Category: Film education

Film Education Pioneer Jim Cook (1942-2019)

Jim Cook in the late 1980s, reading as usual, on a Barcelona balcony

Many film studies students and even their lecturers today will probably not know the name Jim Cook. I’m proud and privileged to say that he was my colleague and my friend for almost 45 years and I know just how important his contribution to film education has been. Jim was born into a working class family in Warrington and remained a proper ‘Lancashire lad’ throughout his life. After a degree at Birmingham University in the early 1960s Jim spent some time in France and then returned to take up teaching English in London at Stationers’ Company School in Hornsey and the Jewish Free School. Throughout his time as a student, Jim had enjoyed his pursuit of two favourite forms, jazz and blues music – preferably live in pubs and clubs – and film, both Hollywood and European art cinema.

In the late 1960s Jim joined the Society for Education in Film and Television (SEFT) which from 1970 published the journal Screen and the separate Screen Education Notes. Jim quickly found himself on the SEFT Committee for 1968/9 and on the Editorial Board of Screen by the start of 1970. In those early days, SEFT publications were often concerned with readings of specific films that might be useful in classrooms and profiles of important directors (at a time when forms of auteurism were very strong in nascent film education provision). They were not yet concerned as much with pedagogy or with the politics of educational access and the culture of the classroom. It is significant then that Jim Cook was one of the SEFT members who contributed to a discussion about classroom film teaching that took place at the annual SEFT Summer School in 1969. The discussion was transcribed and appears in the January/February 1970 Screen. It was Jim who challenged the orthodoxy of the time (thematic approaches) and asked the difficult questions: “Where do we go from here?” It was also Jim who encouraged SEFT to continue to develop teachers’ groups outside London and to encourage those teachers to organise themselves rather than rely on the SEFT office all the time.

At this time major changes were taking place at SEFT and within the British Film Institute’s Education Department. Partly this was a result of major changes in personnel in both organisations and, with those changes, new ideas about the relationship between a publicly-funded body and a membership organisation which received support from that public funder. In the midst of this Jim Cook found himself Chair of SEFT from 1971-2 and responsible for a series of difficult negotiations. At the end of this process SEFT had become a different kind of beast with a clear sense of exploring new theoretical work in film and the BFI’s re-named Educational Advisory Service (EAS) was more clearly aligned to supporting teachers in the field. SEFT was also better resourced and in a stronger financial position.

Jim was appointed to a position in the Education Advisory Service of the BFI in 1973 with responsibility for developing film (and eventually ‘media’) education work with adult students. This covered at least three distinct but related activities. The BFI was partnered at this time with the Extra-Mural Department of London University and a four year programme of evening classes had been developed which enabled students to undertake assessed work and to sit an exam each year in pursuit of a qualification in Film Studies. Each 2 hour class ran for 24 weeks and included screenings and seminars. Classes were held on BFI premises in Dean Street, in Soho preview cinemas and at a number of other locations in London. The tutors comprised BFI staff and others chosen from the small group of film academics then teaching in a limited number of education institutions. In most cases staff worked in pairs and developed ideas about team teaching. This in turn led to discussion of pedagogy during meetings of all the tutors and introduced students to the idea that ‘authority’ figures don’t have all the answers – since the tutors sometimes themselves thought differently about approaches to film study and how to read the films.

As the Extra-Mural provision developed it was claimed that this programme of classes constituted one of the largest film education programmes in Europe. Jim Cook had a leading role in developing the programme as he also had in helping to set up one-off events such as Weekend Schools and crucially, the development of the annual BFI Summer Schools which became of great importance in the 1970s and ’80s. The BFI had run summer schools for several years but in the early 1970s they became more concerned with introducing new theoretical work in film. Organising the schools became a major focus for the EAS from 1972 and for several years they were held over two weeks at the University of Stirling with its wonderful Macroberts Centre Cinema and with support from the Scottish Film Council. They attracted international delegates and pushed forward theoretical ideas for anglophone film studies. The BFI took over the Summer School’s education role from SEFT and SEFT then began Easter Schools specifically for teachers in schools and colleges. Jim’s other main BFI role was to seek to develop adult film education in the regions and the nations of the UK supporting and stimulating local initiatives. In all these activities, Jim will be remembered for his enthusiasm, his wide knowledge of film and his ability to build networks – as well as his prowess in ‘free dancing’ and general carousing during late night relaxation at the disco.

In the early 1970s, with film and media studies still barely established in any sector of UK education, there were not many ‘academic’ books about film and certainly few which attempted to develop film teaching or to suggest new forms of classroom/lecture theatre work. Members of SEFT and the BFI’s Education Advisory service did not face the imperative to publish research findings as part of their employment contract as lecturers. But they did have a responsibility to publish guides and discussion papers to support the film education ‘project’. Jim took his work seriously and he contributed papers for day schools, seminars, summer schools, teaching packs, guidance notes and articles for journals distributed by SEFT and BFI Education.

In 1979 Jim co-edited a BFI pamphlet with Mike Lewington on Images of Alcoholism, drawing on an event at the National Film Theatre and in 1981 he edited, with Alan Lovell, one of the ‘BFI Dossier’ Series, No. 11 Coming to Terms with Hollywood dealing with US politics in the 1930s and the later period of HUAC, McCarthy and blacklisting in the 1940s and 50s. Again this was linked to an NFT season of films. Jim edited a second ‘Dossier’ in 1982, No. 17 Television Sitcom. In 1994, a year after he left the BFI, Jim edited another collection for BFI publishing, alongside Jacky Bratton and Christine Gledhill, on Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen, again based on an international conference in London in 1992 on which the editors were members of the Organising Committee.

Jim Cook left the BFI in 1993 after 20 years in post. The BFI was changing, partly because of the changing funding context. Education too was changing. Film and media courses had been widely established in formal education, but the wider aim of media education for all was still some way off and the future for adult education and informal learning opportunities was beginning to look much more difficult. For the next few years Jim performed various roles including supervising dissertations at the Institute of Education in London, acting as an External Examiner at what is now London Metropolitan University and teaching film at the University of Warwick, which required onerous commuting. In the midst of all of this he also tried to write the novels he’d pondered over for several years. Sadly these attempts didn’t reach publication.

Jim gradually moved out of formal contact with the BFI and eventually out of London to join his partner Ulrike Sieglohr in Stoke-on-Trent, developing his friendships with her colleagues at Staffordshire University. He retired from teaching in 2002 but still enjoyed his cinema visits and the chance to discuss the films he saw. I learned a great deal from Jim. I had enjoyed teaching with him on the Extra-Mural courses and later I loved discussing the movies we’d just seen, at Cornerhouse and then HOME, in the fabulous traditional pubs he seemed to have found for our trips to Manchester. Adios compañero!

Screen Education – from film appreciation to media studies by Terry Bolas (Intellect 2009) was an invaluable resource for the early history of Jim Cook’s role in film education. I am also very grateful for help from Christine Geraghty and Ulrike Sieglohr in providing both information and guidance in compiling this tribute to Jim’s work in film education. 

Utopia in Bordeaux

When I venture out of the beleaguered land of Brexit I always look on the Europa Cinemas website to check out the most interesting cinemas in the cities I hope to visit. On a recent trip to Bordeaux I discovered the aptly named ‘Utopia’. The Utopia is situated in Bordeaux’s UNESCO World Heritage district – the entire early 18th century city centre with more listed buildings than any other French city outside Paris. ‘Utopia St. Simeon’ is housed in a former church and offers 5 salles distributed around the building. There are 555 seats distributed across the 5 screens. The cinema opened in 1999. There is also a large and friendly bar-restaurant and tables outside in the square. It’s a great place to visit and just enjoy the atmosphere but it’s the programme which provides the real joy.

The entrance to the Utopia in place Camille Jullian

Scanning through the programme for September 2018 is a real eye-opener for a UK cinephile. There are films that have been big prizewinners but are yet to open in the UK such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey 2018) and new films from France and Germany that I doubt will appear in the UK. There are documentaries and programmes of short films and animations and there are re-releases. In France re-releases seem to get much better distribution than in the UK and the programmes seem to be more ambitious. Utopia showed Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan 1991) in the uncut 236 minute version, Joseph von Sternberg’s Japanese film Anatahan (1953), Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (US 1950) and a day of polars with three Jean-Pierre Melville films and a Tikano Takeshi. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and other independent American releases are joined by new films from Kurosawa Kiyoshi and one of several events remembering May 1968. I was most surprised to see details of a 2012 Belgian documentary about the great Lancashire classical singer Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) with a Q&A with the film’s producer.

The foyer

Thinking about it carefully, the programme is not that dissimilar to HOME in Manchester, a much bigger enterprise with the same 5 screens (but also theatre spaces and galleries). But I would argue that there are more foreign language films and a greater diversity of films in general. The one difference is that in the UK, without as much funding support, independent cinemas are forced to show the more commercial US and British pictures, the so-called ‘Hollywood art’ or ‘awards films’ to cross-subsidise foreign language films. In France it would seem that ‘cultural cinema’ still survives and the commercial releases are in the multiplexes, three of which are relatively close to Utopia in the centre of Bordeaux with around 38 screens between them. There is a second Europa Network Cinema, Cinéma Jean Eustache in Pessac outside Central Bordeaux. This also has five screens.

The ceiling above the ‘box office’

At the time of our visit, I decided to see Leave No Trace for the second time (my partner was seeing it for the first time). The film was in its opening week at the Utopia, one of the few films on the programme that got a UK release before France. The film shows up very well on a second viewing and confirms its position as one of my films of the year. The screening followed the French pattern – a single trailer for a new French film starring Romain Duris (Nos batailles, France 2018, which looked interesting) and then straight into the feature with no ads or exhortations to join a membership scheme. The standard ticket price is €7 and the morning matinée is just €4.

The screen in Salle 2

If you visit Bordeaux, do look up the Utopia, it’s only a 100 metres from the main shopping street. If there isn’t a film you want to see it’s still worth soaking up the atmosphere and having a beer or a coffee. If you are travelling to Europe, the Europa Cinemas Network is a great resource, listing 1121 cinema in 677 cities in 44 countries. As the number of countries suggests, the network extends beyond Europe into Asia and there are three Europa cinemas in Quebec. The aim of the network is to promote the exhibition of European films and to encourage understanding by audiences, especially younger audiences. The network model offers member cinemas support and funding via the Creative/MEDIA and Eurimages programmes in exchange for programming with a significant amount of European film screenings.

2015 in the cinema

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Girlhood (France 2014)

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)

Phoenix (Germany 2014)

Piku (India, Hindi 2015)

Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)

Theeb (Jordan 2015)

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.

Half of the ten films above are  films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.

I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.

Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.

I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?

I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.

2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.

Free Download: Teachers’ Notes on Senna (UK 2010) and Documentary Practice

smallphoto-Senna-2010-19

These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.

The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.

The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.

Download:

Senna: Teacher Notes

Our first million

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Some time today this blog site will pass 1 million page views. It’s not that many considering that we’ve been online since 2008, but it’s still a sign that people are interested in a wide range of films. Perhaps more significantly we know that we’ve been visited from over 200 countries – more than the number of members of the UN – so our reach is genuinely ‘global’ (see the little ‘Visitor Flags’ indicator) in the sidebar. We hope at least some of those page visits have helped to entertain and inform.

Celebrating Female Pioneers of Animation

Give us a smile

Give us a smile

This was a sort of trailer for the Bradford Animation Festival which commenced on November 17th. Organised by Jen Skinner as part of ‘Film Extra’ at the National Media Museum, this was educational afternoon that included both short films and talks and discussion on a somewhat neglected area. But as both speakers pointed out, the animation sector is rather like the commercial film industry generally – women, like an iceberg, mainly hidden beneath the surface except when they are objects of audience gaze.

In the first session Terry Wragg talked about the work of Leeds Animation Workshop – a Feminist independent autonomous collective. Based in a Harehills Terrace house the Workshop has turned out about forty films since it opened in the 1970s. It started out around the issue of ‘free 24 hour child care’. The collective were involved with and committed to the radical agenda of the feminist moment at this time.

The Workshop was properly constituted in 1978. Their first animated film was Pretend You’re Survive’, a campaigning film about the Nuclear Threat. The film combined careful research with an ironic stance but also moments with ominous portents. The film was screened at the London Film Festival in 1981. Terry remembered that they were the only women directors in a slate of animated films from all round the world.

They were then able to obtain some funding from the British Film Institute, though only after Verity Lambert put in a word to the funding section. This produced Give Us a Smile! (1983, 13 minutes), an agit-prop film combating violence against women. The first part of the film satirised the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence by the police and legal establishment. The quotations were all carefully researched. It was quite a task to remember just how reactionary were the views in circulation at this time. The second part of the film was dedicated to ‘Fight Back’. This had some very effective inversions of the stereotypes seen earlier in the film.

Terry recalled that the film was made at the time that the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorising the area. Women had to suffer not just that threat, but misguided attempts at ‘protection’, like ‘women only curfews’.

Terry also recalled that over the decade following the setting up of the collective the general culture and discourse changed, including legislation like the Sex Discrimination Act. They produced further films but failed to get fresh BFI funding for projects. However, they did get BBC Continuing Education funding for a film on equal opportunities. The BBC involvement led to focus on the ‘glass ceiling’, the idea that there is a point in any hierarchy above which women rarely rise.

Because then film was aimed at employers, still predominately male, the film had a male voice over. It also used the plots of fairy tales to produce a narrative exemplifying the discrimination and ways to break it. I found this the least radical of the three films we watched. The fairy take formula seemed rather tame compared with the more confrontational style of the other two films. However, I think it also stems from the subject. Terry suggested that the ‘ceiling’ affects all women, even those at the bottom. This is only marginally true, if at all. Significantly there seemed to be only one working class woman in the film, whilst the ‘heroine’ was a princess.

It was rewarding session. Terry has a very accessible style and the films do stand up and out. It struck me that the Workshop has a lower profile these days than in earlier years. I can remember screenings at the Leeds International Film Festival, but I think all of them were some while ago.

The second session had Nicola Dobson from Glasgow talking about the women collaborators of the famous animator, Norman McLaren. [It is his centenary this year]. Nicola has been researching the correspondence of McLaren at Stirling University and has also looked at material on the three women. The first was Helen Biggar, who was a student at the Glasgow Art School at the same time as McLaren. Both were involved in radical politics and close to the Communist Part of Great Britain. They collaborated on a short, black and white anti-war animation – Hell Unltd (1936). Helen showed us copies of their letters, which included diagrams for the film.

After Glasgow McLaren worked for the GPO Film Unit and filmed in Spain during the Republican Defence against Spanish fascism. This was an experience that led to him moving to New York Here he worked on a commission for Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer in US animation. This resulted in a seven minute animated and abstract film, Spook Sport. McLaren was not completely happy with the final result but it was an important stage in his development.

In 1942 McLaren joined the National Film Board of Canada. Here he worked with Evelyn Lambert, first his assistant and then his co-director. Over 20 years they worked on a variety of animated films and created important development in animation techniques and form. They won a number of awards including one at the Hollywood Academy.

Helen titled her presentation with the words ‘Behind every great man …’, and behind the title displayed a photograph of Evelyn standing behind Norman at an Award Ceremony – I think the Oscars. She argued convincingly, especially from the correspondence with all three women, that they acted mentors to McLaren. McLaren was gay and I was struck when Helen also told us that he wrote home to his mother from Canada every week. Though the important aspect is the quality and influence of his work with these collaborators. The talk was fairly compressed, covering the three women animators in one session. And unfortunately some of the material was displayed in 16: 9 rather than 1.37: – I think that was because they were screening from a laptop.

Hell Unlimited

Hell Unlimited

To cap the session we had a screening of Hell Unltd on a 16mm print from the bfi, [it looked like the same print that the Museum screened over ten years ago]. It was in pretty good shape, in black and white, at 1.33:1 and silent. It runs at 18 fps and the borrowed machine had a break-down shortly into the film, which fortunately was quickly fixed.

The film starts with illustrated statistics about the state and the armament industry: there are graphic illustrations of warfare: and the film ends with a challenge the audience to action. The film is clearly influence by the Communist Party line of the 1930s, [much superior to later versions]. It also shows the influence of the anti-war discourse including the Peace Pledge campaign. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to see in its original format.

I missed the following displays in the Museum Insight collection and final discussion: [back to LIFF in Leeds]. But I found it a really interesting and stimulating afternoon. The audience was a little sparse for such an opportunity. Partly I think because the details were quite hard to find on the Museum WebPages – not a new problem at this institution. This is rather sad as the Museum appears to be closing down Film Extra and most of the Film Department. This follows the ‘outsourcing’ of the cinemas to the Picturehouse chain. How much that will change the film programming remains to be seen. But the film festivals and the Film Education work seemed to have passed on. I think the whole exercise is misguided. As a long-time user of the Museum’s film provision I don’t think the problems were down to the Film Department. I think they are much more to do with management and how the other part of the Museum related to film. The National Science Museum, who are overall in charge, do not display a great commitment to cinema and they don’t appear to integrate their different Museums very effectively. Whilst some people talk about the ‘death of cinema’, such obituaries remain somewhat premature. And film remains the most potent expression of popular culture from the 20th century.

I hope the redundant Museum staff get the same opportunity as the now departed programme manager Tom Vincent: he has moved to Australia to the Perth Film Festival. When I met his future professional colleagues at festivals I was always impressed with them.