How the emotional response to film can benefit learning

04 Apr 2016 BY Josie Jones

6 mins
Dunraven film club in school visit
Dunraven film club in school visit

Think about your earliest film memories, what do you remember? Chances are that it's not the plot lines that have been ingrained forever on your memory, but rather your personal response to them. For example, I know that the first film I saw at the cinema was Bambi. Now, I don't have any clear memories about what happened throughout the film or even how it ended but what I do remember, very clearly, is feeling really, really sad for Bambi at that bit in the film. Emotional response, whether it's crying, laughing or jumping out of your seat in fright is a fundamental part of engaging with film.

Emotional response is as old as cinema itself. The urban myth of audiences being so terrified of being hit by a train they ran away from the screen whilst watching the Lumière Brothers' L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat may be false, but the myth has grown out of the fact that audiences had a very strong emotional reaction to seeing a moving train hurtling towards them at speed. It's easy to dismiss emotional response as a mere by-product of watching a film, that it's just something that happens. As a Secondary School English teacher who also runs the school's Film Club, I've found the emotional responses my pupils have had to film often provide some of the best opportunities for learning and exploring a huge range of subjects.

One of the best things about Film Club is that it gives an opportunity for this emotional response to take place in a collective way. Put simply, every week myself and a group of pupils sit together and watch a film. Under any other circumstances this group of students wouldn't be together they are from different school years and span the ability range. I've watched them jump as Spielberg's T-Rex thunders across the screen in Jurassic Park, I've seen them laugh out loud as Batman tries to hitch a lift on board The Millennium Falcon in The LEGO Movie and I've witnessed eyes shining with tears during Inside Out and Saving Mr Banks. The fact that we watch the films as part of a club really adds to this feeling of shared experience and encourages a sense of pride and ownership of the club. And it's not just pupils, indeed in the past we've had a special ‘staff' screening of Mamma Mia , complete with fancy dress and singing along a real fun-filled shared experience!

After screenings I'm always amazed at how even the quietest pupils are eager to talk about the film they have just watched and that those same pupils are often far more reserved in lessons surrounded exclusively by their peers. The shared experience of watching a film makes it easier for pupils to form and build relationships between themselves and because nearly all films will require the viewer to use their own emotional intelligence to put themselves in the characters' position, pupils get to see things from a wide range of perspectives.

Most films require their viewers to use empathy and understanding when engaging with the characters on screen, whether it's the central hero figure (Katniss Everdene in The Hunger Games: we can relate to her caring so much about her sister that she volunteers at the reaping) or the villain (Loki in Thor and Avengers Assemble: we realise he's not all bad, he just really wants his Dad to like him as much as his brother, so we forgive him his mischief making).

Pupils with low levels of literacy often struggle with the important skills of inference and deduction. Using film provides a way to practice these skills through a format that is appealing and less intimidating to pupils. For example, in the past I have got pupils to explore what you can learn from the appearance and behaviour of Omar Shariff when he first appears on screen in Lawrence of Arabia.

Pupils are so cine-literate now that they feel far more comfortable talking about and analysing film than say, a novel, but they are essentially using exactly the same set of skills. In fact, I have done a series of lessons comparing how the torture scenes in both the film version and the novel of Casino Royale are constructed. So, in the film version we analysed the use of sound and cinematography, whereas in the novel we looked at figurative language. Interestingly, the pupils reached the conclusion that the descriptions in Fleming's novel were far more wince-inducing than the film, which actually hid a lot of the action off-screen and left more to the imagination.

Film Club provides such a fantastic opportunity for pupils to experience a real diverse range of films and the wide range of emotional responses that accompany them, in a collective and supportive way. And I very much include myself in that collective too, for emotional responses are not exclusively for the pupils; you will regularly find me glassy-eyed and welling up at the back of room, probably sniffing into a tissue whilst the credits roll.  

Josie Jones author image

Josie Jones

Josie studied English and Film at university and during her 10 years of teaching has taught English, Media and Film Studies. Since 2009 she has run a Film Club at her Secondary School.

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