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Film puts pupils in the spotlight

A new school garden inspired a short, animated film that took a P5P6 class to a national awards ceremony, boosting their confidence each step of the way, reports Miranda Fettes

A few years ago Leonard Cheshire, the UK's leading disability care charity, challenged teachers to make a film about disability. Liz Whatmore was intrigued enough to respond and was sent a pack on film-making. She is now well on the way to completing her fourth film, hoping that it will be at least as successful as her third.

Last year, her combined P5 and P6 class at Burntisland Primary, in Fife, made a short film entitled Un Mystere dans le Jardin with the help of a professional animator and sound experts. "It was a film created to promote our newly formed school garden," explains Mrs Whatmore. "Every decision was made democratically. It was all about creativity."

The six-minute film was one of three shortlisted for the First Light Film Awards 2005 in the best film by under 12s category. The awards celebrate the best examples of digital short films made by children aged 7 to 18 across the UK, using UK Film Council Lottery grants. Un Mystere dans le Jardin was made with sponsorship from Scottish Natural Heritage, Fife Council and First Light, which is supported by the UK Film Council.

The film follows the adventures of Michelle, a French snail from the Oui Oui Detective Agency, who is called upon by Haggis, a Scottish snail and curator of the Arty Farty Gallery, to help him solve the mystery of missing components of a painting in his care.

Michelle travels by flying lettuce helicopter from Paris to Scotland to help Haggis, aided by a vacuum cleaner called the Stoor Sooker. With the help of friends, including a cat called Flealix, Miles the mouse, the African grey parrot DJ Squawk and the spider Daisy Darling and her family, the creatures succeed in tracking down the missing kite, flower, knickers, pea pod, towel and rainbow to complete the painting.

With dialogue such as "I cannae understand ye, hen!" - spoken by Haggis to Michelle, who speaks in French (which the pupils start to learn in P6) - and a shot of the Utterly Trash newspaper, the film is imbued with humour.

"It's quite quirky," agrees Mrs Whatmore.

The children fashioned the characters out of modelling clay, wire, foam, clay and fabric and four children and their teacher composed the music for the film, which they all sang and recorded.

For over three months last spring, the children worked every day on the film, some days for just five or 10 minutes, other days for longer. They also spent a day at Substation Recording Studio in Rosyth, where they were assisted by a DJ and sound engineers.

Dundee-based animator Bruce Husband set up the lighting and shot the film, moving the characters about with the help of the children who designed the set.

The pupils auditioned to play the characters. Joanne Bell was the voice of the exceedingly snooty Lady Lavender Soil, modelling her accent on Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous. "I liked everything (about making the film), including the voices and making the characters," she says.

Katie Stevenson was Michelle. "I liked thinking of all the names for the characters," she says.

"You tried one thing and if it wasn't quite right, we might take one bit of it and combine it with another bit from something else."

The two girls went to London with Mrs Whatmore for the First Light awards ceremony in February at the Odeon in Leicester Square. They reel off celebrities they met, including Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter films), Joe Prospero (Finding Neverland), Sir Ian McKellan and CBBC presenter Jake Humphrey.

"Just being there was great," says Joanne.

Stephen Fry, Jude Law, Nick Hornby, directors Hugh Hudson, Alison Peebles and Shona Auerbach, and Ginnie Atkinson, managing director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, were among the judging panel.

There were 200 entrants to all nine categories, shortlisted to three in each. The categories were: best drama, best documentary, best comedy, best horror or thriller, best special effects, best animation, best film made by under 12s, best film made by over 13s and best screenplay.

The Burntisland pupils were pipped to the award for best film by under 12s by Reading children for When Mum Was Young.

Although their film did not win, Mrs Whatmore's and her pupils' enthusiasm is unshakable.

"I have always felt that a project like this taps into every child's imagination," she says. "With film, every child is involved and interested.

Each child feels they have achieved something.

"There are so many children disillusioned with school failure, whereas this involves everyone. It is very inclusive and everyone can contribute, whatever their ability.

"There were two badly behaved boys in the class who came to life with this.

They felt involved."

Un Mystere dans le Jardin premiered last June in Kirkcaldy. The pupils arrived in limousines.

"It has been very exciting," enthuses Mrs Whatmore.

"The confidence this has given them is unbelievable," she smiles. "I firmly believe if they can gain confidence in primary school, they can succeed in life."

Un Mystere dans le Jardin is available on DVD for pound;10 from Burntisland Primary, tel 01592 872234

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