Given that teaching Religious Studies can be a tough gig at the best of times, I found that one of the better ways to engage children meaningfully and get past the obvious reluctance on the part of many of them, was via the medium of film.
When I say ‘obvious reluctance’, I should point out at this stage, that my own approach to teaching the subject was that of a Humanities teacher, striving to shed light on the socio-cultural aspects of religion; as well as questions relating to life and meaning, more generally. I wasn’t on any mission to make a convert of anybody.
I’ve got absolutely no religious axe-to-grind whatsoever, and tend towards the view that it’s the Religious Studies teacher’s duty to enhance the children’s outlook on the world around them, thus increasing their awareness and understanding: teach the children ‘how to think’ not ‘what to think’ in a nutshell.
At the very least, it also gives the individual a means and the knowledge to formulate their argument, should they wish to agree or disagree with the religious perspective, further down the line.
Nonetheless, the subject carries a certain amount of baggage in its wake, and preconceptions as to what a child might anticipate in relation to Religious Studies persist on both the part of the children, as well as their parents: in most cases, they go hand-in-hand.
A Religious Studies teacher often has to go that extra yard when it comes to creating inspiring lessons, and as such, films are a great way to illustrate a religious story or shed further light on an ethical discussion.
Here then, are a few of the films (by no means all) that I found useful in the course of my own teaching.
East is East (1999, Dir. Damien O’Donnell)
I’ve watched this film more times than any other. It fell nicely into a GCSE module on ‘Religion and the Media’ and in the course of my four years as a Head of Religious Studies, I saw no reason to change it. The fact I was teaching in a part of the country that had a high percentage of Muslim families (as well as Hindu) meant that it made good sense.
It makes even more sense when one takes into account that the main thrust of the film revolves around the children of mixed parentage – she’s White, Irish Catholic; he’s Asian, Pakistani Muslim – adapting to the business of growing up in the UK whilst paying suitable deference to their father’s religious demands.
Okay, it’s possible to suggest that the characters of the siblings are painted largely in broad strokes: there’s a gay one, a straight-laced one, a rebellious one, a devout one, an artistic one, a tomboy (i.e. a solitary female) as well as – by way of comic relief – a younger child whose role centres almost entirely upon the idea that he’s been overlooked in relation to the business of circumcision.
Having said that, there’s a lovely pace to the proceedings overall, laughs-a-plenty, and a few poignant moments in there as well: just to remind everyone that there are serious issues underpinning the whole thing.
In some ways, ‘East is East’ takes on a further level of poignancy when one considers that it first arrived in 1999 i.e. before things really got divisive, and it’s this innocence that really cuts through, and reminds us that there was a time when such matters were taken significantly less seriously.
It also did a grand job of us introducing us to a bunch of actors who have subsequently gone on to become regular features within a variety of UK film and TV outlets, including the guy who plays Dev on Coronation Street. ‘East is East’: so much to be thankful for…
The Prince of Egypt (1998, Dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells)
This was a very useful film when it came to the no-small-task of introducing an incoming Year 7 to the subject of Religious Studies. Having, in some instances, only previously engaged in an occasional primary school RS lesson – often created by individuals with less subject knowledge, combined with genuine concerns about upsetting people – what better way than to begin with a spectacular animated version of the story of Exodus, courtesy of DreamWorks?
Sure, there are plenty of liberties taken with the storyline, in the interests of dramatic tension – assuming we take the original story in the Book of Exodus as a basis for authenticity – but it’s a sure-fire attention-grabber: what with the excellent graphics, all-star cast, and hugely memorable musical score.
A great means then, of providing a foundation for the study of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, in particular – and all of it shown piecemeal, so as to keep the focus from one lesson to the next.
And just in case anyone of a more sceptical orientation would wish to chuck in a barbed comment or two, not only did I take the opportunity to flag up the inconsistencies between text and screen, I also had a documentary on hand that suggested the biblical plagues were caused by series of naturally occurring events, focussed primarily on the presence of an excess of red algae in the River Nile (Rivers of Blood?); a theory which is also worth a ‘google’ of anyone’s time.
It might say Religious Studies on the tin, but that’s not to say there isn’t a little room for Scientific Theory and Rational Argument in there as well.
Jesus of Nazareth (1977, Dir Franco Zeffirelli)
A classic case of something working well once, and repeating the trick, I took pretty much the same approach with the Easter story as I did with that of the Exodus: break it down into episodes, and show an appropriate film piecemeal, to back up the ongoing teaching process.
I use the term ‘appropriate’ because there is a good range of cinematic material available when it comes to the subject of the Messiah, and while some are undoubtedly better than others, it’s pretty much a rule of thumb that you’re going to want to avoid the likes of ‘The Passion of The Christ’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’.
I went with the televisual epic ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, not least of which because it sticks fairly religiously (ahem) to the source material, and presents a family-friendly accessible Jesus, that reflects – in a relatively straightforward manner – the stories presented in the Gospels, back at the audience.
That’s what comes down to basically: we’ve all got an idea of the narrative, so how is the director going to play with the symbolism and the meaning? Another reason for not going down the Mel Gibson or Martin Scorsese route – apart from the certification, obviously – is the reliance on a need for a deeper understanding of the story, before tackling their respective interpretations.
Be aware however, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is one heck of a ‘luvvie fest’ with pretty much everybody who was anybody at the time, taking on a role; a veritable galaxy of talent, coming together at a time when the notion of a ‘Hollywood star’ still carried massive weight, and the objects of our adulation still appeared as untouchable otherworldly beings set before us… aptly enough.
One can only ponder the sheer volume of anecdotal material the endeavour must have generated, as those gathered, attempt to outperform their equally lustrous contemporaries. Special mention must go to Rod Steiger who brings no small amount of method to the role of Pontius Pilate and in so doing is unwittingly hilarious.
And of course, we ought not to fail to namecheck the star himself, Robert Powell who would never again radiate such beauty, not even playing a hapless Brummie detective alongside Jasper Carrot. Although, he did marry Babs Lord, the focal point in a line-up of Pan’s People that wasn’t exactly struggling for focal points, so he can probably afford to be philosophical.
Did I mention that we all had an idea of the story? One assumes as much but an undoubted highlight for me came during the scenes when Pilate ordered his men to take Jesus outside and give him a sound thrashing. It was at this point that one of the students, without an ounce of guile, asked : ‘Sir, do they kill him?’
Just goes to show, one can’t take too much for granted, and how important the job of the teacher is when it comes to pointing out the significance of something as seemingly straightforward as the cross; as opposed to the whip, which – to my knowledge – plays little to no part in Christian symbolism. Unless, of course we refer back to those naughty old-fashioned clergyman who always seemed to be getting caught in some sort of compromised flagellation scenario – courtesy of the Sunday newspapers – and were a source of stereotypical amusement to all.
Dead Man Walking (1995, Dir Tim Robbins)
I can’t quite remember the context for using this particular film, but given that the GCSE Religious Studies syllabus I was teaching had a strong ethics-orientated basis and was very much structured along issues-focussed lines, it’s a safe bet that it would slot very neatly into a ‘Crime and Punishment’ module.
Based upon true life events, the story details the relationship between a Roman Catholic sister and a death row inmate, as she seeks to act as his spiritual advisor, in the period leading up to his execution.
And what an emotionally draining experience it all is? And I mean that in the most positive way possible. Utterly absorbing with all manner of themes thrown up, once one starts digging below the surface: Old Testament retribution versus New Testament forgiveness; the possibilities for both redemption and remorse; personal responsibility for one’s actions; and – not least of which – the moral ambiguities surrounding the idea of the Death Penalty as a means of societal justice.
In addition to which, you’ve got a whole bunch of side-orders going on, including: faith, and the need to question one’s own motives in relation to the attempts to save others; as well as the inherent unfairness ascribable to the American judicial system – insofar as the acquisition of a suitably affordable representative can result in the difference between a life or death sentence.
The ethical issues don’t just begin and end with the film either. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the relatives of the victims weren’t consulted when it came to the business of adapting their stories for both the film, and the book that preceded it. A question also arises as to what extent writers have an obligation towards the source material when it comes to creating – albeit well-intentioned – fiction for commercial consumption?
Worth bearing in mind, particularly when one considers that somebody saw fit to turn the whole thing into an opera as well. The mind boggles. From my perspective, I can only imagine something quite awful and not un-akin to that of the work found in ‘The Producers’ by Mel Brooks; although I’m always prepared to have that view corrected.
The Ones That Got Away…
To Sir with Love (1967, James Clavell)
Shown during a down-period – or two – to an extremely challenging group of Year 10 girls in my first year of teaching, who having subscribed to the subject on the basis that they would be taught by my predecessor (something of an older sister figure who had departed in a self-induced huff) were not in the least bit enamoured with my presence.
The moral would appear to be that just because one’s own personal history was enhanced by a particularly brilliant film, don’t narcissistically expect others to buy into the same experience. ‘How about we make one of you?’ was one such comment heard on the way out, ‘We could call it ‘To Sir with Hate’’.
It’s a great film nonetheless… and the theme tune is worth the admission price alone.
Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)
This pretty falls into a similar category as ‘To Sir with Love’: I was making the same assumption that because I thought something was brilliant, the kids would be inclined to do so, also.
I decided to show it in tandem with a module on Buddhism as co-writer director Harold Ramis (a practicing Buddhist at the time) was almost certainly inspired by the idea of reincarnation… or eternal recurrence if you’re a bit on the Nietzschean side? The idea being that you keep ‘coming back’ until you get it right… with a whole bunch of philosophical perspectives explored in the interim.
The class I showed it to couldn’t find their way past the exposition, without which – of course – the whole thing falls down. Oh well, there’s always another time.
Inherit the Wind (1960, Stanley Kramer)
A film about evolution, and whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, as exemplified by a true story of a teacher attempting to do precisely that in 1920s Tennessee.
There’s only one problem: it’s in black and white. And in no circumstances, were the children I was teaching prepared to watch something in black-and-white.
Ironic that the protests were far in excess of anything one might expect in relation to the subject matter contained therein. Doubly-ironic that the children I taught, have clearly evolved to the point that watching anything other than colour in relation to the moving picture, suggests a more primitive un-relatable state-of-being.
Had I investigated further, I would have become aware that there are a couple of colour remakes. This one’s the classic though.
Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
This is just wishful thinking really. I wouldn’t even attempt it. It’s a great favourite of mine, which is the first no-no. And also, it’s in black-and-white… so we’re already starting to go off the scale.
Still if you’re looking for a classic expressionist film wherein a psychotic preacher chases a couple of children around the countryside in pursuit of their father’s ill-gotten gains, having murdered their mother, this is your baby.
I’m sure there’s plenty more where this lot came from, so if you’ve got a further RE-related filmic suggestion, feel free to comment.