Film studies promote a new kind of literacy in Hong Kong schools
In an increasing number of Hong Kong schools, film studies are promoting a new kind of literacy.
In the 21st-century curriculum, the term "multiple literacies" has supplanted the "three Rs" (reading, writing and arithmetic) of your parents' school days - or maybe your own. Education gurus advocate financial literacy, emotional literacy and even "ecoliteracy" as new skill sets required for success in adult life.
And there are more: visual literacy, aural literacy, information literacy, cyberliteracy, multicultural literacy, media literacy - all related to communication and technology. It appears that the well-known phrase "the medium is the message" is more relevant now than when it was coined in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher of communication theory. This catchphrase has often been misinterpreted, but it is a reference to how the medium of communication influences the audience's perception of the content, or message.
As a result, filmmaking and media studies are becoming an increasingly common area of study in Hong Kong secondary schools, providing a more modern platform for creative self-expression. The Canadian International School of Hong Kong (CDNIS) offers DP Film, which is one of the visual arts options in the diploma programme - the final two years of the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum. It explores the history and theory of filmmaking, in addition to film production.
"Being visually literate is a prerequisite in today's world," says Sharon Lacoste McDonagh, visual arts, film and TOK (theory of learning) teacher. "It is at the core of how we communicate information these days. It crosses linguistic and cultural borders. You can have a broader audience through film and, likewise, as an audience member you can explore many more worlds - real or imagined."
Exploring the tools of communication is crucial for developing critical thinking skills in the internet era, and this can start at the primary level. In the lower school at CDNIS, there have been movie-making extra-curricular activities for Grades 5 and 6. These are opportunities for students to explore advanced moving-making tools, such as green-screen technology and stop-motion animation, as well as digital storytelling, photography and cinematography.
David Larson, digital design and technology teacher at CDNIS, explains the purpose: "My objective is for students to be visually literate, to be more critical consumers and creative creators of media. I use much of the same terminology they hear in creative writing and reading classes so that they see that it's all literacy - that they can read a film and can influence their viewers in the way they write the movie."
As communications technologies make such courses more accessible and ubiquitous, is this bad news for the basic skills needed to produce traditional methods of school communication, such as the school newspaper?
Not to worry, says Larson, "I don't teach film in exclusion of reading and writing ... I worked with a group of students who had a choice between writing an essay, a play, a website or a movie for an international history competition. The high-school students who chose to make a documentary soon realised that they had to start with a well-crafted essay - the story - and then build on it with video and audio. In fact, they had chosen an equally hard or harder medium when they thought they were taking the easy path."
Recently, Grade 7 students in their IB middle years programme design class were required to make documentaries about aspects of Hong Kong heritage. "They keep a record of all the work; research, storyboarding, scripting, filming, editing, etc, that goes into the final film. That design journal is what I want parents to see, as well as the finished documentary, because it reflects all the traditional learning that underpins this relatively modern method of communication."
South Island School has been offering film and media studies for some time, and it is now paying off - in a most literal sense. Iain Williamson, head of film/TV/media studies and media literacy coordinator explains: "Our department has a history dating back to the '90s of offering GCSE and A-level media studies. In 2008 we switched from A-levels to the IB. Given that we have a successful GCSE media course, students have already been exposed to three practical filmmaking tasks before they even start IB."
The students' production work has become so polished that, in recent years, the school established a commissioned service, where senior students create short promotional films and documentaries for a fee of HK$5,000. The money gained from these commissioned films goes to the department for the purchase of new equipment.
Jennifer Deayton, a local videographer who has worked at CNN, mentors students through the film and media department at South Island School. "Student filmmaking covers so many bases: creative thinking, technical knowledge, long- and short-term planning, the list goes on." Her mentoring activities can involve students filming school shows and pitching film projects. "I offer feedback and then view the projects in rough and final-cut stages, and sometimes I get to give out awards, which is always fun." She worked with students during the school's annual MaD (making a difference) Week, when groups of students were paired up with professional directors, cinematographers and set designers to shoot a short film in one week.
Many students have gone on to film schools in the US and Britain, or to paying jobs in Hong Kong. "With all the digital technology that's out there, learning how to point and shoot and then cut something on a computer program is not that difficult. The hardware is relatively easy with enough practice," says Deayton. "It's the 'soft' skills students learn from filmmaking that are so important: collaborating, visualising, articulating ideas, delegating, planning and compromising. You might have a brilliant eye, but if you lack teamwork skills, that might be a problem."