Independent Film in the Classroom

Now that I am well over halfway through my summer, I’m starting to turn my attention back to the classroom.  Jessica King has an engaging post on teaching “independent film” in the classroom for Lance Weiler’s Workbook Project website.  Although she is primarily talking about her experiences in the high school classroom, her ideas certainly apply to college introductory film courses, as well, especially her discussions of how film courses fit into a more general curriculum and her reflection on what an introductory course in film studies ought to do.

King’s post is especially relevant for me because she addresses the fact that many film courses at the high school level are English electives and that the goals of an Intro to Film course–teaching film language and its effects–may be vastly different than a typical literature course.  She argues that

English teachers are often talented, enthusiastic people who LOVE literature, which means that they want to talk about themes and characters and feelings, but not about how a text creates meaning and establishes purpose. As a result, many teachers who end up in Film Studies teach film as an extension of literature, showcasing them as visual novels.

Although many of my students are often enthusiastic about my class and the films we discuss, I think that many of them enter the class with expectations similar to the ones described by King.  On one level, this isn’t a problem: it shows that our students are developing a methodology for reading, one that is shaped by other professors trained in literature.  But as King points out, an understanding of film language (and how it operates) can be worthwhile.

In many ways, her basic course structure echoes my own (here is an older version of my course), in that I offer a quick lecture on film history before turning to formal elements such as narrative, mise en scene, cinematography, and editing.  But as she moves on to make a case for teaching a unit on independent film, she offers what I find to be a refreshing take on how to tailor her film course for her audience, an urban Chicago audience, by arguing that her students rarely (if ever) see themselves in the characters or situations depicted on the big screen.  She then suggests a range of films–Ballast, Chop Shop, Amreeka, Raising Victor Vargas, Real Women Have Curves, Talk to Me, George Washington, and Waitress–that have succeeded in engaging her students.  I’ve been thinking about how to revamp my film course for a while now, especially during the second half of the semester when students have a basic grasp on film language00and I think King offers some useful suggestions.


  1. Jessica King Said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    Hey Chuck–
    Thanks for the commentary on my post. It’s always good to find other people working out the same issues around teaching film.

    I took a look at the older version of your course, and I am very curious about how your students respond to Blonde Venus. It’s such a great film.

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    I haven’t taught Blonde Venus in a while, but I should do so at some point. It works well for teaching mise en scene and for reinforcing aspects of the Hays Code. Students are initially shocked to see the skinny-dipping scene, for example. I teach at an HBCU now, so I’m trying to gear my course more toward my students’ experiences, so I’ve begun using Do the Right Thing that week. I also now often teach Daughters of the Dust, which has worked really well.

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