Monday, 16 December 2013

Get the Picture! A Community-Based Film Study Programme Using THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY

Interview with filmmaker and educator Mark Cousins about his film series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which forms the basis of the Get the Picture community film study project described below

Quite often Film Studies For Free gets asked about free film study. Not so surprising, you might think, given the name on its own tin. But what people are often asking about is free "real world", or offline, film study - and sadly not too much of that comes for free these days.

So imagine how delighted FSFF was when it was contacted by a group of generous and talented individuals who have formed an educational partnership called Get the Picture 'that aims to provide free support materials and a framework to help people to come together in their local community, to form study groups and learn about film'.

FSFF is, therefore, delighted to create a space, in today's entry, for a concise and enticing introduction to the work of this partnership, in the hope that some of its readers will go on to take up the specific invitation set out here, and that yet others will go on to concoct their own community film study projects inspired by this one. If the latter happens, do please let FSFF know.

In the meantime, thank you so much to Get the PictureYou can follow the project on Twitter --  @GtPfilm -- and, of course, at its website.

Get the Picture: Film study groups in the community

There's a certain added frisson of pleasure in writing this post, because of its context: what I'm about to describe is a programme of informal adult film study that is free to users. The only necessary additional costs involved are the purchase of the DVD box set of Mark Cousins's The Story of Film, an Odyssey.

'Us' refers to Get the Picture, which is the collective name for three activists in the community cinema movement, John Salisbury, Julia Vickers and Jim Barratt. The programme of study we've developed and made available is a response to the rapid attrition of informal film study in the 2000s, in the UK, at least, resulting from the decision of the last government to withdraw from supporting lifelong learning. After the impact of that withdrawal of funding became evident, we set about looking for an approach to filling the gap which would, like community cinemas themselves, work in local communities everywhere in the UK. We saw the possibilities opened up by the release of The Story of Film, and our programme is the result. Incidentally, we ran the idea past Mark Cousins early on: he liked it then, and has strongly and warmly endorsed the result.

What was needed?

As we saw it, the requirement was for a programme which was
  • free to participants
  • self-organised and self-paced
  • informal, not assessed
  • of benefit whatever the starting point of the participant.
We saw there was a need for someone (a group member) to manage the group experience and chair discussions (a role we termed 'enabler'), but that shouldering this responsibility would require additional support from us. We decided to base the whole programme on advice notes (e.g. Programme Guide, How to be a Participant) and study notes (each relating to a specific study/discussion session based on an individual episode of The Story of Film). We decided that since the only distribution system for study materials which would work universally was sending pdf documents over the internet, we would embrace the internet, giving strong guidance on its use as a resource for individual study. Finally, we decided that basing a programme on all 15 chapters of The Story of Film might well seem a dauntingly large commitment for a study group, so we offered the programme in three segments of five chapters/study sessions each.

What's in the programme?

For each segment, a participant receives a document set which contains common advice notes and the study notes relevant to the sessions in that segment. The advice notes consist of the Programme Guide, How to be a Participant, How to be an Enabler, and the Key Films list. You can find more detail on this (and examples) on the Get the Picture website at There is also an advice note on Enhancements and Digressions, because we recognise that some groups may wish to add to the programme we've laid out, or digress from it: nothing is set in stone.

The normal experience for a participant in each segment is that after an introductory organizing session convened by the enabler, they attend five discussion sessions in which they discuss prepared questions chosen from those found in each set of Study Notes. In between discussion sessions, participants are asked to do four things: they watch the relevant chapter of The Story of Film, they prepare for the planned discussion questions, they undertake individual study based on suggested internet resources (from Wikipedia, YouTube and specified websites), and they watch the specified key films. This means that scheduling the discussions must leave time for these individual activities, and enablers receive suitable guidance about this. To give a more comprehensive flavour, embedded below is the Programme Guide pdf document which all participants receive. If you want to view it more comfortably, or offline, you can download it from this website:

The Key Films list is significant: for each session, we select two of the films Mark Cousins cites as notable within the episode of The Story of Film, and suggest all group members watch these films as part of their preparation, to provide a common basis for discussion. From quite early on, some of the discussion questions focus on individual key films.

Trialling the programme

We have been fortunate in that groups from a small number of film societies agreed to trial the materials for Segment One. The result has been very positive and a clear endorsement of the basic approach. We have streamlined the study materials as a result of trials feedback, and worked hard to clarify the discussion questions. As we expected, specific problems arose around the role of the enabler, especially when inexperienced enablers had to deal with obstinate group members, but these problems were by no means dealbreakers. We encountered unexpected problems (for example, the disruptive potential of refreshments) and have had to mention these in the advice notes. But in general, the trials indicated to us that it was well worth continuing with the programme and making it generally available.

Who will benefit?

The short answer is anyone, anywhere. We have set the entry threshold low by shaping each set of discussion questions so that they are readily approachable, but permit quite deep insights. We have largely refrained from the theoretical but touched on it where appropriate, and we have taken the intellectual frame as that bounded by Mark Cousins's treatment, which relates filmmaking technique to viewing experience in some complex and interesting ways.  We have shaped the individual study possibilities by introducing a wide range of resources, simply as a way of illustrating what is possible, and we have used guided Wikipedia and YouTube research as the spine for individual inquiry.  This approach offers anyone who wants to go further all that the internet allows, but gives a solid and satisfactory experience to the novice.

What we want from you.

Do you know anyone who might like to know about the Get the Picture programme? They might be in a film society, or involved in a community cinema, or they might just be into film. The benefits of making what is normally solitary - watching film, reading and thinking about it - communal and social are hard to quantify, but they do include a clear development in the individual's ability to talk and think about film. We find that, for the many generations of Britons who have received no education in film at school or since, this development is immensely liberating, so we have no hesitation in asking you to spread the word. Send them a link to this post. Get the Picture is open for (free) business.
[The above text is by John Salisbury of Get the Picture]

Note about location: The materials were trialled with groups in the UK, but there is no reason why groups from anywhere in the English-speaking world should not take advantage of them. You only need to be sure you can access The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Study groups from anywhere in the world are welcome and invited to register with Get the Picture.


Michael said...

This is fantastic - I am going to set up a group in my community (Lexington, KY). Thanks

Catherine Grant said...

That's excellent news. Thanks Michael and good luck with it.