In the (school) movie world, short films are model students. For a whole array of reasons, they are perfectly suited for use in classroom and teaching scenarios, and it really is the case that with them their length makes all the difference. Or their shortness, to be precise. Because a short film can be integrated wonderfully into a teaching unit, and in Germany most lessons are – still – organised in blocks of 45 or 90 minutes. Or to put this the other way around for teachers and educationalists: If they intend to show and consider a current 90-minute feature length film in class, they have to throw away their normal timetable for school lessons. For it simply is not possible to consider and explore a feature length film in an intelligent manner within a one (or two) hour study block. And this is even more true when we bear in mind that the film-related pedagogical work on and with the film, including preparations and any follow-up activities, should actually be at least as long as the film itself.
So rather that swapping around teaching hours with difficulty so as to have sufficient viewing time, or screening cinematic artworks in two or three parts (mostly with an interval of 7 days between the parts), it is easier for teachers and educationalists to incorporate short films into their classroom teaching instead.
What is more: Not only do short films integrate into and facilitate classroom teaching, they even correspond to the viewing habits of the pupils, who are more likely to gain their filmic experiences nowadays on YouTube or Netflix than in the cinemas. Beyond question, it is important to repeatedly promote and advocate cinema as a space and arena within classroom teaching, and that especially due to these changing media consumption habits. There are many initiatives that permit teachers to experience films and film education together with their classes directly in the cinemas. For instance, the Schulkinowochen – or School Cinema Weeks – organised by the Vision Kino non-profit association are held in every German federal state once a year. This is in addition to a whole range of options (available and provided by film festivals, cinemas and the most diverse institutions) for screening excellent cinema release films for pupils in cinemas, which in turn creates opportunities to augment the classic class curriculum and be able to familiarise students with the cinema as the place for cinematic art.
Why Short Film Works Twice as Well in Schools
However, the intention here is to explore how teachers and educationalists screen short films in their own schools and are able to incorporate the analysis of the films directly – and usually without any additional support from film educators – into their teaching activities.
Nowadays, many institutions release compilation DVSs with short films. With this now permitting the broad range of teaching staff to find a suitable short film for every topic and every school subject. A number of the compilations on offer consist of several short films on the same theme, while others provide a palette of differing films. The intention with them is that by considering and working through them in class, the students focus especially on the diversity of various filmic styles. Ideally, a DVD consists of films with clear age recommendations for viewing and accompanying media education material, so as to provide teachers and educationalists with ideas and suggestions for the analysis of the content and film language.
It is important to emphasise that the brief length of a short film constitutes a further advantage not to be underestimated. Short films can initially be screened without any pedagogical direction or focus being provided by the teacher, so that the audience – the pupils – are able to find their own access and approach to them during the first viewing. It has an excellent impact on the film analysis when it is possible to hold the first viewing without any concrete tasks or questions, and to then be able – after some short feedback – to view the film a second time. This second screening and viewing can be preceded by the setting of observational tasks or key questions, on the basis of which the film is subsequently discussed and analysed in detail. This approach, which can only be applied with difficulty to a feature length film for obvious reasons, fulfils one of the most important criteria in film aesthetics education: The right to be permitted to first enjoy a film impartially, i.e. without prejudice, and without having to fulfil any “tasks” before the analysis phase begins.
Where Do I Find Short Films for Use in an Educational Context?
The demand for short films to be used in childcare facilities and schools, as well as in non-curricular education and youth work, has grown consistently over the last few years. Anyone looking for suitable short films will, after some quick internet research, come across an almost endless number of short films online that seem to be appropriate. However, every teacher and educationalist should be carefully about screening their initial filmic selections from their internet research directly in their school classrooms, as the question of whether it is legal to use a short film found on YouTube or Vimeo in class is virtually unanswerable for the layperson. Yet for that, using YouTube in a classroom context is fundamentally permitted. Instead, the issue here consists of it not being possible to trace whether a film has gotten onto the platform legally or illegally. When a short film is uploaded to YouTube illegally without the knowledge of the rights holder, then anyone who shows the film in class also becomes liable to prosecution for copyright infringement. More information on copyrights and screening rights in Germany is available here: https://www.wer-hat-urheberrecht.de
However, it is not only this uncertain legal situation that argues against using short films taken from insecure channels for classroom teaching. In addition to the frequently bad image and sound quality, it is the lack of any accompanying pedagogical material that argues for finding short films via other routes for use in school.
Everyone with a long-term mind-set and who would like to integrate short films into their teaching activities more than once, are well served in obtaining a short film DVD like those offered and provided by various institutions (e.g. the German Federal Centre for Political Education and the German Federation of Film Clubs for Children and Youth). The major advantage with such compilation DVDs is that they usually include the required licences that permit their use in schools (and that repeatedly and before large groups as well). Opportunities to conduct research on and borrow films for a lending charge are also offered by church-based and local media centres. And of course there are commercial enterprises, such as the company Methode Film, that have specialised in working with short film and provide extensive accompanying education material to each film.
A further option, which is even free, is provided by the German Education Servers in the various German federal states that – in addition to having numerous less interesting educational films cinematically-speaking – also often have several short films with educational licences among those they offer. Likewise, teachers can stream films for free that the German Federal Centre for Political Education, as well as individual film festivals, have in their programmes. For instance, the DOK Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film has offered various short documentaries as a stream for non-commercial use by teachers for quite a while now, all of which have extensive media education material in their package.
A good research option is provided by the German Short Film Association (AG Kurzfilm). Here, teachers can view almost 600 password-protected short films from Germany online and then arrange a screening permit from the holder of the rights (to whom the contact is also provided). Likewise, German short film distribution agencies, such as the Kurzfilm-Agentur Hamburg or interfilm Berlin, offer services (for a fee) permitting targeted film searches and loans.
Moreover, there are several more addresses on the internet where you can stream prize-winning short films and whose legal status is clearly clarified. Curated short film portals temporarily offer online an array of short films (that are however often in foreign languages). Good (cost-free) addresses here include, for instance, shortoftheweek.com, shortfil.ms or the Op-Docs rubric on the New York Times website (nytimes.com/video). With a bit of luck, you can also make some good finds in the media centres of the German public TV broadcasters. Generally speaking, however, one should be aware that a degree of spontaneity is called for here: Many of the films offered in the TV media centres are only temporarily available online. So in order not to have an unpleasant surprise in class when you announce you are going to show a film that has not been online for a while, it is worth having a close look at how long the related stream is going to be available.
Furthermore, it is important to consider that, apart from the education portals, no prepared education material is available from the other sources, and you as a teacher will have to “face” the analysis without any supporting material.
Film Selection and Introduction
Logically, the film selected is aligned to the target group and the educational aim. As many short films do not have an official age rating or classification, it is essential that teachers and educationalists view the films themselves prior to their use, so as to be able to judge whether they are suitable and appropriate for the specific target group.
By way of a rule of thumb: The younger the audience, the shorter the short film or films being screened should be. For primary school children who are normally taught in 45-minute blocks, it is absolutely sufficient when the film being screened is 10 to 15 minutes long in total, so that a normal teaching unit of 45 minutes can be well filled with the pre-screening preparation and post-screening follow-up. Whether the screening is limited to one film, or several are shown, depends on how long the films are and whether the intention is to have a comparison or more of a focused confrontation between the works.
It goes without saying that films should only be screened which the target audience is also capable of understanding. This is related to both the languages used in the film, as well as to the thematic area. When the subtitles are not overly complex and the children have enough time to read them, a foreign language film with German subtitles can be considered and cautiously tested on students from 10 to 12 years old. Here too, shorts have a decisive advantage, as there really is a significant difference whether the children “have to” read the subtitles for 10 or for 90 minutes. It is somewhat more difficult to assess whether a film is suitable in terms of its content for the respective age group. Based on my experience, the theme or subject as such is less important than the filmic approach taken. For instance, there is a whole series of wonderful short films that deal with and confront “difficult” subjects, such as war, illness or death. That they are, however, still suitable for children is due to the fact that they are narrated from a child’s perspective and – unlike many commercially driven cinema release children’s movies – do not follow some standardised dramatic structure honed for suspense and emotion.
Once the film selection is completed, the preparation of the teaching unit should begin. Doing so, accompanying education material can be utilised that frequently includes short preparatory questions and guidance intended to prepare the audience for the film both thematically and in terms of the film language. Generally speaking, PRIOR to the screening, short information should always be provided about what kind of film it concerns. And especially when a documentary is being shown, it is worth letting the audience know that it concerns a real story. To the extent that background information (e.g. interviews with the film team) is available, this should be compiled so as to be able to answer questions about the background to the production or the intentions of the screenwriter, as required. In the introduction, it is important to always provide a connection with the everyday lives of the viewers, or to briefly mention your own reasons and motives for causing you to select this film.
Observational Tasks – Yes or No? And if Yes, How?
The very fundamental decision on whether you assign one (or more) observational task(s) to your student audience prior to the screening is something that each educationalist has to decide for themselve. The argument for this is that you can direct the attention of the viewers to specific aspects of the film (both thematically and in terms of the film language) in this way. The argument against it is that an unbiased and impartial viewing of the film is hampered in this way and it is hard for the audience to simply let the film impact upon them. The perfect solution to this dilemma consist of the double viewing of the film mentioned above, which really is highly feasible in the short film area especially.
The observational tasks should relate to both content-based and film language elements. It is recommendable in this regard to separate the audience into small groups, so that each small group can focus together on one or two questions. After the film screening, the various aspects in the observations can then be pooled together to become a complex analysis.
In this regard, the tasks should be worded precisely but openly (and of course be appropriate to the ages of the school-goers).
Examples of tasks with a content-related focus:
- Which story does the film tell? Which theme is it concerned with?
- Who are the persons involved (i.e. acting) in it? What are their names and what characterises them?
- What is the starting point of the story? How did everything begin?
- How does the plot develop? Are there turning points? If so, what are they?
- To which conclusion does the film come? Can a facet or a moral be drawn from this?
In order to concentrate on the film language aspects, the following areas can be examined more closely:
- Please concentrate on the filmic images and the visual composition. How does the film visually convey its protagonists and figures? How does the film work with light and colours?
- Please listen carefully and close your eyes briefly now and then. How is the film structured and designed on the sound level? How is the commentary integrated into the film and which function does it fulfil?
- Is there music? If so, which type and how does it impact on you? Can you remember or recall individual scenes, in which the music had an especially powerful emotive effect on you? Please describe this to the others and look at it together one more time as required.
- In order to consider the editing and montage more closely, it is usually best to take a sample scene to do so, which is then studiously examined and analysed for this exact purpose. When the complete film is being screened, it often proves very difficult for children to be consciously aware of and perceive the editing.
Of course, these exemplary questions have to be coordinated with and match the respective film, the aim of the lesson and the age or prior knowledge of the audience members. (And they can also focus on the film in a clearly more concrete manner than do these sample questions). Processing and working through these observational tasks should occur after a general question and feedback session directly after the film screening, and they can last for between 10 and 40 minutes. One sensible approach is to visualise the results in keywords on the board, so as to be able to subsequently link together the various observations into a shared group analysis.
The benefits of having observational tasks are:
- The tasks lead to active viewing rather than passive film consumption.
- Concrete connecting factors and links are set for the discussion after the screening
- The strength of the group is tapped into – many eyes see more than two!
- Focusing on various elements leads to a variety of findings and realisations
- Targeted concentration on the film language channels perception and awareness
- Individual students are addressed and activated with concrete tasks
Avoiding Silence after the Film – Further Practical Tips
Despite the most careful planning, an intensive, focused discussion of the film screened does not always ensue automatically. Especially when a short film proves to be a challenge for the audience, it can occur that no one is willing to stick up their head after the screening and be the first one to make a statement about it. In this case, it is no harm having a few tricks up your sleeve for drawing out the students. For instance, simple yes/no questions prove effective here: Who liked the film? (Or optionally: Who did not like the film?). Especially because at first glance you only have to give a short response to this, most of those present usually answer. The moderator can now cautiously ask those who provided their assessment about their reasons for rejecting or appreciating the film.
It is also helpful to ask questions that do not focus directly on the film analysis, and instead create a connection between the film and the audience:
- Were any of you here already in a similar situation?
- Did you learn or experience something that you did not know yet? What was it?
- Could you imagine and comprehend reacting like the persons in the film?
If theme-based questions do not initially rouse and encourage a reaction, where appropriate it makes sense to focus firstly on how the film language is adapted. Here, we can pose questions such as how and why a specific scene was shot in that way, or what could be the reasons for the music chosen, the dramatic composition or a certain scene sequence.
Older students (from the 6th class) can also become involved in the moderation activities or the short film selection. A programme with differing films compiled by the group or a smaller group under their own responsibility is also worth considering. When there is an emphatic film mentor, so to speak, behind each of the short films, the youths can compare the strengths and weaknesses of the various films with each other, without the teacher or educationalist themselves having to contextualise this too powerfully with their personal viewpoints. One good exercise also consists of comparing two or more differing short films on the same subject.
There are almost no limits to our imagination when conducting educational work with short films. In an ideal situation, short films assume and fulfil many tasks in the school. They are able to facilitate the introduction to a new subject or the consolidation of a thematic area already explored. They permit their audience to have multifaceted changes in perspective, can trigger off discussions and facilitate more in-depth insights into film languages and genres unknown to date. Last but not least, short films can be the object of a precise filmic analysis capable of examining the film language and aesthetic elements, as well as the narrative and dramatic composition – without any classroom study schedules having to be changed for this purpose or threats of having to do “overtime” in school.
List of links:
Event Tips and Contacts Persons for Film/Short Film in Schools:
Short Film Compilations
Kurzfilm macht Schule (Short Film Goes to School)
18 films with study materials
Kurzfilme für Kinder – Mit Prädikat! (Short Films for Children – With Distinction Awards!)
Four different DVDs with almost 40 awarded films for children of all age groups
Anima for Kids 1 und 2
Two DVDs with animated films from the DOK Leipzig programme for children of all age groups.
Cinemanya – Filmkoffer für geflüchtete Kinder und Jugendliche (Cinemanya – Suitcase of Films for Refugee Children and Youth)
In addition to 20 German-language fiction films with subtitles/language versions in Arabic, Persian (Dari) and German, the case of films also has two non-verbal short film programmes.
Kurz und gut macht Schule (Short & Sweet goes to school)
Two DVDs from the Goethe Institute provide a varied basis for teaching (German as a foreign/second language). For licencing reasons, the DVDs may only be used outside Germany.
Short Films on the Internet & in Media Centres
This international documentary project has compiled 15 short films that reveal aspects of poverty and inequality.
“Mix it!” Practical Film Project
Local German and refugee youths shoot short video clips on the subject of identity.
DOK Education Section
The education section of the DOK Leipzig festival offers various short films for use in learning via its DOK Online service.
Bildungsserver (German Education Server)
The search machine for education media for school learning and professional training.
Bundesverband Jugend und Film (German Federation of Film Clubs for Children and Youth)
Sale and lending of a wide range of quality children and youth films, some in editions prepared didactically.
Evangelisches Zentrum für entwicklungsbezogene Filmarbeit (German Evangelical Centre for Development-related Film Work)
Sale and lending of fiction films and documentaries with accompanying study material on the thematic areas of the third world, the north-south conflict and development policies.
Sale of fiction films, documentaries and animated films with recommendations based on school subjects and grades.
100 Kurzfilme für die Bildung (100 Short Films for Education)
Recommendation list with a selection of 100 outstanding short films, including didactic advice and contact information on distributors.