By Zak Forsman, July 20th, 2010

Today’s post is from guest writer Jessica King — a filmmaker and teacher whose goal is to tell stories that are at once familiar, uncomfortable, demented, and exhilarating. In this vein, she and her partner, Julie, are currently writing & producing a feature-length thriller for director Phil Holbrook and have been tapped to adapt a naughty memoir by author Kevin Keck.

Independent Film in the Classroom

Recently Ted Hope wondered whether viewing more independent film might make kids smarter. He pondered why there isn’t more of a concerted effort to teach young people about independent film, asking, “isn’t it in our interest to encourage deeper appreciation of the art and craft we have given our lives to?”

As a high school Film Studies teacher for the last 8 years, I can’t go so far as to say teaching students about independent film will make them smarter, but I’d argue that it can make them more intelligent movie viewers. The same is true for teaching them to watch classics, like Citizen Kane or Night of the Hunter. Or foreign films, like All About My Mother or Band of Outsiders or In the Mood for Love.

The trick is that you have to teach them how to watch films first, how to understand the unique language of film. Young people today are used to the language that Hollywood speaks: big explosions, big emotions, big stars. If you want to challenge that, you need to get to the root of film language first.

Before I delve into how to teach film language, I’d like to address a very common problem in terms of students learning about and being exposed to film in a high school setting. Film Studies courses are typically offered as English electives. Most English teachers are barely trained to teach English in a meaningful way (university teaching programs don’t usually focus on the technical aspects of reading or writing – diction, detail, imagery, syntax, tone), let alone film. Instead, English teachers are often talented, enthusiastic people who LOVE literature, which means that they want to talk about themes and characters and feelings, but not about how a text creates meaning and establishes purpose. As a result, many teachers who end up in Film Studies teach film as an extension of literature, showcasing them as visual novels. I find this extremely problematic. My film curriculum, on the other hand, considers, from its core, film as a distinct artistic medium.

In any Film Studies course offered at the high school level, the first thing I must do is disabuse my students of the notion that they are going to spend the next 9 months watching The Hangover and How High. I do this by starting with a brief history of film. As soon as I say the word “history,” they know that Bad Boys II is probably not going to be on the agenda. I spend about two weeks covering the major technological and business developments in film. Through both lecture and video, we uncover the Lumiere Brothers and their Cinematographe, Edison and his Kinetoscope, the invention of sound and color, as well as the significant developments of the Hollywood studio system from the early silents through The Code and the subsequent rating system. My primary goal in the beginning of the course is to get my students to understand that a) film is an expensive and technologically driven business and b) old films had technological and cultural limitations and, therefore, one’s expectations should be adjusted accordingly when watching.

The rest of the first semester is devoted to understanding how films tell stories both in terms of narrative structure and film language. First we look at the difference between classical narrative and non-classical-narrative film, noting, of course, that non-narrative doesn’t necessarily mean that the narrative elements aren’t in place, but that they may not be presented in the traditional manner. For this unit, I’ve compared Stage Coach with Memento and Bringing Up Baby with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This initial comparison helps students immensely in terms of understanding that some films require a little bit of work to piece together. They eventually find that as long as they know what the narrative elements are, they have a chance of putting together a very satisfying puzzle.

Next, we delve into hard-core formalistic study. I do a unit on mise-en-scene. Although this term can be problematic, I start with the traditional (and narrow) definition, which basically encompasses set-design, costumes, props, etc; then I expand the definition to include framing, composition, etc. This leads to my next section, cinematography (black and white first, and then color), and, finally, editing.

In each of these units, I try to teach without overwhelming the students. However, you’d be surprised at how much they can absorb. For instance, in the cinematography unit, we start by learning about shots, angles, lighting techniques, framing devices, etc. Then we watch a film where many of those things are particularly notable. I often like to start with something by Orson Welles, as he was such a master of technique. I’ve shown Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil, and The Lady from Shanghai. My students don’t love these films, which is fine because we’re not there to like or not like the films. They do learn, however, that lighting, framing, and camera angles are powerful communicative tools that affect mood and establish themes.

This intense, semester-long focus on film language both excites and bothers my students. It excites them because it makes them feel smart; it bothers them because they start seeing it EVERYWHERE. They constantly come to class saying that they are annoying their friends and family by pointing out various camera angles or discussing how the slow-paced edits are intensifying the suspense and manipulating the audience’s emotions. And this tells me that I’m doing my job.

When second semester hits, we take a much broader focus. Now that the students understand how films convey meaning, we ask the question, “To what purpose?” I generally frame second semester within the guise of Commerce vs. Art. We cover the invention of the blockbuster film by learning about the New Hollywood films of the 1970’s and the arrival of Jaws. We look at the business of Hollywood, film genre, auteur theory, independent films, foreign films, and documentaries.

Perhaps one of my favorite units of the year is the independent film unit, in part because it addresses a major elephant in the classroom. I teach in an urban school, traditionally one of the most ethnically diverse in Chicago. I am often one of maybe 3 or 4 other white people in the room. Movies, on the other hand, are very WHITE, as the film industry, both in Hollywood and the indie world, is dominated by white men. This is not a political rant; it’s just an observation. While I try to choose films with more ethnically diverse casting all year long, it isn’t easy – the reasons for this would require an entire essay to itself.

When I get to the independent film unit, I frame each film within the lens of spectatorship. We begin by exploring simple questions about our viewing practices:
Why do you watch films?
Who do you identify with in most films?
What happens when you see people that you identify with portrayed in a positive way vs. a negative way?
Who is often left out of our cultural productions, and what are the implications?

In answering these questions, a very simple fact emerges: most of my students rarely, if ever, are exposed to films that feature characters whose appearance or lives in any way resemble their own. As a result, they believe that movies are not meant to represent them and, on a deeper level, that they are not meant to be represented. They also believe that movies are only meant for escapism and entertainment. After uncovering these ideas, I show them examples that combat those notions.

We watch three independent films from within the past year or so (I like to keep this unit and my Hollywood unit very current). Over the years, I’ve included such films as Ballast, Chop Shop, Amreeka, Raising Victor Vargas, Real Women Have Curves, Talk to Me, George Washington, and Waitress, and I’ve seen amazing results. The students are immediately drawn into these worlds. Although some resist these movies because of the slow pacing or lack of fiery explosions, the majority perk up. They’re seeing something rare: black people, brown people, women people, young people, immigrants, or poor people who look or act or sound like them or other people in their lives. They’re seeing stories worth thinking about because the story is primary. This matters.

By the end of the school-year, most of my students report that they no longer enjoy Hollywood films the way they used to. They ask for lists of films or directors to keep exploring, and they thank me for opening their eyes to a world of film, and a way of understanding film, that they’d never known existed.

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Zak Forsman is an artist-entrepreneur whose emotionally-charged motion pictures are known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. They have been praised by Ain’t It Cool News as “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Gorgeous” and by Filmmaker Magazine as “Very Accomplished, Amazing.”


  • Great site.thanks

  • Paolavilla

    Jessica!! I related so well to your post!! I am a Film Language teacher on the Media Studies program in Mexico. Definetely there´s a lot to tell about independent film and the way we understand life through film. I always try to show them short- films and Latin-American films, so they can relate to stories that truly represent them and enlarge their view and the things they can expect from films. From my experience after a quick review of film language and its possibilities they tend to expect more from a movie or an audiovisual piece, it turns them into more aware viewers. It sets the seed so they keep searching and viewing more cinema, authors, etc...
    I enjoyed the reading so much...I just wanted to share a little of my experience. :)

  • It is really amazing how much students will change their viewing habits after even a little bit of exposure on how to truly watch a film. I'd love to know more about what you do with your students!


  • Dennis Peters

    Jessica how can I take your class? Not only is the school system in Chicago lucky to have you as a teacher but indie filmmakers as well... actually anyone making films. Imagine if every school system had a clone of you... sadly I feel you are an anomaly. That being said, perhaps when your book is released about your class and your program you will be able to change minds about the importance of film in the classroom. Ok maybe you're not planning a book but if you did... I'd stand in line to get a copy.

  • Dennis-- If you lived in Chicago, I'd totally let you take my class. Thank you for the kind words. Let's talk more about that book idea on Monday at the Film Courage screening.

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