Teaching Film Analysis in the Humanities
Developing media analysis skills is an essential component of 21st century learning and the work of teachers across all grade levels and classrooms. The ability to discern fact from fiction, understand how an argument is constructed, how visuals might represent or misrepresent a time and place, and examining the process and motivations behind video and audio production are skills used in personal and public arenas beyond the school. This resource is offered for teachers across the humanities who use film and incorporate opportunities for students to develop media analysis skills. The questions and activity prompts provided below are not specific to any one film or form of visual media, but designed for use with a variety of film genres that depict historical eras and in the interest of inspiring student inquiry.
I. Compelling questions for framing film analysis:
- What learning outcomes regarding content and skills are we teaching for when students analyze films?
- Why is a film made and in whose interest?
- Who’s missing from the historical narrative(s) presented in the film?
- What roles do viewers play in perpetuating and/or what are the viewer’s responsibilities for minimizing the issues and conflicts depicted in the film?
II. Guiding questions for analyzing individual films:
What assumptions does the film make about cultures and behaviors?
- Does the film pass the Bechdel test?
- What are the counter arguments to the narrative(s) presented in the film?
- To what extent does who wrote, directed, and produced the film matter to the perspectives presented in the film?
- Why does who starred in the film matter?
- What changes could be made to the casting and what would it mean for the film?
- How is conflict constructed and to what extent are those conflicts equitably resolved? Consider person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature, and person vs. technology.
- Are the solutions presented in the film sustainable?
III. Prompts for further inquiry:
Role play: Take on the role of a dramaturg, set designer, costume designer, location scout, or cinematographer. What do you need to know before filming begins? How will your role affect the production of the film? How does your involvement affect the telling of the story? What role does technology play in assisting you in the completion of your responsibilities to the film?
Missing perspectives: Identify a scene that you believe is missing something. Perhaps there is need for a counter argument based on primary source analysis or a character was omitted from the film despite having a connection of historical importance to the story. Based on research, revise the script to add dialogue that draws upon primary source materials. Does your addition change the trajectory of the film?
Time and place: What if the film was set in another time and place? What would change about cultural norms, casting, and more if the film had a different setting? If the film being analyzed is historical, did similar stories occur elsewhere at the time, how will you tell that story, and/or are they relevant now?
Close Reading: Select a scene or two from a film and analyze them the way you would a political cartoon or piece of art. The close reading of a film involves analyzing symbols, lighting, camera angles, facial expressions, body language, background, and more. Incorporating film analysis vocabulary within an essay, a critique written for a public audience, or using storyboard software to record a voice over analysis that combines audio and visual media are possible forms for students to demonstrate learning.
The Cutting Room Floor: What students learn from analyzing films and the film making process can be applied to the creation of a short film of their own. Whether it is an original screenplay and production, a documentary style film that incorporates audio and visual resources with a voiceover, or some other form of filmmaking, students can utilize digital storyboard software to create their own short film. In doing so, students will be able to discuss their decision making about what was kept in and what was left out, demonstrate understanding of concepts such as point of view analysis, narrative, and other components of writing, editing, and producing visual media.