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Gutsy films to get you talking

Cinema is a powerful communication tool, and this year National Schools Film Week aims to stir debate about human rights issues, Mitchell Miller reports

Autumn, and the rustling of a thousand permission slips, signifies that National Schools Film Week is upon us. The annual event gives pupils the chance to see - free - the sort of films rarely found in the multiplex and teachers ample ideas for lessons.

Post-cinema discussion might just be a little livelier this year. Film Education, which organises the event (from October 30 to November 3 in Scotland), has teamed up with Amnesty International UK to present films that highlight human rights issues and abuses across the world.

"Films are such a powerful and effective medium," says Amnesty International UK's campaigns director, Tim Hancock. "They can inspire, motivate and inform.

"We hope that the films which these young people will see, and the workshops, will inspire them to get involved in standing up for human rights."

Screenings will be accompanied by discussions and an immediate opportunity to take action; perhaps by sending a postcard on behalf of a prisoner of conscience or signing up to an Amnesty youth group, says Jo Cobley of the organisation's education team.

"Films move people and bring issues to life," she says. "They give us a chance to reach new audiences, young people in particular."

Some people may ask whether this doesn't overly politicise the event. But discussion of topics such as capital punishment or terrorism is the stuff of global citizenship, modern studies or religious and moral education.

Films being shown across the UK which raise controversial issues include Capote, about the author's relationship with a killer during his research into the murder of a Kansas family, and The Road to Guantanamo, about three British Muslims held at the US detainment camp for two years and freed without charge.

Film Education would argue that such films act as a touchstone for debate and discussion, rather than the final word.

Nick Walker, the film week events manager, sees this as a natural part of its remit. "With these films, we can raise issues that tie strongly into the curriculum.

"There are many organisations we'd like to bring into the programme and we are talking to Amnesty about other possible partnerships."

Such partnerships could include the Rwanda Survivors' Fund.

Amnesty International UK is introducing Hotel Rwanda in Edinburgh (also screening in Dunfermline). This terrible true story, well told, of the 1994 atrocities and how a Kigali hotel manager gave refuge to hundreds of Tutsis and Hutus from the Hutu militia, should have won Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo awards for the integrity and grit of their performances.

At the Glasgow Film Theatre, Amnesty will present Luis Mandoki's Innocent Voices, the story of Chava (Carlos Padilla), a boy whose 12th birthday will be marked by forced recruitment into the El Salvadorean Army. This unsparing depiction of a young life scarred by tragically narrowed horizons , based on the experiences of screenwriter Oscar Torres, should touch many a nerve among its audiences.

This effort to "touch nerves" seems to be appreciated. "Teachers in Glasgow and Edinburgh told us they wanted to see films that were edgy and gutsy, with more world cinema and less mainstream films," says Mr Walker.

This more daring approach to programming suits Jennifer Armitage, the education officer at the Glasgow Film Theatre. "It is important for GFT Education that the films screened during National Schools Film Week represent what happens at GFT throughout the year," she says. "So we are giving young people in Scotland an insight into the lives of young people around the world."

Such insights are also to be found closer to home. The History Boys (Edinburgh, Glasgow) by Nicholas Hytner, director of The Crucible and The Madness of King George, and Menhaj Huda's Kidulthood (Edinburgh, Glasgow) offer older pupils a perspective on their own lives. The History Boys questions notions of opportunity and self-advancement, while the happy-slapping, chemical culture of Kidulthood is the heart of darkness to this year's British Board of Film Classification masterclass on film censorship.

There is a variety of tones and tastes in this year's programme. Of the serious sort are An Inconvenient Truth, former US vice-preseident Al Gore's exploration of climate change (Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh), The Wind that Shakes the Barley about Ireland's troubles in the 1920s (Glasgow) and Tsotsi, set in a Johannesburg township (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow). More light-hearted are Amelie (Aberdeen), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Edinburgh) and (if you really must ...) The Da Vinci Code (Ayr).

Insight and establishing common ground are particularly important for younger audiences. The use of storytellers to contextualise films such as Spirited Away (Aberdeen) or Howl's Moving Castle (Dumfries, Glasgow) is one of the event's strongest innovations. A culture can be foreign and circumstances vastly different, but children far from Mongolia have fallen for The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow) a shaggy dog story that plays as well here as it does in Ulaanbaatar.


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