Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival expands school program

Randi Baird

For the past four years, The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF), based in Chilmark, has provided educational experiences for kids through its summer Cinema Circus series. Now, the 12-year-old organization is bringing film literacy and filmmaking classes to Island schools and the Oak Bluffs library as part of a goal to expand on its education mission.

Currently, the MVFF teaches filmmaking classes to students in the West Tisbury and Chilmark Schools. It also employs a Charter School student through a mentorship program.

On Friday, February 8, the Oak Bluffs Library hosted the first of three classes in film appreciation for pre-schoolers. The one-hour sessions, led by educator Lorna Ashe, feature short films and guided discussions. The classes are open to kids from three to six years old. Parents are welcome to attend.

The MVFF recruited Ms. Ashe, a former Montessori School teacher, to facilitate the library sessions. Ms. Ashe spent 12 years with the Vineyard Montessori, first as a teacher and then as the director. She believes that the Film Festival’s approach to education mirrors the Montessori “discovery” model of learning in which children are encouraged to use all of the senses to explore the world around them.

“Something we’re trying to focus on,” said Ms. Ashe, “is seeing, hearing, and feeling film rather than just watching in an impassive way.”

She said the focus is on questions such as, “What are the visual clues that films give us? What is a director trying to do with a shot? How does the music make you feel?”

Ms. Ashe said she will screen a different five- to seven-minute film each week, then lead a discussion focusing on certain elements of the viewing experience. “I’ll try to put out some ideas of what they can listen for or feel through the music or what clues they can see and then show the film again,” said Ms. Ashe. Screenings will be followed by an activity created around the theme of the lesson.

The films come from the collection of international children’s shorts that the MVFF has screened over the past four summers. Lindsey Scott, director of children’s programs, along with four other film festival staff members, selected a number of films and Ms. Ashe made the final choice of three films around which she could develop lessons.

Ms. Scott said, “Our idea was to try to create a course for kids and parents to really teach the practice of using a critical eye. Instead of having film watching be a passive experience, we want kids to be really engaged in it and bring the same curiosity and critical eye to watching films as they do in reading books.”

The preschool initiative was spawned by a request from a homeschooling mom for a film based program for her young son. “We really created this program for them,” said Ms. Scott, “As we were creating it we thought this was a great model and was something that we would love to do again.

“We decided to build a group discussion around each film. Kids get to practice listening to others and speaking aloud. We love the idea of partnering with the library. We see the library as the perfect place for our organization to do outreach where the kids and families are.”

Ms. Scott and Ms. Ashe have learned a lot on film literacy education from people at the Jacob Byrnes Film Center and Media Arts Lab in Westchester County New York. The two women made a trip to that facility last month. “We were able to soak up all of their education programming,” said Ms. Scott. “Being mentored by them is a really, really wonderful opportunity for us.”

Among other things Ms. Scott discovered on that trip was which technology would best aid in the MVFF’s educational initiatives. She said that the organization has just received a generous grant that will go towards establishing a portable filmmaking lab and she added that the organization is seeking further financial support for that project from the community.

“I think what we would like to do is really engage kids and their creativity and give them the tools to use film as a storytelling vehicle to share their own stories,” Ms. Scott said. “We’re eager to create opportunities to learn to be creative viewers, critical viewers, but also to create film.

“The technology being in everyone’s hands is a real motivating source. But I think that we need to be careful how we use technology with children. I don’t want it to dominate their lives. Teaching kids the tools to work with these technologies is a way of empowering them to be expressive. I want them to have something meaningful to do with it — developing skills to be creative.”

For now, the focus for the preschoolers is on teaching them to appreciate film and recognize some of the techniques used in filmmaking a little bit better. However, Ms. Ashe believes that is the first step towards the creative process. Of her trip to the Jacob Byrnes Center she said, “It really hit home that we don’t have to view film impassively. We can literally be part of it in making film.”

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