“It seems that films help children learn about and sort through complex and oftentimes distant and difficult topics,” says Jana Toužimská, the international projects coordinator for People In Need’s educational initiative, One World in Schools (OWiS), which incorporates documentary film into the classroom. “Documentaries are interesting to young people as an innovative learning method, because films are a natural thing in their lives.”
In the past decade, leading doc festivals have become keen on reusing programming for the purpose of education. After all, why not allow films a second run in what could be a far more pro-active arena than a movie theatre? In addition to the Czech-based OWiS, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto has been running Docs For Schools (DFS) since 2006, and the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) continues to reinvent its innovative and influential Docs & Kids programme.
It helps that the documentaries used as educational tools are of the highest calibre of filmmaking—selections from three leading international film festivals chosen for their ingenuity, intelligence and immediacy. Films have always been used in classrooms but these are not your average educational reels.
Docs have been proven to absorb youth in a relevant and compelling manner, offering a catalyst for classroom discussion. According to Toužimská, when films provide kids with a glimpse of their peers elsewhere in the world, they become more concerned about the complex issues and conditions in which others live. Continues Toužimská, “Mostly the films [grab] their attention…and get [them] more interested in the topics… Ideally [they want to] take action, which we also try to support.”
One World in Schools
In 1999, People in Need organized the first One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague with the aim of using film and video to foster mutual understanding between cultures, heighten public awareness about human rights, and promote global responsibility. Since then, One World has gained a reputation as one of the largest and most important human rights film festivals in Europe, with an extensive educational programme under the banner One World in Schools.
Every March during the One World festival, People in Need and festival coordinators curate a programme for in-theatre student screenings at various festival venues. Accompanied by a discussion with the director or an expert, selected films cover topics such as poverty, regions in crisis, conflict, racism and gender. After its festival dates in Prague, One World travels to other regional cities where student screenings are also organized. Last year, more than 45,000 students saw films and participated in discussions within the One World festival.
Since its inception in 2002, OWiS has grown to offer in-school screenings as well, accompanied by educational manuals that include background information about the topics, classroom exercises, interactive methods and active resources. OWiS produces four to five educational sets per year, for which schools can register and pre-order online.
As the initiative runs year-round and is not entirely dependent on festival operations, People in Need keeps in close contact with teachers and students through newsletters, events and seminars, along with student debates and elections and thematic film weeks for schools. Throughout the year, OWiS organizers pay visits to the schools and provide support and facilitate discussion about the films with students, while offering seminars for teachers and university students from pedagogical faculties.
These days, over 2,800 schools in the Czech Republic use the educational materials of OWiS for subjects like civics, history, English, economics and geography. Students also have permission to use thedocumentaries for film clubs, a popular and voluntary after-school activity. Currently, there are 60 active film clubs in the Czech Republic through which students screen films for their peers and organize debates with experts, connect screenings with photo exhibits and host international dinner nights.
Docs For Schools
In a similar vein, Hot Docs offers Docs For Schools (DFS), a province-wide educational outreach programme that organizes student festival screenings for Ontario school children during the festival’s 11-day run. At Hot Docs 2010, more than 50,000 students from 257 Ontario schools participated in the programme, from grades 9 to 12. Popular and award-winning titles included Waste Land by Lucy Walker, Reporter by Eric Daniel Metzgar, Gasland by Josh Fox, Thunder Soul by Mark Landsman and Prom Night in Mississippi by Paul Saltzman. Post-screening discussions with guest directors also play a major part in connecting the content to classroom. “The filmmakers love it,” says Hot Docs associate director of communications Jonathan Da Silva. “Many say that they get the best questions from kids.”
The titles included in the DFS programme are plucked from Hot Docs’s official selection, passed to their youth and education programs manager, Lesley Sparks, who works with Hot Docs’s Teacher Advisory Council to curate the final list of films deemed engaging for secondary-school students. Topics vary across all subject areas, but stories with young subjects or those focused on region-specific communities tend to be favoured. (For example, Aboriginal issues are most popular in schools with many First Nations students.) Like its Czech counterpart, the DFS programme also brings films into schoolrooms, where teachers have the opportunity to borrow DVDs of particular Hot Docs films during the festival.
Each film in the DFS programme is supported by teacher-prepared education packages with valuable background information, creative lesson plans and links to the Ontario curriculum. In addition, Hot Docs has produced a guide for teachers to help familiarize them with the language of the medium. Teachers are also encouraged to build an event around the screenings, and often gather a team of students to help produce their own mini-festivals.
“More and more, as teachers see the educational value of the programme, schools are holding entire assemblies and watching the films together in auditoriums,” says Da Silva. “Last year we introduced a pilot project with student ambassadors in which teachers nominated students to introduce and lead the discussion on certain films.”
Although the DFS programme operates only during Hot Docs season, the festival does offer free online viewing of certain titles at the Doc Library, some of which have education packages attached. And to keep it cooking during summertime, Hot Docs now runs a free, weeklong Doc Camp where 10- to 12-year-old kids develop and shoot their own short documentaries. “Many of these students say it was the experiences with Docs for Schools that got them interested and excited about documentaries,” says Da Silva.
Kids & Docs Workshop & Docs and Kids (IDFA)
Branching away from the curatorial side of education, the IDFA initiative Kids & Docs Workshop jumps to the front of the production line with a seven-month development programme that selects 10 Dutch filmmakers to produce 15-minute documentaries aimed at children. As a general practice, organizers of the Kids & Docs Workshop select a pool of supportive broadcasters for the programme and then match filmmakers with suitable networks.
After the final workshop each April, an international jury awards one project a funding prize of €35,000, provided by the Dutch Cultural Media Fund. In addition to the winner, seven out of 10 projects typically go into production, a number that has been increasing over the years due to the rising standards of the workshop. “They really are developing a film language for children in this workshop,” explains IDFA’s education coordinator, Meike Statema, “which you can accomplish with more experienced filmmakers.”
The workshop is in conjunction with IDFA’s festival section, Docs & Kids, which often selects films that were developed in the workshop. In 10 years, the Kids & Docs Workshop has produced 46 Dutch documentaries and continues to gain interest from broadcasters. Z@ppelin children’s network, a venture of Netherlands Public Broadcasting (NPB), has been the forerunner of the Kids & Docs Workshop, sparking participation from other public broadcasters and boosting the programme’s reputation. During the last weekend of IDFA this November, Z@pp will devote two days to broadcasting all the documentaries in the Kids & Docs festival programme. In addition, IDFA will organize school screenings every morning of the festival, inviting 4,500 school kids from all regions of Amsterdam.
Around the time when the Kids & Docs Workshop was launched, Statema admits that there was an absence of children’s documentary on Dutch TV. “It was really an initiative from the festival and the Dutch Cultural Media Fund to say we should really give this genre a push,” she explains. “The initial idea was to stimulate the production of the documentary genre.” Now, it has spread from the workshop to the festival and, like the popular model, some films from the Kids & Docs Workshop are also available online for teachers to use in their classrooms.
As for the content, Statema believes that “all topics are possible; it’s just a matter of the way you tell the story.” During the first years of the programme, participating directors would approach children to ask for their ideas for documentary stories. Problems would occur, however, when trying to keep the child connected to their subject, as quite often the documentary timeframe takes on a life of its own. These days, directors conceive their own project ideas, communicating and collaborating with the children they meet in schools or through different clubs, creating relevant works for the targeted age group.
Statema explains that participating directors are attracted to themes like bullying and lying but they discover over the workshop’s research period that children prefer personal stories with a smaller focus. “The fact that the films are about people from their age group makes it easier for them to really identify with the topic,” says Statema, allowing them to “shape their opinion about the themes.” The targetting begins at age nine because, says Statema, “if they are younger the whole concept of documentary is hard to discuss in the classroom.”
Apart from collecting basic questionnaires that monitor the effectiveness and success of documentary education, Jana Toužimská in Prague notices that each year new schools sign up for the OWiS programme, along with an increase in attendance for the film festival student screenings. Hot Docs festival, too, continually receives high scores on report cards from teachers, which often include comments from their students. Says Lesley Sparks, “A documentary film that students are able to relate to, in both story and timeline, has the special ability to transcend the classroom learning model.”
As the youth of today tends to be more inclined to visual learning, documentary film provides an accessible and complementary teaching tool. “With the proliferation of video cameras and phones, and the popularity of YouTube, many young people are constantly watching or making videos,” continues Sparks. “The transition to watching documentary films can be a natural extension for many. I also think that young people realize that documentaries can be entertaining and educational, a combination many are looking for today.”
During screenings of the films developed in the Kids & Docs Workshop, Statema observes that the responses tend to be quite strong, ranging from sheer positivity from the older students to total disbelief from the younger crowd.
“They really are impressed,” explains Statema. “We are developing a film language in the workshop, so it sometimes looks like a really beautiful fiction film. Children are not used to the documentary genre not being a sort of news item, instead of just a really nice creative film.”
Perhaps documentary education is the link that will allow children and teens to move from a receptive role to an active one, which is where change occurs. “By choosing films according to the age of the students,” confesses Toužimská, “we can introduce even more difficult topics to the youngest pupils in a very attractive, age-appropriate and understandable way.”