Civic lessons from cinema

Sayali Tamane

At first glance, cinema and civic education seem to be a strange combination to be mentioned in a single breath, but cinema can indeed be a powerful tool towards imparting effective civic education. In its broadest definition, “civic education” means all the processes that affect people’s beliefs, commitments, capabilities, and actions as members or prospective members of communities, and cinema holds the power to affect all the four. It can shake up people’s beliefs, build their capabilities, inspire them to commit to a cause and finally also support civic action. In the broadest terms, cinema can be thought of as a “motion picture”. Thus cinema, in this sense, includes not just the motion pictures we commonly refer to as “films” but also documentaries and television series to homemade audio-visuals. Cinema has the power to be not only a means to civic education, but also an end in itself – a civic intervention. Cinema can be both consumed and created for civic education. Let us take a look at both.

Consuming cinema
While cinema cannot be compartmentalized into watertight compartments depending on what it achieves, cinema can be used as a means to –

1. Sensitize: One can hardly deny the experience of being moved to tears or feeling a sense of unrest after watching powerful movies. A movie like Fandry, documentary like India Untouched unsettles you in more ways than one, leading one to question the fulfillment of the promise of equality of opportunity irrespective of one’s caste/religion as mentioned in the Constitution. It makes one realize that merely the assurance of such promise isn’t enough until people are willing to work on their beliefs and attitudes to uphold it. Similarly, a film like Aligarh can be a powerful insight into the emotional landscape of a gay person fighting to live with dignity. It provides the much needed humane touch to the debate over article 377. It can be a great starting point to discuss the rights of the entire LGBTQ community with the students. A film like Offside which talks of gender inequality in Iran makes the students appreciate the freedom and rights as secured by the Constitution.

2. Inform: A film like Ek Cup Chya based on the use of the Right to Information Act sheds light on how the Act can be used as a tool by the common man to fight the injustice meted out to him by the rampant corruption in the state machinery. Short films are especially a powerful medium to spread information about the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The short films made under the Kallola initiative of UNICEF are a case in point. Just about two minutes long, they can be a good starting point for discussions regarding child rights. The famous Samvidhan series, Bharat ek Khoj (also available on YouTube now) is a rich resource for understanding the process of making the Constitution and exposes the students to the questions, discussions, dilemmas and debates that took place in the process of making the Constitution. This also reassures the students of the intention and rigour of the thought put into the Constitution. Similarly, films like Invictus, Twelve years a slave, Gandhi, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, The Bloody Line, etc., provide a historical context to the incidents that shaped our current socio-political landscape. They help the students understand the current socio-political positions of various stakeholders through the lens of historical events.

3. Question: While we place immense faith in the Constitution, it is the interpretation of the articles, the terms and the words used to articulate them where the devil lies. It is these grey waters which are most difficult to navigate as a citizen. For, e.g., What qualifies under “National Interest”? What are the rights of a terrorist/spy? What is the need and significance of the “due process”? And lastly, the one that is increasingly misused in today’s times – Who is an anti-national? What is nationalism? Films like Court, Shahid, Bridges of spies, A few good men, The insider, Haider, and documentaries like Citizen four (a real life account of Edward Snowden leak of CIA spying), Jay Bhim Comrade, Ram ke Naam, War and Peace, etc., raise these uncomfortable questions. It is only when the students are exposed to such dissonance that they begin rigorously to examine their beliefs and ideas about nationalism. Lady of the Loktak is another compelling documentary that brings forth the pressure that the residents of the floating settlement on the Loktak lake face from the authorities to clear the lake of human settlements. It is a typical struggle of “national interest” vs “Right to Life” of these people.

4. Motivate: Real life documentaries of people’s struggle to secure their rights could be great in motivating students and reassuring their faith in the possibility of change. Documentaries on Mendha Lekha (a village that secured forest rights through people’s movement), The Insignificant Man (an account of how the Aam Aadmi Party came to power without the help of money or muscle), Uprising (detailing the story of the Egyptian revolution) are just some examples.

Facilitating the consumption of cinema
While there are plenty of films, documentaries and videos available freely for screening, the entire soul of the exercise lies in facilitating it correctly. There could be a couple of ways of conducting this exercise. For films that are basic in the ideas they convey, a film club could be arranged, where each student presents his views on a film that she has seen can be made. For more complex and advanced topics, however, a common screening could be arranged. A lesson plan for the same should be prepared in advance by the facilitator. The facilitator should clearly mention the rationale for choosing the film and the points that she intends to bring out. It can also be beneficial – though not essential – if these points can be connected to their syllabus. However, that is optional. It also helps to set a context to the film and clarify the vocabulary in case of issues alien to the students. For e.g., defining who a whistleblower is and how extradition works before showing the documentary on Edward Snowden is extremely helpful. Raising relevant questions about the film after the screening which connects to the content of the film and the constitutional rights and duties is extremely important. What was the problem? Was there a problem? What rights were violated? Do you think the characters were justified in doing what they did? Could you do something differently? How can we connect or contribute to this issue? Why does a character behave in a certain way? Are there invisible factors in the creation of this problem? etc. Remember that it is not important that the students take up a side right away or form conclusions or come up with solutions.

It is important that they fully grasp the complexity of the issue at hand and begin thinking about it.

Producing cinema
With handheld and mobile cameras becoming ubiquitous, use of the audio-visual medium has become a powerful tool for both expression and intervention. Its effectiveness comes from the fact that students are actively engaged in creating it and therefore also derive the satisfaction from this creative process apart from working towards social change. It finds its roots in the constructionist pedagogy* where creating a meaningful artefact is the way to learn about everything that is involved in its creation. Additionally, such activities instill a confidence to approach complete strangers and communicate meaningfully. Thus, cinema can be produced for –

Documentation: Documentation of the civil society movements, individuals involved in social problem solving helps the students see first hand and understand the issue at hand in depth. This sort of documentation can also be used to spread awareness about the topic in their community. Also students can make short films about their own attempts at change making (civic action projects). The “Yes I am the change” competition** encourages such filmmakers and supports them in their endeavour.

Understanding: It can also be a great way of understanding people’s perceptions regarding an issue. For e.g., students can take up a project of documenting people’s perception about the work done in a certain ward or their issues about the same. They can also interview the local corporator involved and ask for his opinions. Editing the captured footage, placing the content in a logical order to bring out an insightful film itself is a very educative experience which makes the students reflect deeply.

Expression: Creating fictional stories of change or protest or an imagined problem which may occur in the future gets the students into the habit of creative imagination and extrapolating the consequences of the current socio-political-scenarios. Additionally, students can also express their own opinions through the medium of their films.

Intervention: A film that brings out the voices of the marginalized or hitherto unnoticed issues is an intervention in itself as it leads to a possibility of change. The process of making the films also serves to sensitize the students.

Evaluation: These films can also be used by the teachers to judge students’ understanding, initiative, teamwork, etc.

While the advantages of using cinema for civic education seem plentiful, educators must also be warned about students believing or creating doctored footage. Hence, while placing this medium in their hands they should also be informed about bias and empowered to differentiate the authentic from the inauthentic.

Finally one might say that the consumption or production of cinema can be a powerful way of exposing the students to civic issues and actions. However, in the absence of strong intent and planning on the part of the facilitator, it might be reduced to another fancy activity with nominal impact on either the students or the community.

The author, after completing her Bachelors in Engineering, entered the developmental sector and has been teaching in Bharat Vidyalay, Wai – an experimental school meant solely for the underprivileged children for the last eight years. She has also completed her Masters in Educational Technology from the University of British Columbia and has been a member of the Board of Studies for creating textbooks for ‘Self Development and Art Appreciation’ for classes 9 and 10 for the Maharashtra State Board. She can be reached at

*Constructionism is a constructivist learning theory and theory of instruction. It states that building knowledge occurs best through building things that are tangible and sharable (Ackerman et al., 2009: 56).

**The YES FOUNDATION provides Youth and NGOs with a platform to use films as a storytelling medium to drive social impact. Towards this, they invite Youth, Filmmakers, NGOs and Social Enterprises to participate in the Yes I Am the Change Social Filmmaking Challenge to depict stories of change of NGOs, social enterprises and everyday heroes. Winning film entries are awarded cash prizes. Also, NGOs and Social Enterprises with sustainable and scalable social projects shortlisted from the film entries become eligible to win grants along with capacity building and mentoring support for 3 years.

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