Film has always been a medium that is used to explore the tacit boundaries and fissures in the social world. Good/evil, love/hate, oppressed/oppressor, moral/immoral and other binaries are challenged in good films that mess up some of our most closely held beliefs about what should – or should not – be done in this world.
Framing is everything, however, and one can view a single film from an infinite number of perspectives. I love to use films in courses I teach, and here are some I have used along with a brief description of the “framing” I have asked students to engage as they watch, listen, and learn:
The Visitor is a simple movie about an overwhelmingly complicated and emotionally saturated issue: immigration in the U.S. A burnt-out professor finds himself enmeshed in a joyful life of two artists only to watch one get carried away in handcuffs and held in a detention center until he is deported. In the meantime, heartbreak, frustration, anxiety, devotion, and love are interwoven in the nuanced story exploring the multiple and subtle meanings of the film’s title. “The Visitor” offers a productive frame for asking students to think about who, in the United States, are visitors? In what contexts does that change? What is the history of others “visiting” the United States (ex: European explorers, African and European slaves and endentured servants, tourists, exiles, refugees, students, documented workers, undocumented workers, etc.).
La Misma Luna/Under the Same Moon This fabulous new film in independent theaters portrays the life of a young boy in Mexico living without his mother who has illegally immigrated to the U.S. I won’t give away any details, but bring your tissues and rally signs. It could make even the most conservative anti-immigration person reconsider dehumanizing laws that break the hearts and spirits of tenacious, driven, hard-working Mexicans. I haven’t yet used it with any of my courses but I will – and I will ask students to pay close attention to issues of language, literacies, and power within the intricate complexities of U.S.-Mexico relations. I will also ask students to consider the broader context of contemporary immigration around the globe and how capitalist economies and globalism is impacting social class relations beyond national borders.
Spanglish This popular film set in California offers a great deal in terms of issues around social class, language, public/private education, and ethnicity. As you watch, consider who wields power, how, and to what end. Consider how class, gender, ethnicity, and language intersect in constructing characters who are better positioned to wield power and characters positioned to wield less power. Think about how complexities around social class and language come together to construct tensions between a mother and daughter. And consider all of these issues as they relate to contemporary contexts of schooling across the United States. Who is acting as the “Savior” in the movie, and what are some of the complicated results of that action? Who, in contemporary educational contexts (particularly primary, elementary, middle, and secondary schools) act in similar “Savior” roles and is it possible that complicated results of such actions are taking place without the Savior noticing? There is an infinite number of ways to think about this film – these are just a few…have fun!
The Bee Movie This fabulous animated film makes for a fun, engaging Marxist analysis (and lots of other analyses too, but I’ve only used it for an activity accompanying the reading of Marx). Issues around some of the binaries in Marx’s writings – capitalism/communism, bourgeoise/proletariat, oppressed/oppressor, capitalist/laborer – are played out in the film in a variety of ways, as are issues around solidarity and social action through organizing labor. They are bees, of course (proletariat?), but they work with humans (at least one – bourgeoise?), engage in lots of fascinating dialogue and activity, crack some pretty good jokes along the way, and in the end well…I won’t tell you. Doc students loved the film and couldn’t stop from taking notes while they were watching – but I would also use it with junior high, high school, adult education, and any other group of students interested in issues of class, labor, social action, ecology, capitalism, socialism, feminism, and so much more.
Paper Clips This documentary about one junior high school in rural Tennessee and their journey to learn and teach others about the atrocities of the Holocaust received great reviews several years ago when it found large audiences in small independent theaters. While watching this documentary I ask students to consider: How is the curriculum being integrated across the inquiry? How is the Holocaust being framed? What perspectives are engaged in learning/teaching about the Holocaust? What perspectives are absent in the inquiry? Are their any misconceptions about the Holocaust that are perpetuated in the documentary? Are religious perspectives interrogated – for example, the role of Christians during the Holocaust and/or the religions of the students and faculty? What correlations are drawn between the Holocaust and slavery and/or racism in the U.S.? Are these correlations useful? Damaging? In what ways? In what ways is this large and long-term social action project incredible and inspirational? If you were engaging your students in a study of the Holocaust (or other human-created atrocities of the past, present, and future), what would you do that would be similar to this documentary? Different from the documentary?