About the Group
The Understanding Cinema group at Granton Primary School in Edinburgh is run as an ‘after-school club’. That means it is an optional activity, for children from different classes in the upper end of the school, who have chosen to spend some of their precious time outside school hours learning about filmmaking!
There are about 20 children in the class, ages 9 to 12. The class is led by Miss Aoife Donnelly (who was involved in Cinema Cent Ans De Jeunesse last year) and Miss Avril Whelan. I (Jamie Chambers) am the filmmaker working with them this year.
The Granton Understanding Cinema group is now meeting twice a week: once after school on a Tuesday, where we have just over an hour together, and a second session of just under an hour on a Friday when the children do their practical work.
EXERCISE 1 (pt 1 and pt 2)
Thinking about Exercise 1, we decided not to show the children any of the clips before they attempted to film their first scenes of play. This arose from my own sense that the CCADJ topic this year contained within itself a danger, regarding the perspective on ‘play’, and whose perspective that was. Whilst I found our time at the Cinematheque with Alain Bergala stimulating and invigorating, I was personally worried the topic risked imposing upon children adult notions and perspectives on ‘play’. I feel that, as the participating adults in CCADJ this year, teachers and filmmakers were effectively ‘outsiders’ to the children’s everyday experience of ‘play’ and that, as such, we should approach the topic cautiously, allowing the children’s own understanding and experience of ‘play’ to lead as much as possible. For these reasons we did not show the children any of the clips before they went out to film their Exercise 1 material. We wanted the perspective and understanding of ‘play’ to belong as much as possible to the children themselves, rather than being led or shaped too much by adults.
At first, we told the children to film themselves playing a game, as per the Rules of the Game Exercise 1 . (We used the additional framework of CCADJ’s Lumiere Minutes, which I have found particularly helpful in previous years for children’s very first experiences of filmmaking: of a static camera, documentary perspective and a rough limit of one minute). We found that much of what the children filmed, however, was (in the terms outlined by Bergala in September) perhaps more under the heading of free ‘play’ than a ‘game’. We also found that, whilst the instruction in the Rules of the Game was to film a ‘game’ in its entirety, the start and end of the ‘game’ were often porous. Often one aspect of ‘play’ would overtake another, and some games were so long that to film them in their entirety was not feasible.
The children filmed a clapping game, a game of tig in the woods, a game which involved running around in a circle, and game which is a bit like hide and seek, and involves spotting other players from a fixed point in the playground. Most of the films were done in wide-shot, with the camera some distance away from the action. We talked about how some of the games – such as the hide and seek and the game of tig – involved a sense of ‘onscreen and offscreen’, where children would disappear from and return to the scene captured by the frame.
Watching the children’s first attempts to film themselves in scenes of play, I also felt that the question of ‘perspective’ was crucial. Given that CCADJ involves looking at ‘play’ through the specific lens of cinema, I felt that we needed to find a way to help the children think more about how they were filming the scenes of play, as filmmakers. I felt that one important aspect of this, was that our filmmakers had the chance to film other children, rather than themselves, allowing them to take a perspective on scenes of ‘play’ that was arguably more ‘objective’, rather than the more ‘subjective’ activity of filming themselves playing. In general I believe it is important as filmmakers to cultivate a certain sense of distance to the object we are filming, even if that object is something which forms a core part of our own personal experience: only through that distance (or perhaps, better: through a combination of distance and proximity, of exteriority and interiority) I believe can we consider how to ‘frame’ the object so it communicates itself most expressively to an audience.
For these reasons we decided to try the exercise again, with some slight modifications. As our film-club takes place after school, when there are no other children around (and when, during the winter, there is very little light to film by!) the children were given cameras at a series of break-times and asked to film ‘documentary’ scenes of ‘play’, as were happening around them. Again, in Bergala’s terms, this tended to be more free ‘play’ than ‘games’.
We talked with the children about basic documentary techniques, and in particular the need to try and film other children in such a way that the camera didn’t make them feel self-conscious, and thus change their behaviour. We also talked about the size of the frame, and the need to get close enough to the children they were filming to allow audiences to get a sense of expression, of personality, of character. We also start to talk about composition: about choosing what was in the frame (and whereabouts it was in the frame) and what was not in the frame.
The children’s responses to this modified version of Exercise 1 illustrated for me the benefits of allowing our Understanding Cinema participants greater space to think about HOW they were filming these scenes of play, and HOW these scenes of play were being ‘translated’ into, or framed as cinema.
The children caught some amazing small scenes of ‘play’, some of them reminiscent of Claire Simon’s ‘Recreations’, a film they have not yet seen. In one clip, two boys ‘play dead’, lying amongst the leaves, whilst another pokes them with a stick. In another, a scene of ‘play’ becomes something else, when a child is accidentally hit in the face with a tree branch, which has been pulled back by a boy who is playing with it. The children were not just able to capture interesting dramatic moments, however. Their work started, in places, to show a real flare for framing and composition. In one shot, boys balancing precariously on benches in the woods jump in and out of frame. A boy in a yellow coat gets stuck up a tree, suspended in the middle of the frame, his feet dangling, branches all around him. Scenes of football are framed not just to capture onscreen/offscreen action but to situate the action in painterly compositions, capturing a sense of extreme background. In much of the children’s work a focal scene of ‘play’ is foregrounded against background action in the playground to create a sense of counterpoint. One shot boldly framed out heads and bodies to capture simply the many, many different feet running through the playground sand pit. And in one particularly poignant shot, two small girls sit together quietly, their backs to camera, the exuberant ‘play’ of Granton Primary School at break-time happening all around them.