Critical Pedagogy and Film Education
Film education is a highly debated issue, dependent not only on pragmatic considerations on how to teach cinematographic technique, but also on broader pedagogical considerations in order to foster a more inclusive and diverse film higher education system. When not addressed critically, education, including film and media education, can reproduce and reinforce hegemonic and, at times, damaging values. As such, efforts to transform film and media education must go beyond mere changes to curriculum content; they must also seek to change pedagogical and personal habits and attitudes (hooks, 1994). Critical and feminist pedagogies aim to potentiate such changes.
One of the foundational texts in the field of critical pedagogy is the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published in Portuguese in 1968, by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Freire’s work proposes a critical pedagogy that is grounded on a new relationship between teacher, student, and society. It calls into question and criticises the passive nature of the traditional pedagogy of the ‘banking model of education,’ in which students are treated as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Knowledge is communicated by teachers, while students are relegated to the role of mere listeners and memorisers. Freire urges the dismissal of this passive model, arguing instead for a critical and empowering pedagogical model in which students and teachers are co-creators of knowledge built through dialogue. Freire’s model emphasises the importance of critically questioning the knowledge that is imparted by teachers, and focuses on the importance of problem-posing and thematic investigation. Furthermore, Freire understands all education as inherently political, and highlights the need to connect education with the real-life experiences of both students and teachers, foregrounding the role of education as a way to understand and question existing structures of oppression.
Drawing on the work of Freire, bell hooks’ 1994 collection of essays Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, is also a foundational work in the field. hooks recognises that learning can be a practice of submission and obedience, grounding this critique on her personal experience as both student and teacher in highly hierarchical, white-dominated institutions. Her book offers an alternative view of teaching and learning as practices of freedom and tools of resistance. Recognising that no education institution is politically neutral, her work combines critical pedagogy, antiracism, feminism and a holistic approach to learning. Adopting an intersectional view, hooks thus posits the classroom as a potentially transgressive space, where one can learn to push against boundaries and challenge racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression. She advocates an engaged and activated learning experience, seeking to create an open, community-based learning environment in which personal experiences can be openly shared in the classroom and everybody engages in discussion and shares responsibility for the class. Centrally, hooks highlights the role of pleasure and enjoyment in both teaching and learning.
Much of the recent work on critical and feminist pedagogies is thus grounded on the legacy of thinkers and educators such as Paolo Freire and bell hooks. Books, such as Teaching Gender: Feminist Pedagogy and Responsibility in Times of Political Crisis, a volume edited in 2017 by Beatriz Revelles-Benavente & Ana M. González Ramos, build on this work, exploring the challenges and possibilities of adopting a critical and feminist pedagogy within classrooms, and include chapters on artistic education and teaching sex and gender in film. Webb, Allen & Walker (2002) attempted to identify and summarise six of the basic principles of a feminist pedagogical practice, namely: 1) reformation of the relationship between professor and student, fostering an active and collaborative classroom; 2) empowering and participatory learning experiences that seek to transform the social world; 3) community-building and learning through relationships and dialogue, thus challenging the dominant ethos of individualism and competition; 4) privileging personal voices and experiences, recognising the situated nature of knowledge production; 5) respecting personal experiences and their diversity, emphasising empathy and critical thinking as essential skills; and 6) challenging traditional views of theory and instruction, and the myth of objective knowledge production.
Applying critical and feminist pedagogical criteria to film education poses particular challenges, as Citron and Seiter’s 1981 article “The Woman with the Movie Camera" explores. Their article highlights the adversities faced by women as student filmmakers, which contribute to cementing gender inequalities in the film industry as a whole. These issues include the lack of visible role models in traditional film canons and film history classes, unequal access to film technology, gendered cultural assumptions about film production roles, traditional pedagogical approaches used to teach filmmaking, and established hierarchies in both film schools and media institutions. Citron and Seiter propose a series of pedagogical strategies to combat these issues, such as: creating awareness, amongst both teachers and students, of gender inequality and behaviours that foster male domination in the classrooms; calling out and confronting problematic behaviours; fostering awareness of gendered biases and privileges in accessing technical skills and information; creating an open atmosphere in which all students can comfortably share questions; avoiding unnecessary jargon that relies on previous knowledge; debunking the myth of the (male) director as an individual genius and emphasising the collaborative nature of filmmaking; expanding the range of studied examples beyond the classical Hollywood narrative film (e.g. experimental film, documentary, etc); and, lastly, teaching responsibility and emphasising the role of filmmaking as a powerful social tool that must be socially accountable in both its form and content.
Somewhat discouragingly, thirty years later Proctor, Branch & Kristjansson-Nelson (2011), revisited the Citron & Seiter essay to find that little has changed regarding the marginalized status of women in the film production classroom. Issues such as low enrolment numbers of women in film production classes, gendered divisions of labour – with women being more likely to take non-technical crew positions (producer, art director) while men assume the role of director and cinematographer – and women’s reluctance to fully participate in technical demonstrations and critiques in film production classes still persisted. Furthermore, student film productions often continue to reproduce damaging racist, homophobic and/or misogynistic tropes. The authors propose a series of pedagogical strategies to address these issues, reiterating many of Citron and Seiter’s (1981) suggestions, while particularly stressing the need for a critical relationship between film theory and film production technique. These suggestions further emphasise the need for an open classroom environment dedicated to discussion and critique, challenging the students’ use of racist, sexist or homophobic tropes and making discussions of authority and gender roles a central part of the curricula. These pedagogical practices should not be seen as simply academic, but rather as preparing students for the realities of professional production and helping them to consider audiences’ reception.
Moving from film production classes to film analysis classes and the teaching of feminist film theory, Colman & Stapleton (2017) posit a critical politics of responsibility as the central feature to address feminist, diversity and equity issues. Curriculum design must ensure an inclusivity of materials and a responsible ethical content, balancing the inclusion of diversity with the teaching of cinematic canon, while critically exploring the problematic patriarchal, political, ethnic and social racism, as well as misogyny issues, potentially inherent in works often considered canonical. Following the core tenets of critical and feminist pedagogies, students take an active role in knowledge production, while teachers must adopt a mediating role, ensuring that the classroom can be a safe space for all, avoiding dominant voices to overpower the classroom and ensuring that students are comfortable to engage with stimulating and provocative materials, by providing warnings and discussions whenever potentially ‘triggering’ content is addressed. Colman & Stapleton propose engaging with film content and its technological modality by taking an empathetic, ethical and critical approach that starts from the personal and situated experiences of students, to then introduce feminist concepts, allowing for a political grammar of gendered differences to begin to emerge in classroom discussions. The authors, however, emphasise that it is important that the responsibility and labour to create a pedagogical feminist and politically conscious classroom should not be gendered and should not fall exclusively on female educators (or educators from minoritized groups), as it so often does. Hence, the importance of creating tools to help adopt diverse curricula in wider film education.
Cooper’s 2019 article “A New Feminist Critique of Film Canon: Moving Beyond the Diversity/Inclusion Paradigm in the Digital Era,” focuses particularly on the issue of film canon, central within film schools when it comes to selecting the films to include in their courses and curricula. Drawing on the critiques of key figures in feminist film theory, including Laura Mulvey, Annette Kuhn and E. Ann Kaplan, Cooper critiques the idea of a universal canon, calling into question its creation mostly by male critics, its misogynist characteristics, and its neglecting of the positioning of feminine spectators. Canon-creation, she highlights, has material effects that reiterate gendered inequalities within the film industry, as it relates to the accessibility to films, capitalist chains of distribution and marketing, and archiveability. However, disrupting universal canons cannot be achieved with superficial efforts to add some ‘diversity’ into the same, otherwise male-dominated lists that already exist. This superficial strategy of inclusion does not call into question the underlying sexist structures that lead to the canon, nor does it question the assumption that the basis is, by default, white and masculine. Rather, more structural changes are necessary. With regard to gender diversity, Cooper suggests the exploration of films by women, films about women, films for women – both in terms of authorship, topic, main actor, or genre. Further, one must be able to consider film education beyond canons, emphasising the interconnectedness of film culture and fostering an appreciation for the broad range of film history rather than ranking.
There are a few interesting examples of film education projects which tried to operationalise these explorations of critical and feminist pedagogy, such as the practical example provided by Deirdre O'Neill, in her 2017 book Film as a Radical Pedagogic Tool. Her project, Inside Film, offered filmmaking courses to working-class serving and ex-prisoners, giving her participants the practical ability and skills to make films that engage with the experiences of the working class and to use film as a political tool of self-expression. Following the tenets of critical pedagogy, her workshops deliberately lacked pre-planned and structured content, allowing for the development of organic relationships between participants, and to centre the workshops around their own interests and desires. As such, instead of staring with a canonical approach to film history that might be unfamiliar to many, the film curricula were co-constructed around the participants interests in film (mostly Hollywood and mainstream film culture), trying to raise awareness of the hegemonic conventions embedded in them and, later, introducing further examples of oppositional cinema.
Other projects – such as the BFI Screening Literacy project and the Framework for Film Education project and its accompanying MOOC, the Danish Film Institute Film Education: From Framework to Impact, BFI’s Film: A Language Without Borders, or VisionKino’s Film Education After the Pandemic: Issues and Challenges – tried to offer broad pedagogical recommendations to develop film education in Europe, albeit from a perspective mostly centred on issues of media and film literacy that are aimed not at higher education or professional film schools, but rather at general audiences and young students in basic or secondary education. These projects aim to increase general film culture, seeking to integrate film education in broader education curricula, and often only briefly addressing the issue of diversity in film production or education.
Film education is thus a growing field, prompting the creation of specialised academic journals. A key example is the Film Education Journal, established by Jamie Chambers of Edinburgh College of Art in 2018, which emphasises that film, as a distinct medium with a distinct history, requires an equally distinct pedagogical approach that is interdisciplinary by nature and allows for diverse intersectional perspectives. Similarly, the journal Films for the Feminist Classroom, published since 2009 and currently hosted by the Department of Multicultural Women's and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University, provides film reviews and essays on the value of films as pedagogical tools in the feminist classroom. Further, the 2020 Film Corner Conference, has held a panel dedicated to “Film Education: A European Perspective.”
Citron, M. & Seiter, E. (1981). “The woman with the movie camera.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 26, 61–62.
Colman, F. & Stapleton, E. K. (2017). “Screening feminisms: Approaches for teaching sex and gender in film.” In: B. Revelles-Benavente & A. M. González Ramos (Eds.) Teaching Gender: Feminist Pedagogy and Responsibility in Times of Political Crisis (pp. 99–116). Routledge.
Cooper, A. (2019). “A New Feminist Critique of Film Canon: Moving Beyond the Diversity/Inclusion Paradigm in the Digital Era.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 36 (5), 392–413.
Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.
O'Neill, D. (2017). Film as a Radical Pedagogic Tool. Routledge.
Proctor, J., Branch, R. E., & Kristjansson-Nelson, K. (2011). “Woman with the movie camera redux: Revisiting the position of women in the production classroom.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 53, 1–5.
Revelles-Benavente, B. & González Ramos, A. M. (Eds.) (2017). Teaching Gender: Feminist Pedagogy and Responsibility in Times of Political Crisis. Routledge.
Webb, L. M., Allen, M. W. & Walker, K. L. (2002). “Feminist pedagogy: Identifying basic principles.” Academic Exchange Quarterly, 6, 67–72.
BFI Framework for Film Education. https://www2.bfi.org.uk/sites/bfi.org.uk/files/downloads/%20bfi-a-framework-for-film-education-brochure-2015-06-12.pdf
Film Education: A User's Guide [MOOC]. https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/film-education-a-user-s-guide
FilmEU Pedagogical Handbook. https://www.filmeu.eu/images/files/D-2.2-Handbook-Pedagogical-Strategies-and-Guidelines.pdf
Film Education Journal. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/pages/film-education-journal
Films for the Feminist Classroom. http://ffc.twu.edu/
Sofia P. Caldeira is an PhD Auxiliar Researcher at CICANT. She holds a Communication Sciences PhD from Ghent University, Belgium (2020), funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). Her research focuses primarily on social media, self-representation practices, politics of gender representation, everyday aesthetics, and feminist media studies. Sofia's research has been published in journals such as Social Media + Society, Feminist Media Studies, and Information Communication & Society. She currently serves as the Young Scholar Representative of ECREA's Digital Culture and Communication section.