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Wolves, rings and witches on a blasted heath

One Manchester multiplex combines the curriculum with almost any film a school wants to see. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

Most grown-up films released last year ignited few imaginations, but it was a vintage year for PG cinema. Shrek, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings provided memorable moments for young and old alike.

While thousands of children can be persuaded to rush to the local multiplex for heavily-hyped blockbusters, few will see them as little more than a two-hour window of entertainment. But one multiplex cinema in Manchester is trying to capture the enthusiasms of young cinema goers by bringing film into the curriculum.

School groups around Manchester are getting used to visiting this twenty-screen UCI cinema complex with an IMAX theatre in the heart of the city. Two or three groups a day hold their literacy hour on the premises. With the big screen behind them, children gather on the floor around education officer Bernice Bradley. They study episodes from a Harry Potter book, or the Lord of the Rings, and later see the recent films.

Ms Bradley asks how they would feel if, like Frodo the hobbit, they found their home invaded by uninvited guests? Pupils find words from the text that express those feelings.

This might be followed by a re-enactment, and then by a writing exercise on punctuation. Last November Bernice had a Year 5 group from Marlborough Road primary in Salford. She chose an episode in which Harry Potter visits the restricted part of the Hogwarts library wrapped in his invisibility cloak. She asked how Harry might feel in this situation? They looked at words for feelings again, and then words for movement, acting out the difference between "stumbled" and "fell".

It's a fairly conventional literacy hour. But it happens in a cinema and is followed by the film of the book. "It makes them look at both in a more discriminating way," said one teacher.

Multiplexes no doubt have an interest in securing future audiences. But in setting up filmschool, thefilmworks has done more than just lay on films. It has employed full-time education officers and arranges a host of educational events and activities. During National Schools Film Week in October, teachers voted it one of the top ten cinemas in the country.

Part-funded by the British Film Institute, filmschool also works with Film Education, a charity that arranges free screenings.

Bernice Bradley taught English in the city for six years, and began setting up a programme of activities for pupils and teachers about a year ago. "I have access to virtually any film I want, so if a teacher wants to show something in particular I'll try to come up with it," she says.

The programme includes GCSE and SAT sessions with screenings of such films as Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Henry V, Macbeth and Twelfth Night. Pupils might discuss different ways of dramatising the opening scene from Macbeth and then see how Roman Polanski's film did it.

They also receive advice on how to interpret exam questions, techniques for improving grades, plus notes on language, character and author intention. Inset sessions cover subjects such as Shakespeare on Screen - in which teachers discuss how pupils can access the plays through different screen interpretations - and Using Film with Special Needs Pupils. Next year a new Inset session for GCSE music teachers will look at music in film.

They do combination visits, too. An exhibition at a Manchester museum, for instance, is combined with a related film in the cinema's IMAX theatre. So a trip to the Manchester Museum's Egyptian gallery might precede a showing of Mysteries of Egypt. Or a visit to their exhibition, Bugs Alive! and then Microcosmos, a documentary on insect life in meadows and ponds.

Other documentary films shown include The Living Sea, which recently accompanied a session on whales and conservation. Students looked at different ways of writing - they discussed organising a petition, writing to the papers, and writing to persuade.

The focus of these activities is, of course, the showing of a film or compilation of films. While some teachers might schedule these as end of term treats, the film is not just the icing on the cake. "We've got to embrace what they see in their everyday lives and use it in their learning," says Ms Bradley. "Film is part of that. But we've also got to make it an active rather than passive thing. I give weight to all media. I might explain dramatic irony with reference to a film, a book, Shakespeare or Eastenders, which is not to say I believe all have equal value."

Ms Bradley is adamant about the benefits of the big screen over video. "Take Of Mice and Men. On the big screen the loneliness of those men in that huge landscape is clear. It could never be the same on the small screen. People talk about the pyramids' size, but with IMAX you see how huge they are. And you can see them from all angles, including from above, and not surrounded by people the way tourists see them."

Filmschool will show films which children are unlikely to see themselves and might never get round to viewing on video. They are not afraid to experiment. Recently, through Film Education, Ms Bradley showed Brotherhood of the Wolf to "a difficult class". It's not exactly a classic art house movie - most of Brotherhood's characters are masters of kung fu and at it's heart is a monstrous creature. But it is a costume drama, subtitled, French and with a complicated, politically difficult plot. Would they like it? They did. "You could hear a pin drop," says Bernice.

Filmschool's greatest achievement could be to encourage a more discriminating young film goer, not fixed on the latest blockbuster.

Contact Filmschool takes schools from all over the UK. Filmschool, thefilmworks, The Printworks, 6-8 Dantzic Street, Manchester M4 2AD. Tel: 0161 836 2409. Email: bernice.bradley@uci.co.uk Web: www.thefilmworks.co.uk Similar sitesPicturehouse Cinemas. Web: www.picturehouse-cinemas.co.uk

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