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Some notes on New Horizons for UK Film

Following on from the DCMS policy review for British film published in January 2012 (see here), the BFI has published its consultation document – New Horizons for UK Film – on the future development of education, audiences, filmmaking, and film heritage. The document can be accessed here.

New Horizons is focussed on three ‘strategic priorities:’

  • Expanding education opportunities and boosting audience choice across the UK
  • Supporting the future success of British film
  • Unlocking film heritage for everyone in the UK to enjoy

Associated with each of these priorities are a series of proposals about what the BFI is intending to do over the next five years in each of these areas. In today’s post I want to focus on the educational aspects of the plan.

First, the importance of moving image education is asserted as a first principle – which is exactly what the BFI should be doing:

Education is a key part of the foundation of a vibrant film culture and successful film industry.

Now, I don’t see how anyone can disagree with this statement, but it is indicative of a particular attitude that education serves industry and not the individual. This is the first problem with the future plan: it is not clear what the anyone is supposed to get from moving image education. The value of film culture as expressed in New Horizons exists solely in relation to the economy. But when choosing a path through education students at every level base their choices on what will deliver the maximum value to themselves based on their own personal goals and interests. They do not base their decision-making on their relationship to some abstract concept like ‘the economy,’ ‘national identity,’ or ‘film culture.’ Film and media education is no different, but New Horizons does not make any argument as to why someone should choose to study film. This is a document promising results to politicians, but it doesn’t have anything to say to anyone who might actually participate in any of the proposed programmes.

Now clearly this is an unfair criticism of a document that is obviously intended for a particular audience; but making the case for media education to politicians will count for nothing if the BFI cannot emphasise the value to the individual in terms of what such an education will add to their life (e.g. employability, intellectual stimulation, pleasure, etc). The BFI is often unfairly criticised for being too focussed on industry, but here the complaint is justified.

A part of the problem is that ‘education’ is not defined in relation to film. For example, the BFI states that

Our aspiration is that film is part of the education of every young person in the UK.

But what does ‘part of the education’ mean? Does it mean using films in the classroom as a teaching resource or does it mean the study of film in a sense that those working within film studies would understand? These are two very different things. The goal of the BFI is

to create a unified (watching, making and understanding) new education offer for all 5-19 year-olds, aimed especially at schools and colleges.

Sounds good, but are we going to teach five-year old children to make films? Are we going to teach continuity editing as part of the reception class? No, of course, we aren’t; but I would like someone to explain to me exactly what it is a five-year old is to be expected to learn about the cinema. The plan makes reference to (but does not cite) research demonstrating

that children who regularly go to the cinema are three times more likely to attend more frequently as adults. Regular visits help to develop a lifelong relationship with film, growing the next generation of audiences and filmmakers, instilling a love of cinema-going. We will invest heavily so all young people can increase their appetite for a broad range of film.

There is no arguing with that, and I think the BFI’s plans sound very good if you start at the age of 14 or 15. It’s about that age that you start to make decisions about the types of music, literature, films, and so on that you like as you develop you own tastes, and exposure to new cinematic experiences at this critical stage will have a lasting effect. But what constitutes ‘a broad range of film’ to a five-year old?  Actually, what constitutes ‘a broad range of film’ for anyone? My rental list at Love Film is as long as my arm (and I’m a big guy), but I couldn’t say whether the titles I have selected represent a ‘broad range.’ I’m the sort of person who spends his time drawing graphs of the editing patterns in slasher films, so what chance do primary school teachers have?

There is a tendency in this document for ‘film education’ to be equated with ‘skills and training’ (even though the proposals under the second strategic priority are primarily concerned with the latter), with no reference to academic film studies. One of the reasons for the distinction between the BFI and the UK Film Council was that the former had responsibility for film culture and film studies while the latter was industry-facing with responsibility for skills and training. Merging the two organisations also appears to have collapsed the distinction between education and training at the expense of the former. You can’t possibly disagree with investment in the training and development of the next generation of filmmakers in the UK, but is the case for film studies being made within the BFI?

The BFI states that it will

advocate the value of film education …

Good – assuming the BFI knows what ‘film education’ is. Again, we might ask to whom are the BFI advocating the value of film education? Based on this document the focus is clearly directed towards policymakers with no consideration given to making the argument to the public.

The low status of film and media studies in the UK is clear evidence that the BFI and other media organisations are failing to reach either audience. Certainly, promoting the value of film education to a Conservative Department of Education is a challenging prospect, especially when the Secretary of State for Education thinks that Latin is a vital addition to the primary school curriculum in the 21st century (as opposed to Mandarin or Cantonese because it’s those pesky Romans that are soon to become the dominant economic power and not the Chinese – oh no, wait, that’s not right).

Film studies and media studies are considered to be ‘soft subjects,’ and a report for the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange (here) found that leading universities in the UK do not admit students with qualifications in these subjects at A-level even though they teach degree programmes in these subjects. This suggests a lack of faith in the standards of education at GCSE and A-level in non-traditional subjects rather than an aversion to the subjects themselves. The reason traditional subjects are accepted by universities with fewer problems is that they have been around longer and admission tutors know what to expect from teachers who are part of a clearly defined lineage in providing instruction in those areas. A maths teacher at a school is the next in a long line of maths teachers working within a well understood field that every admissions tutor has direct and personal experience (because everybody has to do maths). In contrast, film and media studies have only been a part of the school curriculum in the UK since the early 1990s and have only really become popular in the past decade; many of the teachers delivering these subjects have come from other areas (mainly English) and will have little specific training in film or media; and university admissions tutors are unlikely to have direct knowledge of the subjects. The problem lies not in the subjects themselves, but in the quality of delivery and in the understanding of university admissions tutors. The Policy Exchange report failed to notice this aspect – but the BFI does recognise the problem and has made a proposal to specifically deal with the issue:

We will increase the number of film education specialists including teachers so they can work closely with young people to develop an appreciation of film culture and their creative talent.

Now this really is awesome. It needs to be accompanied by educating government and universities about film and media subjects, but you can’t go wrong by doing the opposite of whatever Michael Gove says.

David Buckingham defended media studies in the Guardian in 2009 (see here), but noted the problematic nature in defining the subject that also features in New Horizons:

On the one hand, it is chided for being not vocational enough: …yet on the other, it is condemned for not being academic enough.

If the BFI is going to advocate the importance of film education then it needs to decide what it means by ‘film education.’ You can find my definition of film studies here.

The BFI’s future plan is part of a consultation process in which the views of interested parties are invited. Again, this is a good thing and there is much here that is useful and sensible. I don’t disagree with anything in New Horizons. It all sounds very good. I bet there’s another plan in 2017 that says exactly the same things.

Pre-film studies research on film

A couple of weeks ago I posted about some empirical research on editing and the viewer’s experience of pace in the visual media from the 1970s.

A fascinating read on the same topic is the UNESCO report on mass communication research published in 1961, which presents a comprehensive and global bibliography of research on the influence of the cinema on children and adolescents. The report can be accessed here, and it is definitely worth taking an afternoon to read through it.

UNESCO 1961 The Influence of the Cinema on Children and Adolescents: An Annotated International Bibliography. Reports and Papers on Mass Communication 31. Paris: UNESCO.

The report provides details on 491 different pieces of research from around the world, and provides an insight into the type of research that was done before film studies came along. Areas covered include the social effects of cinema on young people, the use of film in education, film and juvenile delinquency, motives behind film choice, and there is good coverage of what we would now call cognitive film theory.

There are all sorts of interesting things to discover. For example, item 62 on the list provides a fascinating insight into the habits of younger viewers in Michigan in the 1940s.

Gibson, Harold J. (Mrs .) and Nahabedian, Vaskey (Mrs .) . A Survey of the Reading, Radio and Motion Picture Habits of Royal Oak Public School Students and their Parents. Royal Oak, Michigan, Royal Oak Public School, 1949, 21 p.

The average pupil in the school surveyed attends the cinema much more frequently than his parents. At the age of 8, he goes to the cinema once a week; until the age of 12 he attends the Saturday afternoon performance. When he reaches junior high school he goes to the cinema on Friday evening, generally with a friend. His parents help him in the selection of films, and he generally appreciates the films his parents consider suitable for him. Westerns, cartoons and animal films are his favourites; later his interest in westerns wanes and his interest in musicals grows. He now chooses films on the basis of cast and publicity. When he reaches high school, he will be more influenced in his choice by official film criticism, and he tends to have the same criteria as his parents.

Some of the research is a bit prosaic: item 61 is a study of the cinema-going habits of Italian young people and concludes that as they get older ‘boys go more frequently with girls.’ Isn’t that what the cinema is for?

However, I’m really not sure about the study from 1949 that showed Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) to some Italian 8-to-14 year olds (no. 130) that concluded that children had difficulty understanding the film. An 80 minute silent documentary about an Eskimo is hardly suitable viewing for children as young as eight. I know I’ve never been that enamoured of this film, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t have to watch it as a child. The comments about spatial awareness and recognition of regular geometric forms do sound more interesting though.

Albertini. Laura and Caruso, Ada, Percezione e interpretazione di imagini cinematografiche nei ragazzi. [Perception and interpretation of film images by children] In: Bianco e Nero, Rome, (X), 5 May 1949, p. 9-27. Also in: Baumgarten, Franziska, Compte rendu du lle Congrbs international de psychotechnique, Berne, 12-17 September 1949. La psychotechnique dans le monde moderne. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1952, p. 557-561.

A study of the reactions of 576 children, aged 8 to 14, to Flaherty’s film “Nanook’. Four hundred and ninety children were questioned: 86 made unsolicited comments. Particularly apparent were the many errors in observation and the discrepancy between what actually occurred in the film and what the children thought they had seen. The rapid succession of images, the inability to understand clearly, to compare precisely and to interpret exactly when drawing up a report has the following results for children: real difficulties in making accurate comparisons as to sizes and likenesses, in recognizing regular geometric forms, in establishing the position of persons in relation to a known object, and in interpreting some of their movements and attitudes. Such difficulties as these do not seem to lessen proportionately as the child grows older. Further research is recommended to study the choice of motion-pictures for children of different age groups.

Perhaps the researchers might have asked the children if they wanted to watch Nanook?

There is an extensive series of entries describing quite detailed studies by the Japanese Ministry of Education on cinema attendance among young people from the 1930s that sound very interesting.

In his ‘Foreword’ to Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations, David Bordwell wrote that film studies ‘got off on the wrong foot methodologically. Instead of framing questions, to which competing theories might have responded in a common concern for enlightenment, film academics embraced a doctrine-driven conception of research’ (2005: xi, original emphasis). [Bordwell D 2005 Foreword, in JD Anderson and B Fisher Anderson (eds.) Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005: ix-xii].

This is may be an accurate description of film studies, but it is not an accurate description of the study of film.

What stands out from reading much of the research in the UNESCO report  is that pre-film studies research in the cinema is (1) primarily concerned with psychology of the cinema and (2) that it is empirical research and is NOT doctrine-driven. And yet this research has had relatively little impact on film studies as it is taught in universities today. The institutionalisation of film studies as an academic discipline does not appear to have drawn on any of this tradition going back well into the silent era. Why not? And what are the consequences of this? What did these earlier researchers understand about the cinema that we have forgotten?

For example, Tim Smith has written about viewer’s eye movements when watching Hollywood films. You can find his blog describing his research here and his guest piece about eye movements in watching There Will Be Blood on David Bordwell’s blog is here. But if we go back to 1964 we can find this paper, which was addressing the same questions some 47 years ago.

Guba E, Wolf W, de Groot S, Knemeyer M, Van Atta R, and Light L 1964 Eye movements and TV viewing in children, Educational Technology Research and Development 12 (4): 386-401.

This paper, like those in the UNESCO report, does not feature in the film studies curriculum due to the collective amnesia of film scholars who, it would seem, simply ignored decades of prior research when creating university courses in film. Why this should be the case is one of the most important and most interesting questions in film studies.

In the comments on the last update to my bibliography on cognitive film theory, someone asked why I hadn’t included the French Filmology research of the 1940s and 1950s. You can find the bibliography and the comments here. Part of my response was that I simply did not come across this research that often and that translations of this work are relatively rare. It is much harder, for example, to find the works of Gilbert Cohen-Seat in English than it is to find those of Christian Metz. Why should this be so?

The study of film existed before film studies, and it existed as a body of empirical research that looked at how viewers experienced and comprehended the cinema, at the behaviour of audiences, and at the social impact of cinema. And it did so by asking questions years before Bordwell began writing about a mid-level research programme as a means of moving forward.

Film studies really screwed up the study of the cinema.