Good afternoon. I would like to thank the organizers for the invitation. I am the last one in the list and, thus, I will be the one to finish off conference proceedings. Hopefully, I won’t be finishing you off.
I would like to refer to something the previous speaker said, that, if you do not have a passion for cinema and the drive to let your children know about it, then nothing will happen. Colleagues, usually, come and ask me about things to do with cinema. If you do not feel love, adoration for cinema, or, if you haven’t fallen for its magic, how do you expect to deal with it?
I am really pleased to find myself among people from Hungary and Poland. I must confess that for many years now I am living my Bela Tarr period and, hence, I appreciate all the more the Hungarian presence here today. Poland, on the other hand, remains the last couple of years a field of study as I am teaching the Holocaust and Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak, a film that really overwhelmed me. Besides, I have been in Poland in 2013, in Lublin.
I will try not to be overtly theoretical as far as science fiction goes, which is my subject for today. I will begin by saying that human history is defined as a history of limitations and of references to the relationship with the other, which functions either as complimentary to the self, or, as a manifestation of personal identity. Therefore, otherness constitutes a basic element of any type of thinking, classification and representation of environment. This may be attributed to the fact, that notions of self and the other are essentially complimentary, the structural elements of personal identity.
This conclusion poses, in the center of discussion, the idea of communication as an all-inclusive reference to the entire scope of human activity. The counterbalance of self and the other constitutes a formative element of one’s notion of individual identity. Additionally, the way the other is perceived determines society’s communication structure, since identity is in the epicenter of dialectic (Konstantopoulou & oth., 2000).
I will recall Julia Kristeva who claims, that the other is born the instance the individual figures out his/hers otherness, and completes when the individual acknowledges otherness. She goes on the say that ‘this situation of oneself being different may be held accountable for human autonomy and, thus, it might be considered as one of the most fundamental elements characterizing a civilization”. Kristeva reminds, also, of Freud, who supported that “the only way not to pursue the other, is to discover it in ourselves.” (Kristeva, 1991). I feel that all those are tragically relevant to what is currently happening, especially in terms of science-fiction with which I have been initially involved as a spectator, without really understanding why.
The notion of otherness, as well as the breaking point between the other and the self, was always dealt by science-fiction in a manner so complete, no other literary, or, respectively, film genre managed. Possibly, science-fiction is the genre, the most representative, in making full use of great philosophical subjects and issues (Sanders, 2008). What is human existence? How does individual identity develop? What role do reason, desire and memory play in the establishment of the human being?
From time to time, those issues come up in science-fiction in a manner that is celebrative, or, un-negotiable, or, even insinuative, which, I, personally, find the most intriguing. Therefore, the notion of otherness, by which I am occupied, has essentially been the source of inspiration for any past or contemporary science-fiction narratives. From antiquity wherein there is Loukianos to remember, from the inhabitants of the distant future met in Time-machine and Wells’ aliens in The War of the Worlds, we come to understand that otherness and deviations from the norm have always been articulated by science fiction to the extent no other genre did. Let us not forget, science-fiction’s infatuation with the alien other, an important parameter in most of the genre’s films (Roberts, 2000).
I would like to stress, here, the following: this notion of otherness, met in science-fiction, has its own developmental stages. While in the past the other was, initially, made into something odd and disturbing, representing threat and the unfamiliar, in the process of time, it was shaped into being more accessible and empathetic like Spielberg’s E.T. Today, threat doesn’t come from the other, it comes from us.
Both in literature and science-fiction films, alien prospect becomes increasingly prevalent and generally accepted, or, is understood as different to us. However, and contrary to past beliefs, the other does not, anymore, represent a threat. What is common in, past and present, approaches and images is the definition of self through the other, which is hetero-referential. Unable to determine who we are, we may as well concentrate on who we are definitely not in order to grasp the essence of our own being.
Science-fiction, precisely because it relates to such an extent with the other, is capable of speaking about modernity’s ethics through metaphors of the future and the consequences of progress. As, characteristically, noted by Pinsky, science sees into future, whereas science-fiction narrates the future (Pinsky, 2003). And as far as science-fiction goes, future is determined by alien contact, technological miracles, fear and repulsion, aliens, the universe, as well as by internal struggle, the mysteries of human mind and body.
As, already, mentioned, we acknowledge ourselves as human beings and in the process of growing up we begin to differentiate between what is our self and what is not. Describing this which is not our self as Not-self, Pinsky, inevitably, outlines the differences between Other and Another (Pinsky, 2003). Other implies a complex system of devaluation and is based on a number of possibilities. While an Other is mere object, Another retains the status as a subject with its own integrity helping us interrelate.
This explains the utility of science-fiction as time span and cultural baggage, both constituting points of departure for actions that lead to the conclusion of others as being us since otherness is, in reality, an encounter with our Self. This is exactly the reason why the proposed teaching material, which will follow, is not about fiction having to do with the other as something outside of us, not human, like a cyborg, or, an alien. Instead, the proposed material focuses on circumstances in which the other, being one of us, is gradually transformed into something the rest are incapable of recognizing as human.
Childhood as a time period, cultural baggage, or, social construct, is characterized by its ability for creation and re-creation due to its affiliation with imagination and the imaginary. Out of childhood’s conduct with the poetics of otherness, which is essentially science-fiction, valuable information arise regarding the treatment of Other over time, while at the same time ideological and political priorities are unearthed. Those priorities may, under certain approaches, contribute significantly in the shaping of active and critical spectators, as well as of potential creators. Science-fiction influences positively the development of imagination and respectively the child’s critical ability since it improves that which is imagined. As Todorov states in his book, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, in 1973, imagination originates and achieves substance through the literature of the fantastic.
The world that unfolds before the eyes of the reader, or, in our case, the viewer, exists simply as setting. Inexistent in the past, this setting may transpire in future. In this world there is enough space for any type of imaginary actions. Science-fiction proves that the individual is one that imagines, envisions, and is encouraged to keep on living, to build a scientifically advanced world and, ultimately, break free from mundane reality. At last, and as it usually happens in sci-fi movies, science-fiction provides to the child the opportunity to identify with the hero (Nuba et al., 1999)..
For audiovisual literacy many were heard, today, I believe, and the attitude and approach towards it amounts to nothing more than that presented by Mr. Grosdos. In the 67th Primary School of Thessaloniki, from where I come from, a selection of science-fiction films is used as learning tool in the teaching practice. The selected films present the unfamiliar, the uncanny, the threat, as well as threat’s validity, and culminate in negotiating notions of the other and otherness, mostly in contemporary creations. The use of film as learning tool led us, also, in attempting to express creatively. I hope we will be able to watch end-product.
The first film we have worked with is the “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. Directed by Jack Arnold, this classic sci-fi film – I cannot call it a mere b-movie – tells the story of Scott Carey whose exposure to a cloud of radioactive spray has made him shrink to the point of becoming infinitesimal, invisible. Why is the film, still, popular? Because, it presents, in an imaginative manner, the dangers involved in the unreasonable use of nuclear energy and of any other scientific achievement which, respectively, may turn against humans. Most important, and this is the interesting and substantial part as far as the children are concerned, it opens up discussion about cinema being a trick, a magical act, an illusion of reality. Children become familiar with the image being the mediator of something constructed, and therefore unreal. Image lies, same way as language does. This provides us a great opportunity for developing children’s critical stance towards creative content. Science-fiction is ideal in communicating what is disguised as true and untrue in an entertaining and pleasant manner. Shall we watch the extract? (video-screening)
Topical issues of solitude and difference are, also, of interest here, since the other makes its appearance in the film not as the uncanny, the different and distant one, but, in the form of a human, just like us, who loses humanity through momentous shrieking. In fact, what we are witnessing is a case of de-humanization whereas one is just like us and suddenly turns into other.
How is teaching procedure designed? Naturally, we need to whet children’s appetite. We begin with activities that allow us to assess the film such as period games, introductions on genre, content analysis, discussions on issues under-question like nuclear energy and the atomic bomb. I would like to stress, here, the non-linear implementation of activities. The children I have made the film with are Fourth graders. You will watch the film in the end. Without wanting to sound overindulgent, I would like to say that children surprised me, giving more than I ever expected.
During the film’s screening session there is extensive discussion. Initially, I let children enjoy the film. I have seen colleagues interrupting the screening to make questions, “What did you see here?” Personally I find that this is unfair, unjust for any work of art. In a painting, you do not remove any of its formative elements, let’s say a mountain, and then utter, “What a wonderful mountain!”, omitting the rest of the synthesis. You should observe the entire painting. In a similar spirit, let’s leave children watch films uninterrupted, as they wish, and be emotionally responsive. Enable the viewer connect with the film. There is no need to always provide explanations
The discussion, ensuing the screening, is a model-practice implemented in all selected. First reactions are greatly valued as they are spontaneous. Narrative line is analyzed in very simple terms. In this particular film, and because Scott Carrey is the narrator, and, at the same time, the character who shrinks, discussion follows on the narrator’s role and on the history of cinematic tricks and special effects. There is, always, the aspect of music wherein from being viewers, we move into being critical viewers-readers, I am borrowing the term from literature, digging deeper in content.
Sound, as well as music, is decisive in film. Children know that, they have experienced it. They can tell that music changes when the scene climaxes and they can identify music compatible to content. However, and though they know those things through experience, it makes significant difference talking about them. Talking is followed by games. There is a game, found in a French-Canadian book containing instructions for all the editing-type games one may play, children adored. I cannot show it to you now. In brief, what we did, to show truth and lie, was to shoot a student reading a book in class. Through editing, we made the book disappear and the student to complain to the teacher, saying “My book has disappeared. Unfortunately, I cannot do the homework and, therefore, there is no need to test me.”
I would like to place emphasis on something I consider vital. Everything we attempt to do, we should somehow connect it to children and their experiences. This is extremely important for anything we do in school.
I would have showed you an extract from the film in which Scott meets a female-dwarf. However, it might take too long and I have to have time to show the kids’ film. The character that eventually shrinks, starts off as the traditional narrative’s successful hero only to turn miniscule. When he meets the female-dwarf, she tells him not to worry, that “The sky is as blue for people like you and me as it is for the
giants.” When she says to Scott, “I was born a midget. It’s the way I grew up. And now it’s happened to you and that is different.”, he bitterly responds, “Different? That’s another way of saying alone.” This dialogue is instrumental in opening discussion about everyday life and the solitude felt in difference. Many things have been said on this issue the last couple of years.
What is, also, of interest regarding the film is that in the end it reveals its true meaning. Whilst Scott disappears from the world of humans, he continues to feel that he is being at the centre of universe in countless sizes. His last line, “I meant something too. To God there is no zero. I still exist.”, opens up a vast array of topics of existential nature.
The second film, The Boy with Green Hair, used in class for exploring otherness, is a 1948 gentle parable concerning tolerance and understanding directed by Joseph Losey. The film’s polemics provide a hint of what was to come, Losey being victimized and sent into exile during the McCarthyite purges of Hollywood. Peter, a war orphan, wakes up one morning and realizes his hair have turned green. The character’s story, a parable on difference and a social comment on racism, can be, broadly, seen as an allegory of American prejudices, nevertheless, so extraordinary that it amazed the audiences of the time and became a source of inspiration for many filmmakers, such as David Lynch.
Off-course, you may by now wonder, how we managed to find the time and do all these. As a Head-master, I have this advantage I am not questioned by anyone about programming and teaching content. I do not have to report. This may, also, be considered a response to the discussion we have had here about curriculum and taught subjects etc. That is not to say there is no problem. There is, indeed, a problem. We are, still, focusing too much on course syllabus expectations and ignore the rest. This has to finish at some time. We are in 2016, we will see. Those fools, being passionate about education, may increase.
Pay attention to this scene, I am going to show you. It has made to me a great impression. Each time I show it to children, and especially to colleagues, I suggest that they concentrate on the attitude of the teacher and not the actual bullying taking place. This is something that happened back then and will carry on happening. It is the reaction of the teacher back in 1948 that interests me. Hold on to it and hold on to the pedagogical approach presented. (video screening)
The other two films we are working on are Wall-E and Time Machine. In the first film the one causing the problem is the de-humanized human and Wall-E, whom I personally consider as one of Pixar’s greatest animations, is the one expressing feeling, particularly in the sequence paying tribute to the Silent era of film. In 2011-2012, after having watched with 4th Graders, Time-Machine, The Boy with Green Hair, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, we decided on making a short film focusing in children’s life. It was about children playing and the inspiration behind the story was a discussion previously done with students regarding playing in school. Borrowing elements from science-fiction, the film initiated students in the genre and in the art of filmmaking.
The students, inspired by the above mentioned films and by others, such as The Circus and Modern Times, concentrated on narration, time, special effects, the real and the unreal, as well as school life in order to produce their own film.
I am afraid we won’t be able to watch the entire film, so I will resort to a short extract. Please excuse us for the image quality, but we filmed it with the school camera. It was the first stage in the filmmaking process, writing the script together with us, that the students enjoyed much. The story goes as follows: a student walks in the IT-Room – the story’s intense moral background has to do with the excessive use of media by children. The other students, stuck in-front of computer screens, will interrupt their computer games when a fellow student discover a door in the school’s basement that leads back in time. The door, like a time-machine, will let them be transported into the past, the 60s, and meet students of that time who teach them how to play tzami, an old traditional game. In the extract you are about to watch, there is a stairway leading to the basement. Thinking of the cinematic tricks we could apply to show our school as having more than one floors, Fotis, a participant, suggested that we film the descend to the basement many times. We were going down and down and down. It seemed that the stairway was endless. Let us watch it. You will, also, notice what we did in the end of the film to show differentiation in time. (video screening)
What we really appreciated through our filmmaking project is that whatever happens in school creates a tradition, either a positive or a negative one. This hands-on film activity, apart from its cognitive and emotional goals, created a tradition manifesting itself in the question “Won’t we make a film this year?”, asked by students, each year.
For the last two years we hadn’t had the opportunity to run a film project, as there are other things we get involved, too. We intent to get back to work this year and, hopefully, have creative outcome to show by next year. Thank you for your patience.
Κonstandopoulou, Chrysoula, Maratou-Aliprandi, Laura, Germanos, Dimitris, Ikonomou, Theodoros (2000). “Ourselves” & the “Others”: Reference on trends & symbols, Athens: Typothito – Giorgos Dardanos.
Kristeva, Julia (1991). Strangers to Ourselves. Translated by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.
Nuba, Hannah et al. (1999). Children’s Literature. Developing Good Readers. New York: Garland.
Pinsky, Michael (2003). Future Present: Ethics And/As Science Fiction. Madison NJ: Dickinson University Press, London: Associated University Presses.
Todorov, Tzvetan (1975). The Fantastic. A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated by Richard Howard. Cornell University Press.
Roberts, Adam. (2000). Science Fiction. New York: Routledge.
Sanders, Steven M. (2008). The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. Lexington KY: The University Press of Kentucky.