Many filmmakers believe their art to be as valid as any piece of literature, but movies are often perceived as culturally less significant than other forms of media. While there are plenty of modern cinematic classics such as Up, it is true that many blockbuster films aimed at children depend too heavily on technical wizardry, action sequences and merchandising rather than highlighting positive messages or depth of characterization. Back in my school days, dimming the lights and firing up the movie projector was an infrequent treat, a lazy way for harried teachers to keep the kids amused while they took a breather or caught up on grading. It is little wonder that films in school have historically gotten a bad rap.
For the movie issue, beijingkids visits two classrooms in which teachers treat film as a legitimate art form by integrating cinema into the curriculum and enthusiastically exploring movies with their students. We observe a film appreciation club at the British School of Beijing and a film studies class at the Western Academy of Beijing.
Cinema of Dreams, British School of Beijing
Cinema of Dreams is the brainchild of English Teacher David Robinson, a brisk and vigorous Scotsman. He began the after-school club in 2010 because he wanted to expose kids at BSB to inspiring and thought-provoking movies. “A few years ago, my school organized a trip to a cinema in Beijing to see Transformers 2 as an end-of-term ‘treat’. While watching, I got so depressed by the casual misogyny, crass commercialism and lack of imagination that I walked out and read a book instead. It became a ‘transformative event’ – excuse the pun – which made me want to try to change the attitude towards film [at BSB],” he explains.
Each term, he shows a different genre of film, which is selected depending on the types of students who join his club. For example, when a big group of sci-fi loving boys joined last year, Robinson decided to feature movies that inspired George Lucas’ Star Wars series, including Japanese samurai movies, Westerns, and early sci-fi.
This term, Robinson decided to explore the documentary genre with his students. He has two goals for participating kids: to choose a subject in their own lives that they believe would be suitable for a documentary film, and to understand the tricks that documentary filmmakers use to manipulate viewers’ emotions. In the process, students are meant to begin questioning the authenticity of “reality” in film.
Given the ages of the club members (between 11 and 13), I have my doubts about their ability to grasp such abstract ideas. I ask Robinson if he felt the concepts of film theory are too difficult for children. “It depends how you present it,” he says. “I only add theory if I can link that to what the students themselves have to say about the film. Some areas of theory are pretty accessible.”
Curious to see the process in action, I join Robinson’s club one afternoon as he leads his students on a wide-ranging discussion about the nature of reality in film. He begins by showing a short clip of babies yawning (see “Resources” on the next page for links to the films we watched). When the student’s “oohs” and “aahs” subsided, he explains that any real situation, any moment from life – even a baby’s yawn – can be an acceptable subject for a documentary film.
“Documentaries can be about absolutely anything,” Robinson explains. He relates a challenge issued by the famous documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog, to his students. Herzog pushed them to select unusual subjects; at the time, student filmmaker Errol Morris decided to make a movie about a pet cemetery. Herzog proclaimed the idea ridiculous and said he would eat his shoe if the movie was successful. Morris’ film Gates of Heaven became one of the most critically-acclaimed documentaries ever made and featured on Roger Ebert’s list of top ten films of all time. Herzog was as good as his word, and Morris’ next documentary was entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe.
To further illustrate his point, Robinson then screens a film about a band from his native Scotland, Heavy Metal Jr. The film follows a group of long-haired Marilyn Manson fans as they gear up for the performance of a lifetime. Robinson frequently pauses the film to discuss the footage, pepper the class with questions, and impart documentary concepts.
The film’s lightheartedness undercuts the young heavy metal band’s earnestness. Robinson chuckles softly in parts, to the chagrin of 13-year-old Sophia Konovalova, a Year 9 student from Russia.
“Sophia raises an interesting point there. I was laughing at that. Is it bad to laugh at this?”
“No, but you were, like, mean laughing,” Sophia replies.
“Do you think the director who made this wanted you to laugh at this a bit?” Robinson asks.
“Maybe,” comes Sophia’s uncertain response.
“I think it is a little bit cruel, because these are real people. But as we go on we’ll look at how the director has made the film to encourage us to laugh.”
In the next scene, the band manager, who is also the lead singer’s father, takes over the band’s rehearsal to demonstrate how to really rock out. Unfortunately, his vocal delivery is more budget Elvis impersonator than Megadeth. His hip-rolling rendition leaves the BSB audience alternately laughing and squirming in their seats. Robinson stops the tape and interjects, “That is meant to be funny I think, isn’t it? Does anyone find that funny?”
The kids chorus in the affirmative.
“How do they try to make it funny through the filmmaking? Let’s have a quick watch. Watch the faces of the boys in reaction to the dad’s performance.” He rolls back the film and replays the worst of it.
“We’ve got this guy crazily singing, over-the-top, and the boy’s faces like that,” he says while pantomiming a look of deadpan horror. “They’re clearly not enjoying it at all.”
By breaking the film down and using real-time, concrete examples, Robinson is able to introduce sophisticated concepts to the group of young teens and pre-teens, such as the subject’s loss of control over how they are represented and the ethics of poking fun at people by staging shots and making specific editing choices.
At the end of Heavy Metal Jr, Robinson explains that one of the boys who appeared in the film exposed it as a work of “scripted reality.” “Everything was staged and intentionally laid out to be comedic,” he informs the students. “And a lot of things were made up. So does that spoil it for you?”
The class has mixed reactions. Sophia feels a little cheated, “First I thought it was weird that this generation of kids would be interested in this dark stuff. But now I know that it was staged. Maybe they were a band, but they were not a heavy metal band.” Twelve-year-old Collin Sorgenfrei, a Year 8 student from Germany, does not think it is a documentary anymore. “It was just something to make fun of the kids,” he says. On the other hand, he thinks it was “OK to change things because it’s only a little bit and it makes it more dramatic.”
When the movie ends, I ask the kids if they have any thoughts about what they would film if they could make a documentary about life at BSB. Initially, the class is sure there is nothing worth making a documentary about, but then Collin pipes up with an idea for a film about “Lunch! Food! And all the students!” Sophia takes his idea further. “I’d like to make a documentary about the staff room so we’d know what the teachers talk about when we’re not around. To see [which]teachers hate you!” she suggests.
Robinson tells the class that similar documentaries have been made in the UK. “There have actually been a few documentaries where they follow kids around. They get the naughtiest student in the school, the best-behaved students, and students who have some problems, and then they follow the teachers and go into the teacher’s staff room.” “With a hidden camera probably,” says Sophia.
Robinson introduces another ethical consideration in documentary filmmaking. “You have to tell the people first when you’re making documentaries. It’s a bit dodgy to film people without telling them.”
As the students file out, I express amazement at the receptiveness of his junior cinephiles. They displayed maturity, thoughtfulness, and openness to material I mistakenly believed to be above their level.
“To be honest, I think kids are far more open-minded than most adults are,” says Robinson. “Most will watch black-and-white films or subtitled films without batting an eyelid, whereas a lot of teachers are far more conservative, sticking to standard contemporary Hollywood fare.” If you want to deviate from run-of-the-mill blockbusters for your next family movie night, see Robinson’s recommendations below.
Robinson’s Top 5
My Life as a Dog (Sweden, 1985)
Rabbit Proof Fence (Australia, 2002)
Kirikou and the Sorceress (France, 1998)
Gregory’s Girl (Scotland, 1981)
The Liitle Girl Who Sold the Sun (Senegal, 1999)
(Suitable for Families):
Please Vote for Me (China, 2007)
Hoop Dreams (US, 1994)
The Up Series (7 Up to 56 Up)
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (UK, 2001)
Powers of 10 (US, 1977)
Not One Less (Zhang Yimou, 1999)
Shower (Yang Zhang, 1999)
King of Masks (Tian Ming Wu, 1996)
Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001)
Uproar in Heaven, aka The Monkey King (Wan Laiming, 1965)
Movies from the Cinema of Dreams class:
Yawns by Everynone: vimeo.com/59629693 (VPN required)
Heavy Metal Jr: vimeo.com/71328806 (VPN required)
Grade 10 Film Studies, Western Academy of Beijing
The Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) was an early adopter of the IB Film Studies course, and the program there is well-established and supported. Film Studies is taught at every grade level in high school, so it spans both the Middle Years Program (MYP) and the Diploma Program (DP). At every grade level, the class combines academic content about film with hands-on experience in filmmaking.
In Grade 10, one of the goals is to give students a sense of what the DP version of the class entails so students can make the right decision about whether to commit to Film Studies in their diploma plan. “Since the Grade 9 and 10 MYP classes feed into the Diploma Class, I make sure to touch on the content that is central to Film Studies,” explains Film Teacher Don Jepsen-Minyard. “[That means] production skills – camera operation, editing, writing for film and such – along with approaches to analyzing film and an introduction to film theory and history.”
Jepsen-Minyard is a tall, free-wheeling, expansive, and slightly atypical Texan. “I was asked to leave [Texas] when I became a vegetarian and refused to ride a horse,” he jokes. He came to Beijing two years ago with his wife, Donna, who teaches elementary school art at WAB. This is his 18th year teaching film.
When I join the class, the students are just starting their second film project, which concentrates on cinematography. Filmmakers have to use a broad but finite set of specialized shots in different types of scenes. For example, chase scenes often include a shot that shows the person being chased at the moment they realize that their pursuer is closing in on them. The Grade 10 students study diagrams of these often difficult shots and build a story around the ones they had chosen.
As soon as Jepsen-Minyard finishes introducing the beijingkids team and ascertains which student scripts are ready for shooting, he announces: “I’m going to sit here for ten minutes and check out [the]gear and get you cards”. The area around his desk immediately explodes into activity, with kids converging on him to make simultaneous equipment requests. Jepsen-Minyard sits calmly in the eye of the storm, carrying on several conversations as he doles out kit, advice and witticisms in equal measure.
One all-boys group consisting of Juan Boschero, Joseph Weingrad, Jacques Holmsen and William Lennie is hoping to “fly” a camera (slang for using a camera stabilizer).
“You can’t fly that large one unless you’re superhuman,” warns Jepsen-Minyard. “I could fly it though, being a cowboy and all.” The kids grin and shake their heads. “I just wear this jacket to conceal my giant muscles,” insists their teacher. The students crack up. “I mean that though,” he protests to another burst of laughter. “I’ll take my jacket off!” he warns while examining and preparing equipment. “So, you guys want to switch to a camera you can fly. I actually have one of these set up,” he tells William. “Yo, guys, we already have one on a plate,” William calls back to his team.
I ask Joseph why they want to use a stabilizer on their camera. “We’re going to work on building suspense through filming techniques, [and]it allows us to film moving scenes, sort of like a dolly scene, and it makes it look smooth with no camera shaking. It’s more professional-looking. The stabilizer balances out the weight on the top and bottom, so no matter how you move it, it will stay level if we do it right. There’s a lot of technique to it.” Joseph, like all the students I spoke to, exudes enthusiasm and confidence. I feel as though I am talking to a professional cameraman rather than a high school kid.
Once the groups gear up, they take off all over campus to begin filming. Jepsen-Minyard cautions the students to use their time wisely, as they only have an hour. I drop in on several teams; everyone explains their shooting plans with passion and competence.
The first team I visit is filming a scene from their detective story. “This is an interrogation scene. It’s like an episode of CSI. Alongside this, we’re going to do a chase scene and a car scene,” says Katie Rowley. Katie is playing a detective. She sits facing Rena Xiao, who plays the murder suspect. They run through their lines while Daniel Vedelago sets up the camera and Aliisa Harju positions the boom mic and checks the monitor over his shoulder.
As the scene gets underway, I move to the Koi Garden to check in with another group – this time an all-girls team. Stephanie Bekker, Alicia Borchert, Cate Hooton and Josephine La have written a creepy whodunnit about a stalker. I watch as they film a pivotal scene in which the protagonist enters the high school, oblivious to the antagonist loping behind her in a black hoodie.
Cate outlines the day’s shooting tasks: “We’re doing the first few shots for our film, which is based on suspense scenes. They’ll mainly be shot from the mid-level up. We’re trying to show the audience something the protagonist doesn’t know.”
“We’re making a suspenseful, mysterious film. We have a cliffhanger at the end [and]we never show the stalker’s face, but we give the audience hints as to who it might be,” Josephine adds.
When I meet up with the all-boys group again, they are in the middle of filming a scene which has a panicked Joseph running to the safety of the library and a mysterious hooded stranger scurrying past him in the background. They have just enough class time remaining to run through the scene a couple of times before shooting a take they are satisfied with.
On the way back to the classroom, I ask William why he chose to study film. “Because I was interested in it,” he answers. “The Year 9 course really reinforced that. This is my second year with Don [Jepsen-Minyard], and he really puts a lot of time and effort into the film unit. WAB have gone all out with the equipment we’re using. We’ve got expensive cameras, tripods – things like that. [Film is] something that I’m really interested in, and possibly something I could even make a career out of.”
I ask Rena if she can see herself making movies professionally. “I don’t think I’ll get involved in film for my career, but I do want to take IB Film. I’ve gotten to explore different genres and also get to know the process behind making film. Sometimes when I’m watching a movie, I’ll recognize shots from class or I’ll spot continuity errors.”
Whether the kids intend to go further with their interest in film or not, they – as well as their families – benefit from their knowledge. Jepsen-Minyard repeatedly hears from parents “that their son or daughter is constantly interrupting family movie time with observations about how the film is made. I think the parents are happy that their kids are learning something, but maybe they wish they could just watch the movie in peace!”
As the kids go off to lunch, I tell Jepsen-Minyard how impressive and eager his students seem. “Yes,” he agrees, “but I’m used to that level of enthusiasm and effort in my classes. It goes with the subject. I saw several groups celebrating after getting successful takes in their projects. Part of the hidden curriculum in a Film [Studies] class is for the students to develop a respect for just how hard it is to make professional-looking films. So they’re happy and proud when they get it right.” If you would like to make movies with your kids, take a look at Jepsen-Minyard’s recommended resources below.
Vimeo (vimeo.com, VPN required) has a channel dedicated to learning how to make movies at vimeo.com/videoschoolvideos/videos.
For general information about film and a taste of film studies, see Tim Dirks’ Filmsite at filmsite.org. (There is adult content on both of these sites, so adult supervision is advised.)
Photo by Mishka Family Photography
This article originally appeared on p58-63 of the beijingkids November 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com