Case Study A: Cinémathèque / BFI Project, Case Study Data Analysis, The Cultural

The Cultural – “made through our minds”

The boys describe their film as an exploration of ‘small man syndrome’ and it was part of the Cinémathèque brief to cut out a significant scene of the film at the end, so as to create an enigma and play with constraints. Interestingly, the boys had chosen to lose the fight scene even before this part of the brief had been revealed. This is significant because when the LNS boys started their filming activities two years ago, whilst elaborating the theme of camera movement they enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to film explicit fight sequences in the BFI corridors. Their decision to cut such a scene and leave it to the imagination of the audience could signal progress in terms of a more sophisticated and subtle approach to film making. See Tim’s edit, which was screened in Paris (4 minutes).

It could be that through critical viewing of film clips throughout the project (for example, the Cohen brothers, “No Country for Old Men”, see blog post and the direction of film maker, Emma Sullivan, their output was influenced by the stylistic qualities of independent film-making as distinct from the conventions of mainstream Hollywood movies or TV drama, styles of output which, according to Alain Bergala, overtly show everything. The electronic sampling that makes up the soundtrack, however, was Tim’s own personal choice – an indication that he enjoys the bass driven beats of contemporary dub-step. The coupling of external cultural influences and internalised popular culture is constitutive of Williams’ “lived culture”.

I started this Cultural section with an examination of the style and content of the boys’ film in order to introduce how Williams’ “lived culture” evolves into “recorded culture” and media education’s vital role in ensuring young people’s participation in that process. Drawing on Hodge and Kress, Burn & Durran also re-assess the “selective tradition” – the third dimension of Williams’ tripartite structure of culture – concluding that:

“culturally valued texts become so through a historical accretion of competing commentary.” (2007:10)

Far from being separate phenomena, the lived, the recorded and the selective are intertwined, even more so in the digital age, feeding off each other in a hybrid, undisciplined, barrier-busting manner.  As mentioned earlier, popular music seems to have found a legitimate, celebratory route to genre-bending, most recently seen and heard in the collaboration between the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Dubstep/Drum n Bass outfit ‘Nero’ but when it comes to the educational sphere, it seems there are too many diverging agendas, value structures and competing forces for progressive media education to gain smooth passage.

At certain stages of the Paris project various tensions manifested themselves: disparate discourses scraped up against each other likes tectonic plates. Emma, the teacher/film maker, was concerned about how much input to give the boys and how much latitude? How much re-editing of imperfect work versus letting it be? How much to consider professional reputation – given the context of its distribution – set against autonomous student-empowerment? How much teacherly order as opposed to relaxed spontaneity in lessons? How much technical teaching and how much independent experimentation? For the CLC evaluation submitted to Paris, Emma commented on some of these tensions:

It is always tempting to improve their work – but I think this would be a mistake. They have to learn that it is hard work and you have to be very organised and precise with film making. If I tidied up their edit and added better music/sound I don’t think they would have understood necessarily why it was better. This film was entirely of their own making, and I think therefore their next film will be better for it.

Bob, the self-elected student spokesperson, at first expressed dissatisfaction with the highly constrained parameters of the Cinémathèque film exercises – for example: ‘A passes through a space and gives something to B, all in close-up’ – interpreting the French pedagogical approach as mistrust in his and his peers’ versatility as young film-makers:

Bob: … they’re trying to direct us in the right way but in that I think they’ve got a low opinion of what we can, us as teenagers, can view in film and what we can create in film and by having that structure it kind of breaks down our imagination a bit … I think it would also be more personal to us cos it would be made through our minds.

Later however he contradicts himself by saying that perhaps they needed to fulfill the stringent briefs in order to nurture the creative empowerment that would fuel their future endeavours:

Bob: But if I hadn’t done this first then maybe I wouldn’t have had the perception to do something aside from action; but now that I have done it, I’d like a little bit more space … I’m glad we had those boundaries cos now we know we can do something more.

During the mid-project screening and the final screening, both in Paris, the audience asked questions concerning the students’ choice of sound. Over a couple of the UK films, students from LNS and St. Catherine’s – a Catholic Girls Secondary in Bexleyheath, one of the three UK schools involved – had lain a heavy electronic soundtrack. It was suggested by some that this sound choice might be less appropriate for the project as a whole which demanded more subtlety, artistry and editorial guidance. Jack Hayter, the teacher/film-maker at St. Catherine’s, was animated in his defence of the girls’ work, asserting their right to interpret the theme as they saw fit.

Similarly, Tim was defensive when asked to comment on his choice of electronic samples from the Garageband library, stating that “there wasn’t much time or much choice”. There seemed to be a clash between the French preference for a nuanced, more impressionistic style of film making and the British contingent’s inclination towards ‘freedom’ of expression – albeit drawn from the rigid parameters set by global software developers and informed by popular culture. Such are the more granular observations in relation to shifts in “lived” cultural trends, however, what may endure in “recorded culture” is the Cent Ans de Jeunesse project itself.

The Cinémathèque requires strict adherence to the “règles du jeu” – the stipulated filming exercises and an in-depth exploration of the year’s theme – as well as contributions to the French blog indicating progress. This traditional structured approach seems at odds with current media practices but is extraordinarily productive. Hundreds of young international film makers congregate, watch one anothers films to the same brief and discuss their work in a multilingual context: this is an arresting cultural achievement.  An achievement which continues to make full use of the Cinémathèque’s institutional gravitas and bring Alain Bergala’s annual vision to fruition. Perhaps only an institution with a sense of something to preserve would conceive of such a unique and ambitious educational project.

At the risk of extolling the redemptive powers of media production processes, it has been a privilege to trace a discernible path between the international teachers/film makers’ thematic input session in November 2010 (see Parisian lecture notes) and several months later, relate that to the social development and scholarly ambitions of a formerly excluded child. See simon_lambeth_interview.mp3 @ 27:40 mins. Email me for access to this full audio interview.

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