Report on Her Not So Brilliant Career: My Not So Brilliant Idea

This is Pat Salazar's report on her completed 1998 minigrant project. Comments? LR/RI or to Pat directly 

The proposal for the women's film studies series, Her Not So Brilliant Career, which was aimed at non-native speakers of English, contained many sound ideas for using film to encourage thinking in the target language. The original proposal reads as follows:

Her Not So Brilliant Career

In the seventies, an Australian film, My Brilliant Career, critiqued the choices made by a young woman who leaves her home and family in order to pursue a career as a writer. By the end of the movie she does have a career of sorts, but the film suggests that her career comes at too high a price; i.e. she has work, but not love. Hailed as a strong feminist statement when it debuted, this movie seems sadly dated today. Times change. What are our expectations as women in the nineties and do we see our experiences validated in the films we watch? How can we use film to improve both our abilities to verbalize our experiences and to determine what we expect of ourselves in the future? These are some of the questions I propose to have students try to answer in a six-week film seminar for women to be held in Woonsocket on Sunday afternoons this fall.

The project aims at increased awareness in general of film as a text and of the ways we "read" these texts and how they influence and/or mirror our perspectives; it will include a writing component in the form of responses to specific open-ended questions which will give the students the opportunity to reflect on and articulate their own experiences. Further, the seminars will focus on generating high-interest discussion of both the films and the students' responses in an attempt to foster increased verbal abilities along with increased understanding of our shared experiences. The target audience is women, both women who speak English as a first language and have limited access to higher education and non-native speakers who often have little motivation to progress beyond basic competency in English.

Six meetings, five films are planned. Among the films is Babette's Feast, a 1987 Academy Award winner for best foreign film which looks at the life choices of three women. The central character, Babette, gives all her lottery winnings to put on a dinner for her friends, a noble gesture, but at the end of the film the question lurks: Do we admire women only when they are self-sacrificing? How significant is it that her "art" is the art of cooking? How traditional does this render her characterization?

In Bagdad CafÈ, a delightful story in an unlikely setting, we get a very different portrait of female friendship. This film examines the extent and degree to which women rely on each other and leaves open the question of whether or not these friendships are ultimately more significant/important than the relationships with our partners or husbands. Probably though it is our relationships with our spouses which take up much of our energy and concern and indeed these relationships may be the subject of a good deal of our conversations with our women friends. While The Official Story narrates a fictionalized account of an actual corrupt Argentinean government's selling of babies, it is also the story of a marriage. A marriage which at the beginning of the movie seemed idyllic crumbles when the woman makes an ethical decision which runs counter to her husband's interests and desires. Among the questions presented by this film are: how well do we really know our partners and how far does our loyalty to them reach?

A more affirming view of marriage is depicted in The Revolt of Mother. Here, a woman frustrated by years of her husband's unfulfilled promises to build her a new home moves into the brand new barn he's building for his cows. His surprising reaction gives hope to wives everywhere; additionally, this gem of a film based on a short story by Mary Wilkins Freeman offers a unique perspective on 19th century America and allows us our comparisons. Finally,the Coen brothers' Fargo must be included in any discussion of women and film. Beginning with Milton's Paradise Lost, writers have had difficulty creating an embodiment of absolute good--absolute evil is easy and often more attractive to our imaginations than absolute good. And certainly we do not have any trouble picturing evil these days; from the fictional Hannibal Lector to the real Jeffrey Dahmer, we are very familiar with evil. The representation of good is a bit harder to achieve; writers generally resort to characterizations of a naive innocent as in Blue Velvet or a sappy Gabriel as in Paradise Lost. But the writers of Fargo achieved a remarkable thing with the character of Marge Gunderson; they created an assertive and womanly character who is the embodiment of good and who is the hero of a film which defies easy classification and provides material for rich discussion, analysis and reflection.

In choosing these films, I have considered both native and non-native speakers of English; the films are selected primarily for their interest level and for their representations of women, but in addition, they are fairly accessible to non-native speakers. The Official Story and Babette's Feast are subtitled which enable viewers to understand without having to concentrate so hard on listening skills. The remaining three films rely on very little dialogue; in Bagdad CafÈ and Fargo the characters speak very slowly and The Revolt of Mother has, of course, the short story on which it was based to accompany the film.

Because we live in a world where we increasing get information from visual texts and because our students generally feel they have more authority over a film or television text, I believe films are an excellent way to introduce students to the art of critical thinking, speaking, writing and reading. Using selected scenes from Fargo, I will be happy to explain at the conference how to get students to focus on particular scenes, how to begin to see patterns and trends and how to use these "close readings" in their response papers and in the discussions. 


I had hoped to engage non-native speakers in discussions of women's issues by showing and critiquing selected films to a group of twenty or more native and non-native speakers of English. Principally, the project aimed at fostering thinking in the target language by presenting issues bearing directly on the everyday lives of women in the community. The idea was that, particularly for the second language speakers, the viewers would have an easier time understanding the texts because of the visual medium and because of familiarity with women's issues. Further, that this understanding of the issues, coupled with a vested interest in the topics, would prompt the non-Native speakers to express their opinions, thereby promoting thinking in English. For a numbers of reasons, the project did not work out entirely as I had hoped it would. The problems I encountered in trying to implement the program, while disappointing, taught me a great deal about what needs to happen for this type of program to be successful. Better advertising, shorter films and a more convenient time slot would have improved the program.

Lack of attendance was the principal impediment to sustained discussion of the issues presented in the films viewed. Although I sent out flyers to former students, arranged for public service announcements on both radio and cable television, posted notices in the public library, offered refreshments and personally pleaded with friends of mine, there were never more than seven people present per viewing. I never anticipated this problem because I had expected to be teaching a group of citizenship students in Woonsocket, and I imagined that I would coax them into coming to the movies. Because the agency through whom I had been teaching citizenship did not receive its anticipated funding this fall, there was no core group of students to draw from. Also affecting attendance were the time and place: 2pm on Sundays didn't work in part because the weather was gorgeous and in part because there are so many events already taking place on Sundays. The location may have been a problem as well because the agency site where I showed the films is deserted on Sundays and also people, except for the elderly, don't really know this building. I think perhaps that the public library or the Arts Center would have been better sites for showing the films.

Another problem with the original concept was the inclusion of feature-length films. While I chose these films because they offer so many areas for discussion, I found shorter films worked better precisely because they made it easier for the audience to focus on one or two issues. The audience was made up of people who were, after all, beginners; they didn't have experience critiquing film and so it seemed to make more sense to do shorter works. And for the non-Native speakers, shorter texts solve the problem of not being able to concentrate for an extended period of time in the second language. An idea for the non-Native speakers (which I had not considered before) came to me during this project: why not show films in the Native language and have the discussion in the target language? In this way, the viewers would understand and presumably enjoy the film and would have an easier time discussing the issues.

My recommendation for using videos to stimulate thinking in the target language then is two-fold; first, incorporate the videos as part of an on-going ESL class and second, use shorter videos, preferably those with a written text. The videos I found most useful were from the American Short Story Series. In this way, the students can first read the text, then view the film and discuss the issues.

The specific films which informed the recommendations outlined above include Bagdad CafÈ, El Norte, The Revolt of Mother, The Chrysanthemums, and Like Water for Chocolate.

Three people came to the viewing of Bagdad CafÈ, among them a woman from the Dominican Republic and a woman from Laos. Prior to viewing the film, I explained the plot briefly and let the audience know that they could ask me to stop at any point if they had questions. Although the non-Native speakers did not perhaps understand everything in the movie, I could hear them laughing at appropriate times. After the film, I asked the audience about the nature of the relationship between the two central characters and then we talked a bit about our shared and unshared experiences and the impact of these experiences on our relationships.

I had the largest audience for El Norte, seven people, two of whom were from Mexico. This is where I got the idea to show films in the native language because Gabriella, the woman from Mexico, is generally very reluctant to speak English, yet she was prompted to join in the discussion here because the others were particularly interested in her view as a Mexican of the events in the movie. The third and fourth films were The Revolt of Mother and The Chrysanthemums and although there were only three people each time, we had very interesting discussions about the motivations of the characters in these films. These films from the American Short Story series are each about forty minutes long which proved to be the ideal length. We had more of a discussion because we weren't so tired of sitting in our seats. The final film was Like Water for Chocolate; two people came. Even though there were only three of us we had a lot of fun we this very entertaining surrealist movie.

Overall, I feel the project was very worthwhile I terms of garnering information for educators regarding using video as a tool for second language instruction. The greatest disappointment was the lack of attendance, but certainly the participants who did come were engaged in meaningful activity and presumably videos will be used in a classroom where attendance is not a factor. The most surprising outcome was the discussion following the viewing of El Norte. Because my first EFL teaching experience took place in an Institute with an English-only policy, I had always considered subtitled films to be "cheating," but as a second language learner, I appreciate the difficulty involved in watching films in a non-Native language. Subtitles actually foster a great deal of language acquisition--allowing viewers to participate in both languages at the same time. This process mirrors the way we generally understand a second language; therefore, I have changed my thinking on the use of subtitled films. The importance of using shorter films with non-native speakers and the potential for the inclusion of subtitled films in second language classes are the two most useful bits of information that this project yielded. 

Sample Lesson Plan: The Revolt of Mother

Teaching Strategies:

Introduce the film by talking about the short story, its author and the time it was written.

Discuss the group's ideas about the division of labor on a farm: is, for example division of labor according to gender a practical necessity or simply a long standing tradition? Do our ideas about work for men and women differ today? Discuss as well power struggles in marriage: what are the ways that men and women get their spouses to accommodate their wishes? Suggest that as they watch the film the audience tries to anticipate what will occur in the story; perhaps even stop the film when the husband leaves on his errand and have the viewers guess the plot resolution.

Writing task: (Post viewing)

Sarah Penn is a woman of action. Which of her actions surprises you the most and why? Remember to examine all of her actions before you decide. 

resources on line (many from Dave's ESL Café)

Captioned Video: Making it Work for You, by Randall S. Davis from The Internet TESL Journal

Drew's Script - O - Rama - the "most comprehensive index of movie and television scripts available on the Internet"

EFL Video Resources - films, lesson plans, teachers' guides

The Four Skills and Video in the ESOL Classroom (May 2000) Materials posted here include activities on  using video with adult ESOL students to stimulate writing, reading, speaking, and listening skills.   A Literacy Assistance Center workshop.

Ideas on Using Videos - Donna Tatsuki's article published in the Internet TESL Journal.

IFILM - the Internet Movie Guide

Teach with Movies - a tool for 'intentional parents' which could provide interesting ideas for using film with adult learners as well.

Using Video in the Language Classroom - from English .

Using Video with Adult English Language Learners - CAL/NCLE digest by Miriam Burt, August 1999 EDO-LE-99-03.

search engines for video/movie sites

First Run/Icarus Films - online video catalogue; also available through 153 Waverly Place New York, NY 10014 Phone: (212) 727-1711 Fax: (212) 989-7649

Yahoo links to movies and films

print resources (with thanks to Lenore Balliro)

Allen, Margaret. Teaching English With Video. Essex, England: Longman, 1985.

Stempleski, Susan and Barry Tomalin. Video in Action: Recipes for Using Video in Language Teaching. New York: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Summerfield, Ellen, Crossing Cultures Through Film. Maine: Intercultural Press, 1993.

update April 19, 2002

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