Teacher's Guide

Teaching Film Analysis in the Humanities

Lobby card from the original 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz.
Photo caption

Lobby card from the original 1939 release of The Wizard of Oz.

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.

Guiding Questions

What learning outcomes regarding content and skills are we teaching for when students analyze films?

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?

Why is a film made and in whose interest?

Who’s missing from the historical narrative(s) presented in the film?

Questions for Viewing Films

The following questions are designed for broad application when viewing films for the purpose of learning about an era, topic, or theme within the humanities. Note: The questions do not seek to elicit information about a specific film, but rather prompt analysis and discussion about how films construct meaning and interpreting film making.

  • What assumptions does the film make about cultures and behaviors?

  • 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?
  • How does the director use symbolism to convey meaning throughout the film?
  • To what extent does the film offer commentary on contemporary political, social, economic, or cultural phenomena?  
  • Does the film pass the Bechdel test?
  • How does this film compare to other films on the same or a similar topic?
  • 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 to conflict(s) presented in the film sustainable?
Inquiry Activities with Film

Now that the film or film excerpt is over, what will students do to further their knowledge about film making, casting, costuming, and more? Use the activity prompts below to catalyze student inquiry about key topics and other course related areas of study.

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. 

Write a Review—Consider the following when preparing to write a review of a film as if you will publish it for the public to read as they decide whether or not to watch the film. In addition to the prompts below, review Duke University's Thompson Writing Program Film Review guide. 

  • Before watching the film, conduct research about the director, screenplay writer, the lead actors, the subjects and topics you know are included within the film, and other elements of interest to you and of importance to the film.
  • While watching the film, use some of the questions provided above to analyze the film, but also develop your own perspective on the film that goes beyond the plot (i.e your analysis). Collect notes about the plot, symbolism, questions you have about historical accuracy (if relevant), the score or other musical contributions, and other images or topics that capture your attention. 
  • After viewing the film, conduct research to answer the questions you have developed and begin writing your review. Keep in mind that a review does not focus on critiquing what you did not like about the film (although there is room for such evaluation), but rather, a review offers an objective consideration of what the director, actors, cinematographer, writer, and other contributors are doing as story tellers using an audio-visual medium.

The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) provides sample film reviews and other suggestions for this type of writing assignment. 

Film Analysis Resources

The following resources offer questions and insight for designing film and media analysis activities. 

NEH Film Projects

The National Endowment for the Humanities continues to fund cutting edge films, documentaries, and television programming that touch on a range of topics related to the humanities, civic participation, and U.S. history and culture. 

  • Scripting the Past: Exploring Women's History through Film: In this lesson, students learn the craft of screenwriting, engage in historical research to learn how filmmakers combine scholarship and imagination to convey historical figures and events to an audience, and reflect on how cinematic storytelling can shape our view of the past.
  • 20 NEH Funded Films: A list of films funded by the NEH that can be used in a classroom and enjoyed at home. 
  • The NEH and Preserving Cinematic History: According to this Humanities magazine article, "at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1950 have been lost." What is being done to restore and provide access to these films?
  • The Art of Martin Scorsese: This Humanities magazine interview with Academy Award winning director and 2013 NEH Jefferson lecturer Martin Scorsese gives insight into the artist's film making and his work to preserve motion pictures. 
    • Watch Martin Scorsese's 2013 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.