Tips on Teaching a Film Text to High School Students

Teaching a film text to high students is not, and should not, be the same as teaching a print text such as a short story or novel. Although both forms may have characters, events and themes, the languages used to portray those elements are quite different. In a film study, the student needs to recognize that a director’s choices about what the audience sees and hears can help to shape the story as much as the written screenplay does. Students should be taught the meaning of terms like ‘mise-en-scene’ and ‘diagetic sound’, and learn about the impact of different camera angles or shot lengths.

Furthermore, it is not unusual to find hidden or conflicting themes in a film, and students should be taught to look for those as part of a wider understanding of the media. They need to understand that what is actually being presented may be different to what appears on the surface of the text. If all that is to be examined is a story with characters, it might be better to offer the students a book instead.

The first screening

To begin with, try to replicate cinema conditions as much as possible. The room should be dark and the screen large. Many schools have theatres for such a purpose, although a classroom with curtains and a data projector would also be fine.

Opinion is divided as to whether the first screening should be uninterrupted. Some teachers prefer to pause the film at discreet points and allow the students to make predictions, note initial impressions, or ask questions. The problem with this is that it can break the dramatic or emotional flow, and undermine some of the director’s intentions. Other teachers would rather show the film in its entirety, although this may lead to students simply watching for the story. If this latter approach is preferred, students should still be encouraged to interact with the film on an intellectual level, by taking brief notes as they watch. A handout with guiding questions or a Six Hats grid can help this process.

Whichever method is chosen by the teacher, the screening should be followed by an immediate discussion. Students should have the opportunity to share their thoughts, thrash out key scenes, or ask questions. In this way, a base line for the students’ understanding can be established, and the teacher will have a clearer idea of how to proceed. Students may also enjoy revisiting their early impressions once the film has been studied in more depth.

Developing vocabulary

The next step is to give students the language features they will need to know in order to dissect the film properly. There are several ways to do this. Begin by looking again at a couple of key scenes, and then repeat the exercise with only the visual elements available. Turn off the sound and re-watch the scene carefully, pausing occasionally to explain or discuss why the director has made certain camera choices. Look carefully at props and costumes, and consider what they reveal about the characters, story or themes at this point. Is there anything in shot that seems incongruous or unusual? If so, what is this suggesting to the audience? (As an unrelated example that can stimulate ideas, think about the Statue of Liberty holding a Coke bottle.)

This is a way of explaining what is meant by mise-en-scene. To help the students focus on the visual elements, teachers can also hand out photocopied still photographs from the film, which are readily available online.

The process then needs to be reversed, with the screen darkened and only the sound coming through. Students need to listen beyond the dialogue, paying special attention to the use of music or sound effects in the scene. Which of these sounds are a natural part of the scene, and which have been added in post-production? As with the visual analysis, the key is to build up an understanding of what each element might bring to the scene.

To support any discussion, students will need a vocabulary list of all the language features, which they can then match to examples from the selected scene(s).

The second screening

One productive way to make use of the students’ developing knowledge is to have them work in small groups during a second screening, with each group focussing on specific cinematic techniques. One group, for example, may be asked to direct their attention to the use of camera angles, while another may need to focus on costumes or lighting. It will be necessary to pause the film on several occasions during this screening, giving the teacher a chance to check that the task is being done satisfactorily, and the students a chance to comment once again on significant moments in the film.

Each group will need to share their thoughts at the completion of the film, with particular emphasis on how effective they thought their particular feature was in contributing to the film’s emotional or dramatic impact.

Additional exercises

By this point, students should thoroughly know the story and be able to discuss, using appropriate terminology, how that story has been constructed. Although the age and ability of the students needs to be taken into account, the next step is to begin investigating any themes, or overarching ideas, that the film may have. Students may need to do background research on the director and / or writer’s other works, and also find out more about the film’s setting. (A brief way to understand setting is to think about ‘where, when, and weather’.)

Careful thought should also be given to the time in which the film was made. What aspects of the ‘zeitgeist’ are implicit or explicit in the text? For instance, consider “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and its relationship to McCarthyism, or “Starship Troopers” (1997) and its concerns about cultural fascism. What might a more modern film be saying about society, or about people who are similar to its characters?

Students should have access to expert reviews of this and similar films. (Rotten Tomatoes is probably the best online site for comparing reviews.) If the film being studied belongs squarely to a genre, reviews of other films in the genre, and the genre itself, should also be studied. The video reviews of Rob Ager, several of which are available on YouTube, are especially recommended for in-depth and often controversial dissections of thematic elements.

With these examples as models, students should try to write their own review of the film. To give them further practice at writing about film, they may also be tasked with creating analysis pieces of certain key scenes, using the correct terminology.

Other activities that teachers may like to offer students are: mind-mapping character relationships or writing biographies of individual characters; writing and filming their own short screenplay; re-imagining the film with a character missing or changed; and creating a poster artwork that encapsulates the film’s main ideas. A few short films, such as “Two Cars, One Night” (2004) or “Ten Minutes” (2002), could also be quickly studied to check that the core knowledge has been acquired.

If there is a need for a third screening, try to show the film with a director’s commentary, so that students can compare their own thoughts with those of the author(s).

Students – and, unfortunately, many teachers – sometimes think that studying a film rather than a book is a ‘soft option’, and if the story elements alone are being studied, this may well be true. There is also a common misunderstanding that young people can ‘read’ film because they are exposed to it so much, but any in-depth analysis of a cinematic text may expose this as false. Advertising gurus, who direct so much of their energy towards seducing the teen market, are aware of most students’ preference for a superficial reading.

Any successful study of a film text therefore depends on the teacher’s determination to go deeper, and their preparation for the challenge. They need to have watched the film beforehand and isolated features and scenes for discussion. They also need to have read the thoughts of others, and to have formed their own opinions about the text. And finally, they need to keep their mind open to the opinions of their students. Even if several different readings of the text are offered by their charges, so long as those readings are thoughtful and supported by evidence, the teacher can be sure that they have done a good job.