In partnership with the city of Argenteuil, the British Council ran a series of Cinema workshops in English for secondary students in February 2013 with seven classes. The workshops were run with students from 4ème to BTS (13 to 20 years old), and were based on three British films ‘Monthy Python Holy Grail’, ‘Fish Tank’ and ‘The King’s Speech’. The activities were designed and run by Jerome Monahan, an associate of the UK organisation Film Education. Jerome gives us a first-hand account of his experiences of running these workshops.
The young people of Argenteuil must have an eccentric sense of the state of British cinema following the week of active workshops they experienced with me. It was one of the challenges to find a thread linking the anarchic “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” (1975), Andrea Arnold’s gritty urban realism in “Fish Tank” (2009) and the glossier, nostalgic pleasures of Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” (2010). It is a tribute to the teachers that in most cases the ground had been helpfully prepared and the classes had all managed to attend full screenings of the films at the local cinema in Argenteuil.
There were strong preferences to contend with too.. “Fish Tank” had not been well-received, with teachers suggesting that its themes and milieu were too close to home for many students. “Monty Python” had proved a bit mystifying with the high-speed delivery of the dialogue and the cultural frame of reference of many of the jokes proving baffling. Curiously, the nostalgic and class-preoccupied “Kings Speech” was the film to which students seemed the best disposed at the start of my sessions.
No workshop was the same but as the week continued certain activities did seem to prove successful and a pathway through the material emerged. Each session began with a number of warm-up exercises and ice-breakers. It was clear that students found the mere fact that they were starting a lesson on their feet and required to be immediately active and inter-active distinctly curious, though it is a measure of power of these kinds of active approaches that they quickly had the majority up and using English from the get-go. The simple ‘stop-start-clap-jump’ game was terrific at promoting concentration and segued well into the activity requiring students to create ‘collective’ sculptures of an object of significance from particular films: the horse from “Fish Tank” or the multi-eyed monster from “Monty Python”.
It was then a simple step to watching the ‘monster’ scene from “Monty Python and The Holy Grail”, which demonstrates a number of convention-busting elements in quick succession and proved an ideal means of getting to the heart of the film’s subversive ‘project’. Students were quick to identify the rules that had been broken and from identifying such meta-fictional elements in one context it was a simpler job exploring them in others. The collective creation of the tragedy of “Pyramus and Thisbe” as performed by the Mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” proved tremendously popular in every Argenteuil school or college context. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of the week selecting the students to play each of the main parts in Midsummer Night’s dream. As the week continued the performances became more elaborate, my explanations more fluent and also new meta-fictional elements were added, not least the notion of ‘mise en abyme’ as apparent in ‘realist’ art such as the van Eyck portrait ‘The Arnolfii Marriage’ and Velasquez’s ‘Las Meninas’.
One of the most important lessons of the week which I hoped to establish is the fact that in well-constructed and thoughtful films, nothing is left to chance or is included in the final cut without good reason. The opening six-minutes of “Fish Tank” proved the perfect test case for this principle with students taking responsibility for feeding back on one of several elements including camera movement, characterization, and overall mood. Possibly the most fertile part of the discussions that ensued focused on the succession of shots showing the modest array of possessions in the protagonist Mia’s bedroom. Her model of the ‘Eiffel Tower’ proved particularly intriguing and suggestive – its significance whether as a symbol of the girl’s aspirations or of an elusive world beyond her immediate environment proved suitably open-ended.
As the week progressed so too did the emphasis upon practical film-making. The session with only eight students in ‘terminal littéraire langue d’approfondissment’ proved the ideal testing ground for creating a simple sequence illustrating the kind of jig-saw construction of differently framed shots that make up even the simplest scene. As a pre-amble to the exercise the arrival of the Prince and Princess as Mr and Mrs Johnson at Lionel Logue’s consulting rooms proved a great means of exploring film grammar in action, with students being asked to ‘code’ the short piece of script associated with this scene to reflect different priorities with each shot suggesting the director’s emphasis. It proved an effective exercise, again underlining the significance of everything given screen-time in a good movie, and also feeding directly into the practical assignment.
Having tried out film-making with just eight students, it was only a short hop to trying the same thing based on a simple scenario of two people entering a room and advancing on a third in a chair with whole classes. We discussed each shot collectively and then individual students volunteered to shoot each short sequence. Time did not allow for editing the resulting fragments, but students clearly grasped the way in which film is constructed from a variety of shots and also the challenges in terms of consistency and continuity such film-making poses.
In the end, I am so pleased to have had this chance to explore the rudiments of film analysis and film-making with the students of Argenteuil. The active approaches I prefer seem to have encouraged participation and encouraged engagement and resulted in a warm response from students and teachers alike. During the week only one bit of feedback was “My students will be writing to you shortly. They graded you 20 out of 20 and they learned much more than you could imagine”. How wonderful! I hope the other feedback is even a fraction as positive as that.
Blog by Jerome Monahan