Teaching Spanish Film in the era of Black Lives Matter

By BAS editor Helen Laurenson

Almost from the inception of film in the early 20th century, cinema in Spanish has been at the vanguard of exploring societies in conflict, developing a tradition of oppositional defiance and creativity which highlights questions of identity, gender, politics and marginality.

From Luis Buñuel’s revolutionary and caustic take on society in films such as Un chien andalou (1929), Los olvidados (1950) and Viridiana (1961), through Berlanga’s darkly comic critiques of Franco’s Spain, Bienvenida, Mister Marshall (1953) and El verdugo (1963), it becomes clear that successive generations of film-makers have mined the rich seam of Spanish society, both through a variety of genres and cinematographic techniques. 

Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)

The cultural and political similarities between Spain and Latin America have also engendered a complementary visual response to socio-historical events in that continent, with Bunuel’s Spanish-Mexican co-productions and more recently with collaborations between TVE, Almodóvar’s El Deseo production company, ICAA, Tornasol, Telecinco and the Ministerio de Cultura de España. These co-productions have garnered not just critical acclaim – El secreto de sus ojos (2009), Relatos salvajes (2014) – but also mainstream success. 

The study of cinema in British Hispanism has evolved considerably over the past thirty or so years, moving from a distinctly auteur-based approach to a more multimodal and theme-centred focus. These developments across the study of film in all languages at undergraduate level in British universities are, of course, important as regards the potential skill set of MFL graduates who choose teaching as a profession and who may be required to teach film at A level. 

Film studies, fuelled by academic research and disseminated through undergraduate modules, was initially informed by an erudite and quasi-literary approach to film as text, and focused on the oeuvre of individual directors (Buñuel, Pasolini, Truffaut, for example). Films and directors were selected for their culturally dignified art form (Peter Wagstaff, Italian Neorealist Cinema ), and belonged to the more art house tradition of cinema with a clear intellectual caché , as opposed to the more commercial Hollywood output during the same period. 

In Hispanism, this was reflected in the excellent studies of Buñuel, Víctor Erice and Carlos Saura by Peter Evans and Gwynne Edwards, and of Almodóvar by Paul Julian Smith. Multiple books and articles were to emerge, written by a generation of enthusiastic academics including Gwynne Edwards, Chris Perriam, Isabel Santaolalla and Rob Stone. 

However, it soon became clear that the study of film was as fluid and moveable as the genre itself. The pedagogy of film quickly lent itself to broader, more socio-cultural, historical and theoretical applications in both teaching and research. Indeed, from the mid-1990s it became evident that some of the most popular undergraduate courses in Modern Languages have been those focusing on visual production, in addition to more traditional textual study, such as ‘The Supernatural in Latin American Literature and Film’ at Manchester, or ‘Is Spain white? Nation, Immigration and Performance in Spain and Images of Women in Contemporary Spanish Cinema’ at Leeds. 

Academics soon realised that a sea-change had come about as regards not just the tastes of the undergraduates, but in their visual competences. It was, and continues to be, a small step to cineliteracy from students’ already well-developed general visual literacy and sophisticated response to the moving image. It is this question that we now address as regards not just the broader embedding of cinema in the Modern Languages curricula in secondary and senior schools – with specific reference to Spanish and Latin America film – but to what extent film can make an essential contribution to interculturalism and tolerance in the light of Black Lives Matter (BLM). 

With the expansion of postgraduate degree courses in Film Studies, it is not surprising that research has also focused on the way in which the study of film can be integrated into secondary school teaching. The BFI has been instrumental in pioneering the use of film to support both literacy and language learning with its ‘Reframing Literacy’ and ‘Screening Languages’ initiatives.  The dual objectives are to refresh modern language subject knowledge and empower teachers with new pedagogical approaches.

As a curriculum development research project, Screening Languages was instrumental in providing a clear framework and research methodology for the teaching of Modern Languages through the moving image in schools. The use of teacher and pupil questionnaires, reflective teaching logs and observation encouraged an approach to Modern Languages’ teaching which is both film-rich and transformative.  This was further supported by training options for PGCSE MFL students. 

Screening Languages -BFI – Almodóvar

In 2014 the DfE KS3 & 4 Framework document described foreign language study as a ‘liberation from insularity, providing an opening to other cultures’.  In addition, ‘a high quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world’. In tandem, the BFI Screening Languages report advocates that the expert MFL teacher is ‘open to watching and exploring new and unfamiliar films [and] willing to explore with pupils the places where film can debate and challenge’. The report goes on to stress the importance of opening up spaces within the classroom where film can be used both to encourage debate and inculcate a supportive environment in which political issues such as race, gender, immigration and otherness can be discussed, and the values of tolerance and empathy towards others promoted. 

Within the specifically Spanish context, Mark Goodwin states in his excellent article, ‘An Analysis of the Success of the ‘Cultural Topic’’, ‘film…stimulates a variety of powerful cognitive processes in a learning context’.  This sentiment is shared by Andrea Meador Smith and Sarah Cox Campbell, who state ‘[the] possibilities for the development of cultural and linguistic skills that result from film screening and analysis are innumerable’. So there is little doubt of the benefits of developing cineliteracy in our pupils across all age groups, promoting the transferable skills of constructive response generation and a sensitive and empathetic response to broader issues in their own societies. 

The main issue facing the Spanish teacher is not, however, the availability of filmic material in the target language, but rather the breadth of topics covered, across different genres and national borders. Indeed, the task of integrating film can initially appear overwhelming to the novice, not least due to the vast amount of possibilities, coupled with the need to remain explicit about objectives, delivery and relevance to the linguistic aspect of the scheme of work. 

In addition, supportive pedagogical strategies are crucial in order that watching a film is not perceived by pupils as a passive rather than active task (this is exacerbated by a preponderance of dvd showings in school departments in the last weeks of the summer term as a switch-off activity!). There are also different approaches to the study of film across the various Key Stages of Modern Languages teaching. For example, in Years 7 & 8, short scenes can be used to explore a key theme across various languages with the purpose of discussing a topic such as immigration, and also for promoting the languages which a department offers. For example, selected scenes from Welcome, Monsieur Lazhar , Fuocammare, Wilkommen in Deutschland , Sin nombre and Flores de otro mundo can all be used to explore the multi-faceted nature of the immigrant experience. 

“Flores de otro mundo” (Iciair Bollaín, 1999)

Isabel Santaolalla has written about the plurality of experience witnessed in European cinema on the topic of immigration: ‘shared agendas in these films, as well as in journalistic and academic debates, legitimate the kind of wide-angle focus adopted, particularly at a time when transnational dynamics demand more than ever a discussion of cinema’. Indeed, Smith and Campbell clearly advocate collaboration in the target language or in English with the intention of ‘[developing] their own definitions of Otherness, using their personal experiences and activating their background knowledge. In groups, students can discuss situations in which they have felt like the Other, sharing the dynamics of the situation that led to feelings of marginalisation. They should think about other classes or areas of their lives – specific examples in literature or film, moments in history or science, stories from current events – in which they can identify one person or group as the Other and explain this distinction to their peers’. 

Similar activities are closely allied to the PHSE curriculum and a recent movement in writing, cinema and art of a narrative of the self, succinctly summed up in a module from Leeds University’s M.A in Film Studies entitled ‘So where do you come from? Selves, Families, Stories’. Indeed, this is a good starting point for any introduction to the theme of BLM through film in any language. 

The BLM movement in the summer of 2020 led to policy and curriculum changes that placed greater emphasis on intercultural awareness and exchange in the classroom. Interestingly, it was the moving image that was deemed the most appropriate to explain and address the concept of white privilege, with the central visual symbol of the race with its semiotic significance underscoring the unfairness of 21st century life for BAME communities (the potent final image placing participants at very different starting lines after a series of five key questions). As Carmen Herrero states, ‘el cine no sólo constituye un vehículo privilegiado para la expresividad artística, sino que….fomenta una perspectiva crítica sobre…el pensamiento ideológico y de poder que las sustenta’.

Film is therefore perfectly placed to expand pupils’ intercultural understanding in an increasingly complex post-modern landscape. In addition, there are many helpful publications which establish cinematic links across national boundaries, such as Isabel Santaollala’s Body Matters: Immigrants in Recent Spanish, Italian and Greek Cinemas. The convergence of current affairs and cinema easily moulds itself to the A level syllabus, as does the documentary style approach taken in many of the films themselves. 

“A escondidas” (Mikel Rueda, 2014)

The phenomenon of immigration film is also in its infancy in southern Europe when compared to the UK, Germany and France, for example, where well-established migrant communities have a certain agency as regards their representation, such as the North African and Turkish populations. Spanish and Italian cinema are, therefore, at a different stage of their evolution and engagement with immigration. As Sandra Ponzanesi asserts, in Italy ‘films are intentionally made for a white Italian audience intrigued by the “other” but not yet well equipped for its understanding’. 

In many films, the immigrant is seen as ethnically – even ‘racially’ – marked, following a long Western tradition in which the term ‘race’ is applied to non-white people/skin/bodies. As Richard Dyer notes, ‘[a]s long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people’. 

Many Spanish and Latin American films can be used to explore issues of race, identity, immigration and Otherness.  A small selection from personal choice would include: 

  • Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
  • Sin nombre ( Joji Fukunaga, 2009 )
  • Diarios de motocicleta (Walter Salles, 2004)
  • El norte (Gregory Nava, 1983)
  • Relatos salvajes (Damián Szifron, 2014)
  • Flores de otro mundo (Icíar Bollaín, 1999)
  • Retorno a Hansala (Chus Gutiérrez) 2008
  • Machuca (Andrés Wood, 2004)
  • La Historia Oficial  (Luis Puenzo, 1985)
  • Historias mínimas (Carlos Sorín, 2002)
  • El secreto de sus ojos (Juan José Campanella, 2009) 
  • El sur (Víctor Erice, 1983)
  • La lengua de las mariposas (José Luis Cuerda, 1999) 
  • El ciudadano ilustre ( Duprat / Cohn, 2016) 

Specific classroom techniques will depend very much on the age group involved and the specific focus of the lesson. These activities could be used within a sequence of lessons at A level in order to introduce the Cultural Topic film, or lower down the school. Indeed, the sooner that pupils are introduced to film analysis the more fine-tuned their critical faculties become. Activities can be embedded into a scheme of work, used as a one-off cultural insert or within a cross-curricular PHSE programme or project. 

Here is a list of some techniques that can be used to great effect with KS3, 4 or 5 in order to promote linguistic ability, cultural competences and general debate about the issue of ‘Otherness’ – identity, gender, immigration and the individual within wider society.

  • Study of a film trailer, eliciting key information as regards genre, theme, character and specific camera techniques (official trailers have ratings).
  • Analysis of a series of stills from a given film or several films on the same topic. For example, as a stand-alone exercise, the masterful composition of Cuarón’s Roma is hard to beat. Immigration could be explored via style and character perspective through selected sequences in Flores de otro mundo, Sin nombre and Retorno a Hansala .
  • Translation and reading comprehension exercises can be easily prepared from both English and Spanish online newspaper reviews, with older pupils able to write essays or prepare speaking debates according to the critical opinions they have read.
  • Time-consuming but useful is the preparation of listening exercises for dialogue or summaries in Spanish of key scenes – useful for speaking practice or Cultural Topic essay practice.
  • A thematic approach to the introduction of film is popular, especially with the wide selection of films available about the Spanish Civil War and Franco regime. A high level exploration of allegory and perspective can be achieved with a comparison of Saura and Erice’s films released during the Franco regime (Cría Cuervos and El espíritu de la Colmena ) and the later wave of turn of the century films which coincided with the Ley de la Memoria Histórica finally passed in 2007 (La lengua de las mariposas [1999] and Las trece Rosas [2007]).
  • Exploring cinematography is rewarding, and pupils are often very adept at it. It is easy to put together a series of stills or excerpts from Spanish and Latin American films to illustrate extreme wide shots (Diarios de motocicleta ), close-ups (Un chien andalou) , establishing shots (Jamón, jamón) and time lapse (El sur) .
  • Creative writing opportunities through the preparation of reviews or essays comparing the treatment of a theme through diverse film sequences.
  •  Ideally, film can be introduced as a ‘Fifth Skill’ in languages.  Year 7 pupils are provided with the tools and skills through which they become familiar with cinematic techniques so that they can express both analysis and opinion using the correct terminology. This can be developed generically across languages, with the skill-set becoming increasingly sophisticated as the pupils progress from Lower to Upper School.
  • Finally, the appeal of cinema within the pupil body is broad, and they already have many of the pre-requisite skills to make Film Studies a complementary part of Modern Languages study –  namely, visual literacy, along with a critical and discerning eye informed by the regular absorption of filmic images across television, film and advertising. Interesting films can open up Modern Languages to all pupils across the ability range, improve their linguistic skill and enable them to explore other societies and cultures.