Teaching through Film

Teaching through Film

Stephen Brookfield (University of St. Thomas, USA)
Copyright: © 2013 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4249-2.ch020
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Film can be used for multiple educational purposes in the support of students’ learning. It can be used at the beginning of a unit to generate avenues for discussion or exploration, at the end of a unit to illustrate ideas that have already been studied through other formats, or to integrate multiple themes that have been considered across the curriculum. Some of its functions are to encourage the exploration of multiple perspectives, to teach specific histories, to provide guides for action, and to illustrate complex concepts. This chapter explores the ways these different functions can advance learning by focusing on one particular scene in particular. The scene is “The Decision” in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, a dramatization of the Republican forces’ struggle against General Franco’s coup in the Spanish Civil War.
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As I began writing this chapter, it was Oscar week in 2012. In the USA, around 40 million viewers watched the Oscar ceremonies on TV, with countless more viewers around the world. Despite the rise of Cable TV and the explosion of social media, films still retain the power to influence national debate and to focus the attention of adults across the social spectrum on a particular issue. When Crash won the Oscar for best picture in 2005 several of my colleagues used it to jump start class discussions of racial dynamics and identity. Not just the characters and storyline of Crash, but also the identity of its producer, co-writer and director, Paul Haggis (a White Canadian), provided multiple entry points for exchange and analysis. In my own courses I found Crash a wonderful example of a distinctly White viewpoint on race, with its underlying premise that Whites (like the policemen played by Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillipe) could turn racism on and off like a light switch, depending on the situation.

Crash implied that with good hearts and raised awareness on the part of Whites, racism could be eliminated. It sidestepped any real analysis of how racism is structurally embedded in wider economic inequalities, or how the ideology of White supremacy is learned and deeply embedded in Whites’ consciousness. It assumed that depending on the situation Whites can choose whether or not to be racist and that those with good hearts will choose not to be. In this perspective success in anti-racist work is largely a matter of individual fortitude; of how assiduously you gear yourself up to detect and fight the enemy of external racism. This approach holds that whether or not a White person chooses to be racist is down to the moral strength or militant Christianity he or she displays in fighting the system’s efforts to make them think and behave as a racist. It views racism as individual not systemic, a matter of personal choice rather than an ideology learned in, and underscored by, social structures.

When I made this critique of the film many of my White students were surprised I would not be wholly supportive of a film that, in their view, courageously took on the issue of racism. I think that having an Oscar-winning film to focus on allowed us to get far more deeply into a real discussion of racism than if I had asked people to begin by talking about their own direct experience of discrimination. Unless people are ready and willing to disclose quite searing personal stories, you often need the bridge of art (fiction, film, TV, comedy) to prime them to make the leap to direct experience. I would argue that one comedy skit in Chappelle’s Show or Key and Peele, or one Chris Rock or Def-Jam stand-up routine, is often more productive in opening up avenues for discussion than assigning people to read an article on critical race theory, or the autobiographies of Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X.

In the digital age, teachers are more and more aware of the need to use multiple media formats and technologies, particularly those that incorporate a strong visual element. As a medium, film has been around for over a century, but the explosion of the World Wide Web has meant that viewership is now possible on an exponentially greater level than ever before. No longer do people need to wait for a film to show up at their local cinema, or to be run on TV. Both legally and illegally, the opportunity to watch films is now available to anyone with access to a computer.

In this chapter, I want to review the different ways that film can be used for educational purposes. My purpose is to explore a number of functions that film can serve in advancing learning, and I will do this by focusing on one particular scene in one particular film. This film is Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom and interested readers can watch it freely on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WH9J48jlUE0.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Counterfeit Discussion: A discussion that appears democratic and open but that is, in fact, manipulated.

Ken Loach: British film director known for tackling political issues.

Hegemony: The process by which people learn to embrace ideas and practices that harm them.

Critical Thinking: Becoming aware of assumptions informing thoughts and actions.

Perspective Taking: The opportunity to see events through others' eyes.

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