Film Studies for FE
Hugh Robinson, Curriculum Quality Leader at Henley College Coventry, reflects on his experience of getting young students to engage critically with film history.
Many years ago, I was a tyro lecturer in Film at an FE College in the Midlands. Filled with reforming zeal I set about disseminating my vast filmic knowledge amongst the young people of the locality. I had no doubt that I would astound them, that they would leave me changed forever, telling tales of the inspirational lecturer who had opened new vistas. Okay, perhaps I was actually a nervous, floundering wreck desperate to find the key to engaging hostile (yes, hostile) sixteen-year-olds. Either way what is clear and not dimmed in any way by memory is that it was a disaster. Narrative, spectatorship, authorship, genre, representation – critical terms swirled around my brain like confetti at a winter wedding as I prepared for my first screening. The choice of film would be crucial. This would inspire my first critical debate. We would no doubt dissect a revered classic offering new insights and interpretations. I chose (I am blushing even as I write it twenty years later) Battleship Potempkin (1925). Sixteen year olds in an FE college … Do I even need to state that it did not go well? I stared at the blank faces before me. Some were sleeping, drool spilling onto the table. Paper aeroplanes, exasperated sighs, the lot. They looked at me as Eisenstein’s solemn epic finally ground to a close. The Odessa Steps sequence had not had the effect that I had envisaged. Soviet Montage had left them cold. They hated me from that moment. Their eyes voiced the unsaid questions. Why had I done this to them? What had they ever done to deserve … that!
Over the years, I have reflected on that moment many times. What was my mistake? How do you engage this type of student with the wonderful world of film? Of course, one strategy is to teach film exclusively through modern, popular Hollywood movies. The latest CGI-laden blockbuster can serve a purpose and I have gone down that route occasionally. But I have never been convinced of the benefit of screening movies that the students are already very familiar with or that offer little new in form or content.
The purpose here is to share twenty plus years of experience in Further Education working with young students who have very little knowledge of film history and virtually none of the canon of so-called classics. The Sight and Sound greatest films of all time list contains NO films that these students have seen or want to see. In fact, nearly every film on the list was made before they were born. My Potempkin experience, and subsequent similar trials and errors, have taught me what works and what does not. Let’s start with some don’ts. In addition to Soviet Montage, films I have failed miserably with include: from 1936 Triumph of the Will, (I kid you not), Metropolis (1926), Citizen Kane (1940), Tokyo Story (1953).