Short documentary, fiction and animated films work especially well in educational settings, and not just because of their lengths. They also have the potential to trigger off discussions and learning processes. But not all of them are suitable for this.
15 years ago, I founded Methode Film to publish and release artistically interesting short films and develop concepts for their use in educational contexts. In terms of their content, the films I select come from the field of social competency. I discover “my” films at international festivals and, as a businesswoman, I also always have to consider if there is a market for them.
When I was presenting ideas at a conference for the use of international short films in classroom education, the story of a reverse sequence began – with a film coming to me, rather than my seeking it.
For nine years, Methode Film has been a partner of doxs!, the children’s and youth section of the Duisburger Filmwoche film festival. The partnership is linked to a prize sponsored by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb): The GROSSE KLAPPE (“Big Mouth”) award for political children’s and youth documentaries.
The aim of our partnership is to ensure that each prizewinning film is also accessible beyond the festival to schools and for extracurricular educational purposes, that it generates discussion topics and at best even facilitates learning processes. Several weeks or even months after the related prize ceremony, Methode Film releases a didactic DVD consisting of the prizewinning film together with teaching ideas and worksheets. The DVDs are provided to the schools via communal media centres; however they can also be purchased directly for their school libraries.
Back to the DVD release of the prizewinning film – what happens exactly?
This starts with the decision-making process by the youth jury, to which I as the DVD publisher have no insight whatsoever. As a rule during a viewing and evaluation session extending over several days, 10 to 12 school-goers aged between 16 and 18 years old from schools in Duisburg and the surrounding areas decide on one of the films nominated for the GROSSE KLAPPE prize. Some years, I also view the preselected films and usually find one or two titles that I can imagine would work well in my programme. As has been the case for years, the prize-winner is first decided on after a long discussion and argument process within the youth jury. Films are awarded that address the jury members emotionally and show them things that they have “never seen before” (doxs!) in this way. Thus as a rule, this includes formats that are also interesting artistically or are unusual. Criteria such as having a curricular context or a specific maximum length – which are important in the design of my programmes – play no role here.
Sometimes a fortunate coincidence occurs and it quickly becomes clear that the respective prizewinning film will also attract audiences in educational contexts beyond the festival setting. But sometimes this does not occur. Then I have to comb through the official education plans from the German Federal Republic in order to find if and where there are any related reference points that will probably permit the use of the respective film in a school subject context.
If I find such reference points, then I have an important sales argument when I release the new GROSSE KLAPPE prizewinning film on the market for teaching and instructional media a few months later. This is a small market with quite a number of suppliers operating on it – and many of them are structured in such a way that they themselves produce films that cover specific school syllabus subjects exactly. These films usually have little charm or artistic appeal, but they are readily used to convey knowledge in school learning settings because they are explicit, clear and “testable”. Anyone who has gone through the German school system knows such films, which thematise, say, biotopes over the course of the seasons, complex visualisations of volcanic explosions or the interconnections on the money markets. Historic (film) documents are edited in video clip style, while explain-it videos reduce complex subjects to what are obviously just charts and diagrams. Such teaching media are frequently provided with question and answer tools that permit checking of the learning aims.
Media centres, my most important customers, value such products because just their titles alone usually provide information about which field of content in a school subject they match exactly: Every teacher knows that a media product with the title THE HEDGEHOG belongs in primary schools – but recognising that a short fiction film named MACROPOLIS fits in excellently there too requires considerably more mediation effort and work.
In November 2017, the almost 30-minute TV movie JOE BOOTS (Florian Baron, Germany 2017) received the GROSSE KLAPPE award. It was part of the “Ab 18!” (Over 18!) series from the 3sat public TV broadcaster. This is a format intended for older adolescents and young adults, in which young people from across the world are presented with their uniquely personal life stories. JOE BOOTS is about a young man from the USA who takes a decision at the age of 17 that has a massive impact on his subsequent life: Immediately after finishing high school and influenced by
9/11, he volunteers to join the military and is deployed to Iraq soon afterwards. He returns home with severe health impairments. The films repeatedly uses slow-motion sequences as an idiosyncratic stylistic element, as well as having a protagonist who still seems youthful and is capable of stirring our emotions.
How does such a film, suitable for adolescents 16 and older, work in a specific subject context in schools in the Federal Republic of Germany?
As an English-speaking reference area, the USA is extensively used as part of the English lessons in the senior school classes only – and the English original version of the film is only appropriate at most for very literate basic courses, as well as for advanced courses. But at least that. Modern foreign-language education presupposes the expanded concept of text already mentioned above, which also includes audio-visual forms. And short film has been explored for a long time now in the field of teaching methodology, as it permits the motivating connection of the film experience with a beneficial film analysis within a limited school education timeframe.
Also in terms of content, the English lessons in the senior school classes provide several reference points, as a glance in the current syllabi from the German State of Hesse reveals for instance: “Values and Convictions: e.g. (…) Patriotism”, ” Dreams and Nightmares: e.g. Individual Fates (Vietnam War, 11 September 2001)”, “Stories of Initiation”, “National Identity and National Stereotypes”, “The USA as a Superpower” are all mentioned there. (Hesse Ministry of Education and the Arts, Core Curriculum, Upper Secondary School (2016), p. 38 f.)
How does this look like in a social sciences context? In this case, the setting of priorities differ from one German federal state to the next, but subject areas such as “Future perceptions of adolescents with respect to their scopes for freedom and their attachment to standards and values” or, in advanced classes, the comment, “More complex political, economic and social structures, processes, problems and conflicts under the conditions of (…) war and peace” (State of North Rhine-Westphalia, Core Curriculum for Social Sciences for the Upper Secondary School) give cause for hope that some teachers can be found who would utilise the film in their classrooms. Likewise, the State of Hesse syllabus for the subject of politics and the economy is encouraging: In the qualification phase under the subject area of “International Conflicts and Conflict Resolution in a Differentiated World”, the following content is proposed among others (Hesse Ministry of Education and the Arts, Core Curriculum, Upper Secondary School, Politics and the Economy (2016), p. 44):
Aims, strategies and potential contribution of the German foreign and security policy to conflict resolution and prevention.
Wonderful, methinks. The presumption that, commencing with the fate of the US veteran Joe Boots, we could also speak in schools about the circumstances of German Federal Army soldiers living back here in Germany after returning from deployments abroad is not that preposterous after all. Which motives could there also be in a German-language territory to voluntarily join the army? Would JOE BOOTS be an option as preparation for discussions with the German Federal Army when they run career days at schools?
Back to the chronology of the events:
With the impression of being able to find a sales market that was likely to be small but available for the new GROSSE KLAPPE prize-winner, I headed for the actual festival. To its awards ceremony full of inspiring encounters. The protagonist Joe Boots came personally to the event, together with the young director. They were delighted about their prize and were happy to tell me how the production came about. And beyond the festival itself, several get-togethers and discussions with adolescents in schools were already noted in their appointment calendars.
This interest in the fate of a person almost their own age also had an impact on the decision by the members of the youth jury:
We wanted to honour a film that deals with a highly relevant and volatile subject.
Taking the story of a veteran as its basis, various perspectives on the subject of war are tackled, including aspects such as the glorification of combat deployments, the criticism of patriotism, or how society deals with returnees.
The film impresses with its aesthetically ambitious images, which are convincingly linked to its content. The protagonist is characterised by his sympathetic narrative style and a great degree of reflection on his own life story.
What struck us especially was the use of slow-motion shots that convey an almost surreal impression. The explosions both internally and externally go through the film like a common thread. (…)
(2017 GROSSE KLAPPE, 7th European Film Prize for Political Children’s and Youth Documentaries, sponsored by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), JOE BOOTS by Florian Baron, jury decision)
The author herself can recall the Vietnam War, during which much was written and filmed about traumatising war experiences, including those of the warlords. But it seems that the adolescents in today’s schools do not know about this anymore. Likewise, a certain pathos that pervades the film seems to contribute to young people feeling addressed by it. Despite these anomalies, it was pleasing to see how the youth jury emphasised the structure and design of the prizewinning film, in addition to its moving content: That documentaries depict “a creative treatment of actuality” (John Grierson) belongs to the key messages I would like to introduce in my film programmes in the schools.
But right in the middle of this pleasant atmosphere, a mini-bomb was dropped: The rights to the use of a music track at a central place in the film had not been legally clarified.
At first I thought this would resolve itself, but I was proven wrong: Release of the production for exploitation on the educational market was not possible, the TV broadcaster now informed me. To be honest, this statement did also sort out the issue of the apparently difficult marketing of the film – but it was not very satisfactory. Not for the cooperation established with doxs!, nor for the TV commissioning editors who place great value on the sustainable impact of their productions, nor for the filmmaker and his protagonist.
Searching for a way out of this situation, the idea arose of composing new music – an expensive undertaking. The alternative suggestion of subsequently acquiring the music usage rights proved unfeasible as the major American music publisher that had released them did not even react to the request. One pragmatic solution would be to edit the critical sequences out of the film – which, thanks to the shorter length, would make it even more interesting for use in schools. But will it be possible to convince the filmmaker to allow this? Time will tell…
In the meantime, interesting developments have arisen in completely different contexts: JOE BOOTS is one of just two proposed works nominated in the documentary section for the 2018 German Short Film Award and – even more importantly for my work – it has received the 2018 German Human Rights Film Award. The jury’s decision here was based on the human right to the “highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”, which has been part of the economic, social and cultural human rights since 1966 as adopted by the vast majority of the states in the United Nations. (German Human Rights Film Award 2018, jury decision by Katja Maurer, medico international) This is also fortunate for the author as a DVD publisher: The organisers of this prize, awarded every two years, consist of a whole range of organisations committed to (development) policy and humanitarian issues, which could be capable of contributing to a demand for a DVD of the film.
With this pleasant prospect in mind, the DVD release is picking up speed – one year after it won the GROSSE KLAPPE award.
further information / links
Deutscher Menschenrechtsfilmpreis (only in German): www.menschenrechts-filmpreis.de
Ab18! (only in German) www.3sat.de
Filme im Unterricht (only in German): www.filme-im-unterricht.de
Methode Film (only in German): www.methode-film.de