films. But you simply can’t learn on super-8: technology is the language of film, and you must get to know the whole range of effects that 16 mm cameras, film and processing labs have to offer. A film is made in the editing, but there’s no way you can learn to edit if you work with tiny, narrow super-8 film.”
But in Edmonton, Ian James argues that “Super-8 film is cheap enough to permit mass involvement. We’d rather use it as a training tool for many, than provide 16 mm stock for a few prima donnas.”
The older generation remains generally unimpressed. Courses exist and are being planned, nationally; money is becoming available (Fraser Boa’s total film inventory for next year is $60,000). But is this going to change the media for the better?
Listen to a couple of the students who worked on A Castleless King. Pat Flanagan, the film’s 17-year-old chief cameraman, says of Boa’s course: “It’s simply ruined bad films for me — for ever — and those dreadful television shows as well. The producers have no talent or imagination. They just zoom in and zoom out, over and over again.” Pat’s assistant, Sue Overholt, recalls watching a film with a friend: “Suddenly I sat up in my seat and exclaimed, ‘What a lousy cut that was!’ My friend looked at me as if I was mad, but I have just grown used to looking at what I see. This course may have changed my life.” A number of Boa’s students say they want to help build the Canadian film industry. Several already have featurefilm plans in their heads.
Of course, film education isn’t going to produce instant award winners, on television or in the movie houses. But did teaching our generation to read raise literary standards and result in a revival of classical literature? Hardly. The film courses of today could raise the level of cinema a few notches above its present level, the way an older generation’s literacy added a few comprehensible books to the best-seller lists. □
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