Get in on the action

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Film-making is a powerful way of fostering teamwork. Jerome Monahan reports on the First Light initiative

This is a tale of citizenship, high temperatures and wet fish.

"We were filming in a science room during last summer's heatwave," recalls teacher Ema Bilgora, "and the script required that a kidnapped teacher be terrorised by pupils wielding a fish. By the second day of the shoot the smell was appalling."

The fish in question was a barracuda, "blagged" off a fishmongers by pupils from Kingsbury High School, north-west London, for their film comedy School Dogs. It was one of four short movies born of collaborations between children and professional film crews and shown in October at the National Film Theatre during the London Film Festival.

The pound;28,000 initiative was sponsored by Barclays and filtered through the Dfes to First Light, the organisation responsible for channelling Lottery funds to young people's film-making projects across the UK.

Kingsbury emerged alongside their fellow Londoners Grey Coat Hospital School, Liverpool's Croxteth Community School and Wigan's Mere Oaks School as winners of a First Light competition which, earlier in the year, had required them to submit a proposal for a film with a citizenship theme.

Their prize was the chance to work with a professional film director and crew, turning their idea into reality.

Now the second phase of the project is due to begin with the imminent distribution of the films on VHS tape and a supporting citizenship pack.

The films are varied, tackling such subjects as bullying (Croxteth); teenage sex and peer group support (Grey Coat); honesty and, indirectly, internet safety (Mere Oaks) and the role of school councils (Kingsbury).

Thought-provoking the films may be, but teachers may well find their citizenship and PSHE messages rather confused if they are used on their own. For example, the peer group support session that concludes the Grey Coat film is highly unrealistic having been added, according to the director Justin Edgar, at a very late stage in an attempt to beef up the film's citizenship content.

"This is a valid point," agrees First Light director Catherine O'Shea. "But the films were produced at the end of only the first year of the new citizenship curriculum and should be studied in conjunction with the booklet." O'Shea agrees that what the films clearly show is the power that film-making has to help schools foster the "soft skill" citizenship elements such as team-work and collaborative learning.

Mike McGrath, head of Year 7, was concerned that the film crew would fit in at Croxteth, particularly since the exercise inevitably proved disruptive.

"They could not have been better with the students, who responded to their down-to-earth approach."

Such reports are a sign of the hard work both directors and their crews put into making the experience as collaborative as possible, something that critics of such an approach sometimes feel has been lacking in other First Light projects. According to English and drama teacher Caroline Duck, every one of the professionals assigned to Grey Coat Hospital School took on a student to shadow them. "In the end the only one that ended up at a loose end on occasions was the girl shadowing the director," she said.

The project drew considerable commitment from all involved, and in two cases the film-making had to occur on the opening days of the summer holidays. It is also apparent that in every case the experience has left behind a considerable legacy. At Croxteth, Mike McGrath is about to launch media studies in the school for the first time and at Kingsbury the project has provoked a boom in students opting for drama. Elsewhere the directors have offered to stay in touch with their schools and Nigel Levy, the maker of Kingsbury's film, has already received a script for a movie from one of the students he worked with.

The video and pack can be obtained from First Light. Tel: 0121 6932091


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