Popcorn not included

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Filmclub began by supplying free screenings to 25 schools; now, a couple of years later, nearly 5,000 are scheme members. And it's much more than sheer entertainment, as Hannah Frankel reports

One day each week, stripy cushions are placed on the hall chairs. And on those cushions is placed a sweet. A large projector screen is lowered from the ceiling, and scores of excited pupils scuttle in and take their seats. The surround sound is switched on, the lights dimmed, and the film club is open for business once more.

"We wanted to give pupils as true a cinematic experience as possible," explains Janice Middleton, head of Edlington Victoria Primary School in Doncaster. "The cushions and the sweets make it that little bit different, colourful and special."

It is this sort of magical experience that has prompted nearly 4,900 schools to set up similar clubs. There to help them is Filmclub, founded in 2006 to explore and promote cinema's ability to expand young minds and open new avenues of discovery.

Participating schools can choose - for free - from thousands of DVDs, ranging from silent films, black and white films and foreign films to Hollywood blockbusters. The DVDs are then sent to the school for after- school clubs or lesson-time screenings. Offline discussions and online reviews are encouraged, spurred on by special events, public screenings and visits from film industry talent.

Edlington Victoria Primary's film club was introduced two years ago in response to a request from the school council. Pupils wanted to go to the cinema, but parents could not always make the five-mile trip into town. The cost of tickets was another prohibiting factor.

The school already puts on five after-school activities each day. It also prides itself on providing activities beyond the gates to meet the wider needs of the community, such as a book club at the local library and summer games at the nearby swimming pool. But it knew it could do more.

"When our pupils pinpoint a real need, we like to facilitate it if we can," says Ms Middleton. "Of course we couldn't build a cinema, but we could offer a film-orientated evening that would expand the pupils' horizons."

And that is exactly what it has done. Nearly half of the 300-strong school has signed up to the film club, which is split into two groups to ensure age-appropriate content at the screenings.

The pupils help to choose the films, but they are often guided by the latest box-office blockbuster. Ms Middleton is willing to override them if it means widening their knowledge through less well-known classics such as March of the Penguins.

"This is quite a narrow, deprived community," she says. "It's an ex-mining village and can feel quite insular. Some of our pupils never leave the village, yet through film they can see the world. It's wondrous for them. We want our pupils to be part of a wider global community and aspire to bigger things."

Broadening young people's minds was certainly part of Filmclub's early remit, says Mark Higham, its chief executive. During the pilot scheme in 2007, which involved 25 schools, teachers and "filmclubbers" enjoyed the variety of films from different times, cultures and viewpoints.

But there were also some unexpected outcomes. "After just one term of film club, teachers told us pupils were enjoying school more," Mr Higham adds. "They were more receptive to learning and less apathetic about school. It had a really positive knock-on effect."

That is certainly the experience at Sir William Stanier Community School in Crewe, which uses its film club as a reward for good behaviour, attendance and attitude. "No one is permanently excluded from film club, but you have to work really hard to be a member," says Kirk Henry, the school's English teacher, literacy co-ordinator and film club leader. "We have etiquette and rules that filter through to the rest of the school."

The pupils at the school refer to their film club as the place where "secret learning" takes place. Films such as Slumdog Millionaire, which is set in India, the Japanese animation Spirited Away and Somers Town, a black-and-white film about a Polish boy in London, all had a profound impact on the Cheshire pupils.

"Somers Town particularly pricked the conscience of our pupils," Mr Henry says. "We have a large Polish community here and there can be lots of ill- feeling towards them.

"But the film marked a definite shift in mindset. They related to the Polish boy, barely making reference to his nationality. They definitely moved away from more negative views."

The films have also acted as a "vehicle for literacy", Mr Henry says. It has encouraged the writing of reviews, while speaking and listening skills have improved through discussion and debate. And when films are based on a book, some pupils have read the book to compare the two.

Andrew Soulsby, 16, a pupil at St Cuthbert's High in Newcastle upon Tyne, has used the school's film club as a springboard to launch his own writing. As well as winning Filmclub's national "reviewer of the year" award, he has written several screenplays.

"I get a lot of my inspiration from Network (a 1970s satirical comedy), which has one of the greatest screenplays ever written," he says. "Just seeing the effort that went into the writing is amazing. It prophesied globalisation before it had even begun. Peter Finch won best actor - the only person to have won an Academy Award posthumously in the lead role."

Beatrice Fitzmaurice, an eight-year-old pupil at Wimbledon Chase Primary in south-west London, is just as passionate about her school's film club. Her favourite film to date has been Bugsy Malone. "At the end, we all stood up and clapped," she says.

"Me and my friends were all in the front row, which made it extra special. I loved the music and found it very entertaining."

But slightly more demanding films have been less well received by Beatrice. A black-and-white Norman Wisdom film got the thumbs down, while a subtitled French film was "hard to understand".

Mr Higham remains unconcerned. He believes pupils are often on a filmic "journey", which may start with High School Musical or Twilight before progressing to more challenging films.

"With our help, pupils will end up with a much richer diet of films than they would otherwise have access to," he says. "These films have the power to develop their critical appreciation and understanding of other cultures."

Filmclub recommends 650 films that it considers to be particularly high quality, diverse and interesting, from Animal Farm and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Bambi and The Red Balloon. Last term, almost half the films ordered were from the list. One of the most popular choices in primaries is Duck Soup, a 1930s Marx Brothers comedy. And Kes, the 1960s classic about a boy and his kestrel, is always a popular choice at secondaries.

Lucy Sibbald, 15, from Ilfracombe Arts College in Devon, says she would never have watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Donnie Darko or Spirited Away if it were not for film club. "Spirited Away blew me away," she says. "It wasn't originally made in English, so you really get to see life from the perspective of a different culture."

The films at Ilfracombe are generally screened during Year 10 and 11 media studies lessons - a formal setting in which pupils can study the role of music, camera techniques, positioning and angles.

But not all parents are so happy with film seeping into the curriculum. In July, one father started a petition against "dumbing down" after his daughter's school, Kingsmead Community School in Somerset, started showing The Simpsons cartoons in English lessons. The petition attracted more than 300 signatures.

But dumbing down is not the phrase that springs to mind when speaking to the young advocates of Filmclub. Lewis Rogers, 16, a former pupil of Isambard Community School, Swindon, is hoping to introduce a film club to his new college, Cirencester, in September.

"My two favourite films from film club were probably Apollo 13 and The Elephant Man," he says. "They're very different films but they both cover extremely emotional and political topics. There are parallels."

The Isambard film club would often look at a number of films centred around a given theme. For example, a Jim Carrey season involved watching The Truman Show, The Mask and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

"Afterwards we talk about the story, the characters and the performances," Lewis says. "If we like a particular actor or director, we go on to research them and their other works. It's a great platform for debate."

Ms Middleton is also adamant that film can be "so much more than entertainment". She believes her pupils extend their experiences and their skills through movies. "Their ability to express themselves has come on in leaps and bounds," she says.

But film will mean different things to different groups of pupils. At Woodlane High in Hammersmith, west London, the emphasis of their club is on pupils coming together, bonding and gaining confidence. The school caters for 70 pupils with medical problems and learning difficulties - half of whom are members of the lunchtime club.

"They can laugh freely while watching a film and then discuss it with their friends in the playground," says Jenny Jermain, the English co- ordinator. "It is learning and enjoyment rolled into one. They get a say in the experience and can express themselves through discussing a different medium."

Mr Higham believes film is increasingly being recognised by teachers and heads as the valuable educational resource it is. "Storytelling is at the heart of civilisation, culture and education - it is how we learn," he argues. "And film is the most advanced form of storytelling we have. It broadens pupils' minds, it engages them in school and it helps them learn, almost without them noticing."

From September 17, `The TES Magazine' will run weekly reviews by Filmclub members


- Almost 4,500 free DVDs are available to order online, delivered to the school.

- Films are categorised by theme, age group and genre.

- DVDs are available in 30 languages and set in more than 100 countries.

- Pupils can discuss the films after screenings and upload their reviews online.

- School visits are available from industry insiders, including actors, directors and make-up artists.

For more information see: www.filmclub.org.

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