Using Inquiry to Discuss Short Films

As an avid reader and devoted movie buff, I enjoy discussing movies as much as discussing books. If the film is adapted from a book, the question—“Which is better, the book or the movie?”—pales in comparison to the question “Did the filmmakers capture or convey the meaning of the text?” As with a text, if a film conveys layers of meaning it can inspire engaging discussions.

My colleagues and I recently watched 2081, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” by Chandler Tuttle. If you aren’t familiar with “Harrison Bergeron” (Great Books Roundtable, Level 2), it’s a dystopian story, both tragic and funny, that depicts a future where amendments to the Constitution declare all Americans fully equal and not allowed to be smarter, better-looking, or more physically able than anyone else. The Handicapper General and his agents mightily enforce the equality laws. While we discussed 2081, I listed a few things that can help you use an inquiry-based approach to discussing films in your class.

1) Instruct students to make notes as they watch the movie. Tell them to note what makes them pause, raises a question, confuses them—anything they might bring up in discussion.

2) Explain to your students that they should watch a movie with the same attentiveness as when they read closely to examine an author’s writing—they need to focus on the filmmaker’s art. Movies are more than plot, characterization, or theme, and they’re certainly more than the behind-the-scenes clips or the lifestyles of the film’s stars. Like writing, film is a multi-layered art.

3) Tell students to notice the various means the filmmaker uses to tell the story. For example, the lighting, scene set-up, music, the rhythm and mood of specific scenes, and the film as a whole. If they ask why, explain that just as an author chooses specific words, everything depicted on screen (and every sound) is a deliberate choice by the filmmaker that adds to the film’s story. Is there symbolism? Even if they aren’t sure, encourage them to note what they think might be symbolic.

Discussing a film needs to be more than talking about the plot—if you do that you’re simply retelling the story. You have to tease out the layers of meaning and in order to do that the film must be worthy of discussion—it needs to be challenging, the characters need to be complex and not one-dimensional, and it needs to raise open-ended questions. For example, an open-ended question for our discussion of 2081 was “Why does Harrison claim he is Emperor on television?”

Many full-length films generate good discussions, but short films are especially ideal for classroom use. Short films can be watched a second time, and they make it easier to refer to scenes to find evidence of ideas shared during discussion.

Here’s a brief list of discussable short films. Please feel free to add yours in the comment section.

The Lottery (1969)—by Larry Yurt. The film was produced as part of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Short Story Showcase based on the Shirley Jackson story. I saw it in the seventh grade and have never forgotten it.
Neighbours (1952)—by Norman McLaren. This is one of the films that made me love film. It uses pixilation to tell the story of two neighbors and their struggle over ownership of a single flower.  It has a chilling end, so make sure it is age appropriate.
The Critic (1963)—a short animated film by Ernest Pintoff, narrated by Mel Brooks. The film is a humorous exploration of film criticism that touches on audience expectations and the audience’s role as viewer. It also touches on how a film’s value is determined. It also makes me laugh.
The Red Ballon (1956)—by Albert Lamorisse. This film is a beloved story about a boy and his balloon.
2081 (2009)—by Chandler Tuttle. Based on the story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut.

Michael Elsey has an MFA in film and is Director of Digital Media at the Great Books Foundation. In his spare time he writes screenplays, watches movies, and discusses the cultural significance of Phineas and Ferb with his 9-year-old son.


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