The art of cinema is the art of telling stories. For thousands of years we have used the persuasive power of stories to build cultures, imbed morals and to understand what it is to be human. From Jesus’ parables to Grimm’s fairy tales, stories resonate with us on a far deeper level than rhetoric.

Today, stories have become a central part of character education and there is a long-standing tradition of regarding literature as conducive to the teaching of character. Research by the Jubilee Centre in our Knightly Virtues project has already demonstrated the positive effects on virtue literacy that adapted stories from classical literature can have, in terms of helping educate Key Stage 2 pupils about the qualities of virtuous character. The Centre is also investigating how poetry can also be used in similar ways with Key Stage 3 pupils and an affiliated PhD student is beginning to look at the character-cultivating properties of painting and sculpture.

As a self-confessed cinephile, I would argue that cinema, and in particular popular Hollywood cinema, also deserves further consideration as a conduit for teaching character. Cinema is now our primary medium for storytelling and in our digital age our access to films has never been greater.  Using film as an aid for teaching character is not a new idea and resources are available, however, more light could be shone on this, particularly into the effectiveness of using film for improving virtue literacy. Whilst there is no denying that Hollywood film is produced primarily for the purpose of mass entertainment, I would assert that  a close reading of many popular films, particularly when done so through a character education lens, can show that cinema has a greater capacity for moral self-reflection and critique than one might imagine. If students are taught the methods in which to critically evaluate and reflect on the nature of virtuous character, then popular cinema can be edifying as well as entertaining.

As the dominant visual culture, cinema is incredibly persuasive. Film theorists have long understood films to be socially constructed, ideologically driven, coded texts. Over the course of the last hundred years cinema has helped reinforce prevailing cultural norms and legitimised dominant institutions and social values such as patriarchy, capitalism and class. Equally of course, cinema has also been used to critique those existing structures.

Whilst mainstream cinema is ideological and therefore unavoidably political, research has shown that like other narrative forms it is also psychologically transportive. By this I mean the process through which the reader (or spectator in this case) is emotionally immersed into the world of the narrative to such an extent that their beliefs and attitudes are changed. An engrossing story has the potential to temporarily remove us from the reality of the physical world and takes us into the fictional world of the story. A consequence of this, according to research, means that narrative transportation is likely to create strong feelings towards story characters; the experience or beliefs of those characters may then have an enhanced influence on the reader’s beliefs.

Processing films this way means that the stories we watch in the cinema have the power to connect with us and possibly change our beliefs in a far greater way than any other narrative form. This may be because cinema is a great communicator, it is fast, effortless and absorbing in a way that the written word just can’t be or indeed need be. Cinema has the capability to mirror the forms of people’s lives, or at least the form needed for us to find those lives meaningful in a context that is familiar and that we understand. Even the struggles and dilemmas of anthropomorphised creatures in animated films become identifiable with our own experiences, even when they don’t necessarily match our everyday existence.

Like the great authors, the skillful filmmaker has the power to create the kind of quality stories and compelling and believable characters that can move us, shape our perceptions and make us think differently about the world.

This emotional investment has great implications for character education. It is important that we continue to explore new methods in which to help young people develop moral values and a sense of civic responsibility, and cinema offers a wonderful opportunity to observe and discuss moral dilemmas in interesting and engaging ways that are easily relatable.

There is no shortage of appropriate films for a younger audience that embody and reinforce virtuous themes such as courage, honesty and temperance through characterisation and plot. In the Disney film Frozen, for example, the actions of the central character Elsa, and her decision to ostracise herself from the community so that she is free to wield her powers, has severe implications for the people of her kingdom. It is not until she learns self-control over her powers that she finds happiness and the world is put right again. In the forthcoming second part of this blog I would like to provide further specific examples of how such character virtues are transposed in popular films.

By using films to encourage discussion around moral dilemmas, we can provide young people with unique and exciting opportunities for intellectual and moral growth. Cinema provides us with an invaluable opportunity to see the world differently through the eyes of the film protagonist. The kind of problems or difficult situations they face, the values they demonstrate, and the actions they take show us how human character reveals itself in recognisable contexts, which in turn invites us to ask questions about what sort of person we ourselves might aspire to be …even if the protagonist we identify with is a talking toy or a princess with magical powers.

Mathew Butcher, Communications and Web Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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