The Belcourt Theatre’s annual nD Festival fundraiser (Sept. 28-30) celebrates independent film, fashion and music with a 3-day series of events and parties. Funds raised go directly to support the Belcourt Theatre’s education and engagement programs. Allison Inman, education and engagement coordinator at the Belcourt, gives Nashville Arts readers an in-depth look at how these programs inspire and transform Middle Tennesseans through the power of film.
Driving home the cinema experience
While I did sit around the kitchen table last week showing friends a clip of Gene Kelly’s “It’s Always Fair Weather” on my cell phone, I know the only way to see Kelly tap dance on roller skates is to see him 12 feet tall on a movie screen, with Andre Previn’s score flowing from high-quality speakers. There’s no substitute for sinking into the Belcourt Theatre’s cushy velvet seats, eating popcorn (or Fido cookies or Bang Candy marshmallows), and watching a film in glorious 35mm.
Do middle school students know that? They do now.
Part of my vision for the Belcourt’s education and engagement program is to create a new generation of movie lovers in Nashville. Many youth programs are aimed at teaching kids to make movies. I think the first step is teaching aspiring filmmakers to love movies. To wrestle with them, to puzzle over them, to argue about them, even.
We kicked off a summer film series at the Martha O’Bryan Center (where, during the school year, I show films monthly to middle schoolers—usually documentaries) with a field trip to the Belcourt to see the Japanese animated film PONYO. It was the closing week of our repertory series Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli, and we knew this particular film would be a hit with elementary and middle school students. And it was. The kids still talk about PONYO, and they’re proud to be fans of foreign film.
For five more weeks in summer, I brought movies to them. I set up a projector and screen in classrooms at Martha O’Bryan and showed a series of short films to rotating groups of students from 1st to 7th grade. We spent the summer talking about plot, characters and genres. We talked a lot about imagination and storytelling techniques.
I told them, “Before we watch the film, remember that this is a special time for you. You have no distractions or worries. Just take a deep breath, get comfortable, and lose yourself in the film.” I thought it might sound hokey, but I sensed instead relief. I gave them permission to have an emotional experience with film. After all, film can be challenging, exhilarating, upsetting, thought-provoking, and terrifying. It can allow you to escape or bring you down to earth. I’ve had serious discussions with these students about civil war in Liberia following a documentary, and I’ve squealed and clapped with them over the rhythmic sounds of basketballs and utensils dropping from the sky, making drum-and-cymbal sounds, in their favorite experimental short.
In the spring, I kicked off an adult program at Martha O’Bryan that I plan to grow this season. The idea is to show the same material to adults that we show to the youth, creating a cross-generational conversation about film in this community. The adults’ response to the films was incredible, as so many people connected with the material on a deeply personal level. We watched films that allowed us to have candid conversations about civil rights, mentoring, gender roles, sexism, health and fitness, war, and post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ll continue the series this fall, and I hope to tie the discussions into the center’s creative writing program, so that films can inspire content for writing assignments.
I’m also happy to return this fall to the Oasis Center, where I show a monthly documentary to the young men in the R.E.A.L. (Reaching Excellence As Leaders) program. The group is led by Ron Johnson, a superstar of outreach designed to end youth violence. Documentaries like THE INTERRUPTERS inspire extremely powerful discussions about issues these young men face at school and at home.
This school year I’m also planning screening activities with Glencliff High School and Hillsboro High School, always seeking ways to bring students to the Belcourt for the full theater experience. My goal is to show them that there’s a whole world of film beyond the megaplex/cinemall superhero franchise. Do I sound like a film snob? That’s the idea!
Community support of the education and engagement program has been unbelievable. We’ve had month after month of meaty discussions in the theater. Building the education and engagement program has allowed us to bring BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD’s lead actor, Dwight Henry, and co-producer, Matt Parker, to Nashville for post-screening discussions. It’s allowed us to have intimate conversations via Skype with Miranda July, Azazel Jacobs, and most recently, Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly. We had a series of symposiums on the works of Robert Bresson, featuring noted scholars and film critics, including Jonathan Rosenbaum. We have semi-regular post-screening discussions through our Faculty-Led Interactive Cinematic Explorations (FLICX) program, where we draw on the expertise of faculty members from Nashville universities.
The goal of all programs at the Belcourt is to preserve an art form that is not always appreciated in the modern age. While many art house cinemas are boarded up, the Belcourt Theatre continues to thrive, thanks to support from a city full of film lovers. I hope to keep building that audience. It seems to be working.