Get Reel: cinema as window to the world

Yvonne Teh, Film Editor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 May, 2013, 12:59am

"It's only a movie." This is a phrase I've heard on more occasions than I care to remember, usually in the context of someone dismissing the idea that films can be anything more than entertaining fluff.

The way I see it, however, is that a cinematic work can be a window into another society or culture, a work of art and even educational - with my experience of having viewed several films in classrooms adding strength to this line of argument.

In many universities in the US, it almost seems like a rite of passage for students taking introductory sociocultural anthropology courses to be treated to a screening of a 1976 ethnographic film documenting cultural creativity among the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea.

Gary Kildea and Jerry Leach's Trobriand Cricket: An Ingenious Response to Colonialism is a fascinating and fun watch, and introduces viewers to a brand of cricket far removed from the one played on the pitches of England, India and Pakistan.

Cinematic work can be a window into another society or culture, a work of art and even educational

Yet, their version does have its origins in the game that British missionaries brought to that part of the Trobriand Islands. The film is also good for driving home various anthropological lessons, including ones about cultural diversity and the ability of different cultures to adapt foreign practices.

Other films I remember having viewed over the course of my undergraduate studies include two films by Stanley Kubrick: A Clockwork Orange, which was screened for a class on compulsory institutions co-taught by a psychologist and a sociologist, and Barry Lyndon for an art history course.

It also was in an art history class that I was introduced to Derek Jarman's Caravaggio. The historical biopic about the Baroque artist is full of dramatic spice that is drawn from the 17th-century Italian painter's bisexuality, flirtations with the underworld and employment of street people, drunks and prostitutes as models for his works, a number of which had religious subjects.

Still, what I like about Jarman's film is that its evocative visuals clearly paid tribute to the artist's inventive use of light and shadow. I am grateful my viewing of Caravaggio helped me to look more knowledgeably and appreciatively at the body of great art from a thoroughly passionate artist who lived centuries ago.