Mission Possible:Seeing through film in Pleasantville


Stephen Apkon calls the concept "one of the most pressing educational concerns facing us at the beginning of the 21st century” — that is, the need to better prepare our children to respond to our increasingly visual society with critical evaluation and appreciation.

This is already being addressed in school curricula in Canada and Europe, but efforts here have been spotty at best. At the Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC) in Pleasantville, an educational outreach program is already in place, however, and Apkon, executive director and founder is committed. He elaborates that the long-range goal of the film center's visual literacy program is to "inspire a lifelong appreciation of film and creative expression" among its students.

Starting young Opened in June 2001, the film center implemented the first component of its educational program this past school year. SeeHearFeel Film was developed for third graders by Ann Marie Santoro, alumna of “Sesame Street” and president of From the Heart Communications, in conjunction with the Burns Center staff and advisors. The goal was to move children beyond passive viewing into the realm of active participation with a series of short films from around the world. The program was conducted with six Westchester school districts and is being expanded this coming school year into six more districts with the addition of two workshops. A new fourth grade program is in the works under Santoro's guidance for next year as well; this will give kids the opportunity to create their own animated films. Mount Vernon's Columbus Elementary School, the pre-piloting site for these programs, has expressed interest.

Into middle school Working towards the long-term goal of reaching students of all ages through high school, the JBFC is launching its middle school program this fall. The program will be funded by a $25,000 grant from the Westchester Community Foundation, a private foundation affiliated with the New York Community Trust and comprised of charitable funds established by individual families and businesses. Middle school students (grades 6-8) will be offered afterschool enrichment this fall and summer workshops in 2003. Five middle schools have been identified for participation, based on their relationships with the film center and geography, with an eye towards those that might have more of a need for afterschool programming. They are: Briarcliff, Croton (Pierre van Cortlandt), Ossining (Anne M. Dorner), Pleasantville and Thornwood (Westlake).

The program planning has been in progress all summer, starting with focus groups to identify the interests of middle school students. These groups have been conducted among 6th-8th graders and parents separately, led by qualitative/quantitative researcher Mary Beth Keller. According to Emily Osborne, JBFC education administrator, the findings fall into two groups: those who want "film camp" (i.e., to learn to make films) and those who want to be critical viewers. The latter will set the direction for this fall, while the former will be addressed in the summer program with one- to two-week courses in filmmaking.


Consultant Samuel Franco has been hired to help design the curriculum, working with Emily Osborne and a student advisory committee comprised of 13 kids from the participating schools (two to three students per school). They have met three times this summer to explore programming, school outreach (like flyer design) and club name (“Movie Mania 101”). The program will focus on film genre, including action, horror, science fiction and romance, with classics offered in each category. While the specific films have not yet been finalized, they will not be the likes of Scream, assures Osborne, "but rather the original Frankenstein, Casablanca, Space Odyssey 2001."

The five schools will be broken into two groups, with 40 students per group, attending on a trimester basis with three 10-week sessions that will vary days each session to accommodate different sports schedules. A new film term will be covered each time, with discussion of the selected movie's background, and attention paid to editing, shot angles, story and character development. The idea is to not be too "school-like" though, says Osborne. "Kids want to have fun here, have a place to talk, meet kids from other schools... with no assessment, just required attendance and participation."

A facilitator will be hired for the afterschool film club, and college interns from Manhattanville and SUNY Purchase will also participate, versus the use of parent volunteers in the third grade SeeHearFeel program. Meetings are scheduled to begin in October, to allow time for outreach and enrollment during September. Since middle schoolers represent an "in-between age group in terms of the rating system," according to Osborne, she adds that all film selections will be approved by the JBFC advisory committee and shared with parents prior to showing.

While it would be unrealistic to expect middle schoolers to lose interest in blockbuster action/suspense films like Mission Impossible, it's entirely within reason to strive to enhance the way they view these movies. The Jacob Burns Film Center is at the helm of this mission in Westchester, with the goal of inspiring our children with a greater appreciation of film history and production.

Access www.burnsfilmcenter.org for further information.