In 1998, when film enthusiast Gill Clayton took up the post of head of English at Great Torrington Community School - a mixed 11-16 school in Devon - she was keen to encourage greater use of the moving image in the classroom.
"In my previous post in Hull, I had done a lot of work with the moving image. I'd seen how it could widen students' horizons and help them improve their analytical skills. While many students were enthusiastic about film, their knowledge was often confined to contemporary, popular films. I thought it would be great for them to get a flavour of the diversity of film on offer." And so Watchers was born.
It was initially funded by a three-year grant from the British Film Institute (bfi), which enabled Gill Clayton to organise monthly screenings at local arts centre the Plough, for pound;1 a ticket. It was supervised by a faithful crew of up to 10 learning support assistants.
But selecting suitable films proved to be trickier than finding a venue, because appealing films with a 12 certificate are hard to come by. But she has managed to provide a mix of blockbusters, black-and-white classics and subtitled films to satisfy student demand, as well as expand their cinematic horizons. "The students will often surprise you with what they like and don't like," she says. "Some of our lowest attendances have been for blockbusters, such as Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.
They didn't come, because they'd all seen it."
Surprising hits with students include FW Murnau's Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), the first (albeit unofficial) screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula; Don Chaffey's 1963 epic Jason and the Argonauts and Hayao Miyazaki's Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001). La Vita Bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997), Roberto Benigni's Second World War tragi-comedy, was another popular choice and tied in with Year 9 students' study of the Holocaust in religious studies.
Interest in Watchers has grown since the launch of the website (www.gtswatchers.co.uk). Designed and maintained by former student Jason Shelton, the site features film and music reviews by students and details of forthcoming screenings. "I was one of the students who helped get Watchers up and running," says the 18-year-old, who is currently taking a gap year.
"I picked up bits about web design in GCSE ICT and I was keen to improve my skills, so I thought I'd have a go at a Watchers site."
He used web design and photo-editing software from Macromedia - Dreamweaver and Fireworks - to build the site. The website's basic design and layout took just half a day, but Jason is constantly updating it. "The students love the site," he says. "They especially like the fact that they can type their name into Google and see their film review come up."
Jason's interest in film and media developed when he started making short films using the school's digital cameras and three eMac computers, with iMovie, MovieMaker and Pinnacle film-editing software. He then trained other students in how to use the film software.
The recently formed Makers club, led by ICT teacher Felicity Rendell, is ideal for students who have an interest in film-making. The group meets on an informal basis several times a term to work on student-led projects.
"We tend to leave it to students to decide what they want to do," says Gill Clayton. "We just help them get to grips with the equipment and let them go off and make the films. They really think about how they can use film in a meaningful way."
One group of students made a film on sports at the school, to be shown to children in feeder primary schools. Another group made an entertaining short film called Human Comforts, which was highly commended in the North Devon Digital Media Awards. It was based on the popular HeatElectric "creature comforts" advertisement.
Gill Clayton has recently invested pound;800 in a cinema screen to encourage more in-school viewings. "It's great to see the students increasing their knowledge of film and talking about it. They'll stop me in the corridors to offer their opinions about recent or future showings. It really does encourage them to think."
* These sites provide information and free resources to support the teaching of film across the curriculum
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