I wrote an article in POV Number13, March 2002, about my experience of selecting students for a documentary course. I called it "Confessions of a Teacher". The present article continues in the same mode, an attempt to share some of my experiences as a film teacher with the reader..
The present article is the result of a conversation between Richard Raskin and myself during the Nordic Panorama festival in September last year in Oulu, Finland. We were talking about a short film he had recently seen and I was saying how I had been using the film for many years in my teaching. He asked me write some of these experiences as an article for POV
This black-and-white film, only six minutes long, was made by students at the Polish film school in Lodz in 1985.
The film uses an iconic photograph from the Second World War, a little boy in a big cap, standing with his hands up in front of a group of people and two soldiers in German army uniform, steel helmets and with submachine guns. Some of the men in the group have hats and side curls suggesting that they are Jews. In the film the little boy manages to escape from this situation. His cap blows off in the wind. He goes after his cap and gets away.
The photograph was taken in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. It is one of the famous images from the war. I recognised it at once the first time I saw the film. I'm sure in Poland it has even more iconic power, at least for people my age and older. Many of the students I deal with do not recognise the photograph at all. When I realised this for the first time, I was disappointed and I remember being terribly tempted to give the film a prologue in which I told the audience about this photograph before showing the film. But I don't do that - I think the film must be allowed meet its new generations of audience and their associative world and their memories on its own merits. There seems to be a text on the end credits - in Polish of course - which seems to tell something about the photograph. This text is not translated in the VHS version of the film that I have.
In general I find short films very useful for teaching. The students can more easily grasp the whole film at a single viewing and it is possible to discuss it with them in some detail a short time after they have seen it. I find myself using documentary, animation, fiction and experimental shorts in this way. Over the years I have built up a library of shorts on VHS which I use in teaching sessions in all kinds students in all kinds of ways
I work free lance mostly with professionals in the film and television industries. But I do teach, mostly as a guest teacher doing lectures and workshops at a wide variety of institutions. The students I deal with have very different kinds of backgrounds, strengths and motives. So I am obliged to teach quite flexibly.
The Polish film With Raised Hands has been in my VHS tape library for at least 10 years and I use the film in different ways.
I sometimes show "With Hands Up" together with other short film-school films. As an introduction to such a session, I can suggest that there are different approaches when choosing what film make as a student, what level of difficulty and risk to choose.
One extreme choice is to knowingly try to make a film that is well beyond the students' present skills and maturity. The resultant film may well be very rough and parts of may not work at all. Indeed the whole film may fail, and be un-distributable. The students will then not be able to use the film as a whole in their work portfolio, as only parts of it perhaps may viewable. But by choosing such a bold experiment with high risk of failure, the students may learn a huge amount and make considerable progress. This would be a choice of looking at the film as a chance to experiment and to learn as much as possible, rather than a chance to make a good film, one which makes it round the festivals, gets sold to TV and so on.
A second extreme choice is to make a film that is knowingly well within the students skills and maturity - playing safe as it were. The resultant film can be expected to be well polished, be elegantly made, but perhaps not particularly bold or original. It may get them work after school, but may not impress people in the industry particularly.
My suggestion is that students should be encouraged to choose films the lie between these two extremes - particularly when making their final- or diploma films. For intermediate films, it may be good for them to take greater risks and try to go well beyond what they can manage. For the students important films - the big films each year and in particular their final, diploma film, all the films they want to have in their work portfolios when leaving the school - they should be a little less bold, take a bit less risk. With the help of their tutors they can choose to be near or just beyond the edge of what they can. The resultant film will be a bit rough, but show the students promise and potential.
I feel that good student films in general can well be a bit rough, made by people who have not yet mastered their skills, but are who are being bold and original. The polish comes, as it were, on it own so long as the student goes on working in his or her profession after school.
With Raised Handsis a good example of such a film. It is not entirely polished in its execution, but it is bold and original in its conception and it is made with great conviction. It really is an extraordinary example of what can be done with small resources.
Showing other student films which "play safe" alongside this Polish film allows the students to get this point.
I have a US art college short film called Extended Play which works quite well as a contrast to With Raised Hands in this respect. "Extended Play" seems to me to be a more consciously trendy and polished film than this Polish short, but the students find it almost boring by comparison, especially if I show With Raised Hands first.
Another way of using With Raised Hands in teaching sessions is simply as an example of east European film. Many of the students I deal with have not seen many, or even any, east European films. Watching With Raised Hands some of these students remark that the Polish film is using moving pictures in other ways than they are used to. For some of them this is a revelation. This saddens me a little, of course - their film experience has been so dominated by films from the USA that they are unaware of films from the other 9 tenths of the world! But that is the way it is.
If enough of the student group are interested in this sense of difference in the use of moving pictures, then we explore it. If not, then I simply make the point that film in Eastern Europe developed differently because the Wall protected their film industry from being as overwhelmed by foreign imports as the west European cinema has been. I ask them to imagine that they had grown up in another world where 90% of their cinema diet was dominated by foreign film, say Chinese film. Would they not think that was a bit weird? Given another historical development, it might been so, that the Chinese film industry dominated the world market as the US one has done for 50 years. Indeed, perhaps the Chinese will dominate one day. Who knows.
If the students do want to explore this sense of difference, then one easy point to make is how the gaze of the camera shifts into and out of the so-called "subjective" within the same shot, while the US films tend to insist that you should cut. I give them the question "who sees?" as something to ask of any shot in a film. I suggest one can think there 3 three general answers to this "who sees?" question.
In most shots the audience is more or less being invited to observe what is happening - a sort of "we the audience see."
In other shots the audience is being invited to see what one of the people in the scene is seeing. So "we see what he or she sees" becomes the answer to the "who sees?" question. This is the so-called "character point of view (pov)" shot or "subjective camera" shot.
Lastly there are some shots that are so unexpected, or so obviously commentaries, or obviously stylised that they make you feel the presence of the film-makers. Film theory people say you are aware of the presence of the films "narrator", the "author", the "director". The rather more primitive "Who sees?" question can be answered by a kind of "we see what the film-makers see".
Talking about these three alternative answers to the "who sees?" question, I do not present them as separate categories. I rather sketch them as mutually independent areas of answer within the field exposed by the "who sees?" question.
Typical in US films - and US film history - the pov shot is established as the second of a trinity of three shots. The first is a "she/he looks" close-up of the person obviously looking at something off screen. The film typically holds this shot a moment longer than expected, making us a little curious about what the person is looking at. The second is the "pov shot," the camera being roughly where the persons head is, looking at what they have been looking at. And the third is the "he/she stops looking" close-up, often he continuation of the first shot of the trinity.
Note that in this way of doing it, there is a cut from the one who is looking to the pov shot - what they are looking at. And a cut away from the subjective pov shot back to the person again.
Early films using this kind of pov shot typically had all three of the shots in the trinity. Later films use only two of the three - he/she looks, we see what they see and then we cut to something else. We see something in a subjective way and then cut to the person who has been looking etc.
I have some film excerpts that I show to illustrate this.
In With Raised Hands there are two classic cuts from a close-up of the boy looking to a shot of what he seems to be looking at. But in one of them the apparent pov shot continues as a pan and later in the pan the camera picks up the boy himself. So he appears in his own point of view shot. The shot is unusual in that we only see the boy's hands at first at the bottom of the frame and we hear only his feet moving against the pavement as he turns - a very "subjective" sort of sound.
Some of the students experience this moment when the boy seems to appear in what he himself is looking at, as a moment when the film-makers become present, as I wrote above. I assume this is because they find it unusual and unexpected and therefore feel the presence of the "narrator".
This not cutting to and from the pov shot is regarded as a "sin" in some US film making dogmas. In my experience it is quite common in East European films - they seem to do it naturally. And if you watch East European films a bit, then you don't find it unusual.
I have some film excerpts I show to illustrate this.
Perhaps one might speculate why the Americans feel we should cut and the east Europeans feel it is OK to slide. What might this tell us about the cultural and historical differences between USA attitudes to and beliefs about the subjective and the central European ones. I don't know.
In With Raised Hands there is a cameraman in the film, also filming what is going on. Some of the shots in the film are seen through this camera. So this gives a special answer to the question "who sees?" In these shots we see what this cameraman sees through his camera.
Sometimes students who feel they have experienced something new and different about moving pictures in With Raised Hands want to explore this further. I am always pleased when this happens. There are various ways to help them.
Sometimes the students will spontaneously start talking about the "symbolic" significance or use of the pictures. I don't find ideas about filmic symbols or metaphors particularly useful in teaching people who want to make films, rather than people who want to analyse films.
One way of exploring these things and yet avoid symbols and metaphors is to talk about pictures which "illustrate" the events shown in the film - "illustrate" perhaps the "story" in the film - as opposed to moving pictures which are the "gestalt" of the films events. I use the word "illustrative" here in the same sense as illustrations in a book, pictures which support the printed word. So I am suggesting that some films show an "illustrative" use of moving pictures, using the pictures to support the meaning of the film.
I am using the word "gestalt" here in the sense of the moving pictures in and of themselves, expressing and giving dramatic embodiment to the meaning of the film. The moving pictures themselves ARE the film.
I have some film excerpts that I use for this "illustrative" contra "gestalt" discussion. Some of the shots in With Raised Hands can then be including in this.
A number of times I have had students who say that certain shots in the film "stand for" things rather than "showing" things. That seems to me a fruitful distinction, worth exploring.
They usually talk about the second to last shot in With Raised Hands. Here the boy goes away from us and is hidden by a bit of fence and then his cap goes flying up in the air, once and twice and then the shot is frozen with the cap hanging high above the street. This shot, the students say, "stands for" his happiness, the celebration of his escape. They say the film doesn't "show" us his being happy or celebrating - we don't actually see him being happy, but we know it just the same.
And again, they talk about the final shot of the film - railway carriages rushing by us. This "stands", these students say, for the fate of all other people in the group who, unlike the boy did not escape, but were sent by train to the camps. Again, the students claim, we are not shown them being taken to the camps, but we get it all the same.
Sometimes students are impressed by the economy of such shots, not only that they are cheap to make, but that they say such a lot in a filmic way although they are really quite simple.
I find all this is very gratifying, because these students are, I feel, experiencing something of those other traditions of film making - those of the empires to the east rather than the empire to the west - of which they have had so little experience, for historic reasons. For some of them it is the beginning of long personal journeys of exploration into other ways of using film.
A third point I as a teacher sometimes make about this Polish short film is that the film-makers have chosen to quote an existing picture in their film. As an analogy I suggest the students try to imagine that they were going to write a song (or a poem) and had decided to quote a line from another song in their new song. Where they choose to place the quote in their work is a vital creative decision. Do they start with it the quote? Do they end with the quote? Is the quote somewhere in the body of their song?
In With Raised Hands the quote - the Warsaw ghetto photograph - is in the middle of the film (and it occurs again in the end credits). So the film has to build towards the quote, pass through it and build on from the quote.
The quote becomes like a gateway in the middle of the film through which the film must pass. Placing it here determines the structure of the film and in particular the structure leading up to and immediately after the quote.
I then try to generalise this point saying that if you too early in developing a film decide upon a first shot, or a last shot or a transition some where in the film you have fallen for, then you determine large areas of the film around these shots. I say that a group of people trying to develop a film are in great need of something concrete to hang on to and feel secure about. They are like people exploring an unknown country together without much a map. Often they will agree that they have a great opening shot, or perhaps a wonderful final shot and feel safe that they at least are sure of that. Or perhaps they have some transition which they know must be used somewhere in the film. And they will build quite a bit of security in the unknown landscape by agreeing about this transition.
But this locking down of parts of the film before one is clearer about the rest of the film, is usually unwise. And this is because the thing you lock down early become just like a quote - like the stills photograph quote in With Raised Hands. They determine and distort large areas of the films structure on either side themselves. Having locked these things down, you begin to reject other good ideas and inventions because they do not "fit" with respect to the locked down parts. So the locked down parts start restricting your creativity.
The thing to do is to say that these early inventions are valuable but try to put them aside as possible solutions, rather than deciding it once they have to be used. And then look at them again when the rest of the film, in particular the areas before and after the moment you had thought to lock down, have begun to clarify.
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