Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States

Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States

Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States

Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States

Excerpt

For those whose conscious lives intersected with the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, the following scenario will likely be familiar: After entering a room at a designated time and listening to an introduction, the lights are switched off. In the darkened room a 16mm projector whirrs, triggering a beam of light leading to a screen at the front of the room. The moving images—usually running ten to thirty minutes—instruct the audience on what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency or the most efficient way to sell products door-to-door; explain the lifecycle of bees or the safe handling of machinery; illustrate a surgical method or the way wheat is grown and harvested by American farmers; train soldiers on how to avoid venereal diseases; teach teenagers how to be good citizens; or present a lesson on the art of Leonardo da Vinci or a play by William Shakespeare. The screening is followed by questions from the audience, a written assignment, or a group discussion.

Millions of people around the world have been instructed by way of film. They have gathered in classrooms, auditoriums, places of worship, museums, libraries, fraternal lodges, union halls, and living rooms; at workplaces, convention halls, fairs, meeting rooms, seminars—even in movie theaters. They have watched films selected from a massive corpus of work, often referred to as educational, instructional, informational, practical, useful, pedagogical, nontheatrical, or nonfiction. These films targeted audiences of all ages and levels of sophistication, but they were often designed for viewers of a specific age, educational level, field of study, profession, region, gender, religion, or race. An astounding range of organizations and individuals produced these films, including the major Hollywood studios, independent companies formed for nontheatrical film purposes, museums, government agencies, philanthropic foundations, professional societies and associations, universities, corporations, unions, religious organizations, teachers, and even students.

Although plentiful, widely screened, and remembered (fondly or otherwise) by the millions who saw them, these films constitute a neglected aspect of film studies and film history. This is at least partly, as Elizabeth Ellsworth has observed, because film scholars have historically tended to operate “from the long-standing . . .

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