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The Power of Film

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and  that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks…The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture…”

                                                                 —Thomas Edison, 1922

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if those were moving pictures, accompanied by dialogue and set to music? What would they be worth then? To me, the right film is priceless.

I have always had a love for the television and film, but due to logistical restrictions–before there was iMovie and YouTube– I sought solace in writing fiction, ever since I was teenager. It was and continues to be a great form of self-expression and entertainment–not to mention practical for my work.

I have also gained an appreciation for film as a source of education as well. As a self-proclaimed documentary buff, I find myself gravitating towards them on Netflix and try to attend screenings whenever possible. I like to consider documentaries high brow reality television, and became enticed after Michael Moore gained mainstream fame. One particular documentary that left a profoundly lasting impression on me  Oscar® winning director Alex Gibney’s Park Avenue (2012), which itself won a Peabody Award.  Park Avenue explores the juxtaposition of the iconic New York street, which few know actually runs the length of most of the City. In fact, far from the glitz and affluence of millionaires in penthouses on the Upper East Side are those awaiting public assistance from a food pantry in South Bronx across the Harlem River. The film is readily available on Netflix and WGBH PBS.  The entire documentary also available on YouTube. Next up for Mr. Gibney is a controversial documentary involving  The Church of Scientology.

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On a lighter note, a couple of other great non-education offerings on Netflix, though much can be learned from them,  are Bill Cunningham New York (2010), which follows the life of the famed New York Times fashion photographer as he makes his way about the Big Apple on his bicycle, snapping ordinary folk who have a unique flare for fashion, and The September Issue, which chronicles the laborious process of publishing Vogue‘s nearly 5-lb. September issue, considered by many to be fashion’s Bible. If you are a fan (or not) of maven and front-row regular, Anna Wintour (hello…The Devil Wears Prada meme), this might intrigue you. If anything, it’s merits exceed farther than just fashion.

Two education-related documentaries of interest are also A Tale of Two Schools (2003)  and Davis Guggenheim’s TEACH, which was released a decade later. I highly recommend both. If you have further interests in education with a twist, Maestra (2012), a film about women who risked it all to bring literacy to their fellow citizens in Cuba, might be worth a look as well as American Teacher (2011), which was produced by Harvard Graduate School of Education alum Ninive Calegari and narrated by actor and Cambridge native, Matt Damon.

Recently at HGSE, three new documentaries were on the docket:  Makerwhich explores learning beyond the classroom through design spaces and the “maker” movement; The Last Mountaina moving environmental conservation film sponsored by the Harvard Green Team; and The Ivory Tower, which explore the issue of education value and student debt. If you  interested in MOOCs, Ivory Tower is definitely worth a viewing. It was a great privilege to discuss the film afterwards at a local restaurant with one of the film’s producers, Eric Grunebaum, and HGSE faculty, Tina Groetzer. Mr. Grunebaum worked with attorney and advocate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who made regular appearances in the film, and is himself is President of a water conservation non-profit called The Waterkeeper Alliance.

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Still on my Netflix wishlist to (finish) is Side by Side (2012), a documentary which contemplates the evolution of film-making from the use of photochemical film to digital media. A jaw-dropping ensemble cast of directors, including James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, and George Lucas, is interviewed on the trade-offs and complexities of decisions directors face as the film making process is being revolutionized in the 21 century.

I aspire to expand the borders of the classroom to encompass the realities of our world, helping students make connections from their coursework to their daily lives by appreciating the links between science and current events, public policy, and even economics. I hope to give them the autonomy to be free thinkers and make better sense of the world around them, and in turn, become better contributors to their communities and fields of practice. I feel that story telling through the medium of film possesses a great power to persuade and inspire a call to action. While films discussed in this post vary in context, most share a constructive viewpoint about evoking change in the world or at least being open to its possibilities. 

I have been particularly moved by this genre of film, and the motion picture, itself. One day I hope to produce my own documentary. Hopefully someone will see it, and it will be as meaningful an experience as these films were to me.

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