Anyone who’s seen kids chuckle over the antics of Shrek or cheer the heroics of Spider-Man knows how movies can transport a young person to another world. Harnessing that power for cultural education is the aim of Journeys in Film, a New Mexico-based nonprofit that offers multidisciplinary lesson plans to accompany critically acclaimed foreign films.
“We’re a tool for international education, we’re appealing to media-savvy youth, and we are raising critical film viewers,” says Anna Mara Rutins, JiF’s director of programs. She has reason to be confident: By the end of this school year, JiF expects to have served roughly 50,000 students in 65 public and 15 private schools across the country.
Founded in 2003, JiF primarily serves middle schools, although it recently expanded its reach to high schools. The middle school lesson plans cover four films: The Cup (set in Tibet), The Way Home (Korea), Children of Heaven (Iran), and Whale Rider (New Zealand). Each curriculum package ($75 apiece; $250 for all four) includes 10 to 12 detailed lessons compiled by educators with expertise in each film’s content, but the movies must be rented or purchased from other sources.
According to Rutins, the films are chosen for their compelling storylines and appealing central characters, who are close in age to the intended viewers. In Whale Rider, for example, Pai is the 12-year-old granddaughter of the outgoing chief of a coastal Maori tribe. Tradition, set by the tribe’s legendary whale-riding founder, demands that only male heirs become chief. When Pai’s father refuses the post, she struggles to convince her grandfather to make her the new leader.
Whale Rider is, as Rutins puts it, “rich in content,” allowing for lesson plans that cover Maori culture, gender issues, media literacy, and science topics, including whale species diversity and echolocation, the radar-like system whales use to navigate.
How a school uses JiF’s materials depends on its needs, Rutins notes. Math-science magnets, for example, may ignore the media-literacy lessons while performing arts schools focus on them. Chris Forfar, a 6th grade English and social studies teacher at International Studies Learning Center, a public magnet in Los Angeles, says that he and a math-science colleague have screened three films and used the JiF lessons. Calling the experience “invaluable,” he adds that the films “help break stereotypes about [other cultures] that are formed from seeing too many Hollywood movies.” That alone is an accomplishment, says Rutins: “Many of these kids may otherwise never view a foreign film—ever.”
Vol. 18, Issue 05, Page 14Published in Print: March 1, 2007, as Film School