The Instructive Power of Cinema: Spotlight on Journeys In Film

Journeys in Film is an innovative new project that provides foreign films and accompanying curricula to middle-school classrooms. The result? Students gain a deeper understanding of cultures around the globe, while also honing in on necessary skills like empathy, comprehension, and a more dynamic understanding of schoolroom subjects like history, math, science, and more.

While textbooks have long been the educational medium of choice, founder Joanne Ashe firmly believes that film can help bolster students' engagement with classroom lessons and serve as a window into other cultures. Founded in 2003, and recently supported by the Norman Lear Center, Journeys In Film is a novel non-profit that seeks to help improve the state of education–one good movie at a time.

And it's an educational movement Hollywood is excited about. Journeys in Films just released their newest PSA, starring spokesman Liam Neeson (Schindler's List) and the cause has attracted devoted supporters from all around the industry. We asked Emmy-award-winning actor Tony Shalhoub (Monk) to sit down and talk with us about the project and what he loves most about the educational impact of film:

Via e-mail, we also spoke with founder Joanne Ashe about her inspiring new project, her deep love of movies, and her ambitions for the future of Journeys in Film:

THE CREDITS: What is Journeys in Film?

JOANNE ASHE: Journeys in Film combines the power of moving and provocative films with standards-based lesson plans to inspire and engage students in learning. We use award winning and age appropriate foreign language films to teach global understanding — as well as core academic subjects — to middle school students.  We have developed seven outstanding curricular guides (and planning for 5 more), trained teachers around the country to use them, and have reached over 800,000 students.  The films chosen for our program feature the same age protagonists as the viewers.  This adds impact to an already powerful communication tool for this visually literate population.

Our methodology applies visual storytelling as a tool for engaging students, connecting them to their peers around the world while, at the same time, building academic skills in math, science, language arts, social studies, visual arts, media literacy and intercultural communication. 

What inspired you to embark on this project?

The idea to teach children through film came to me after seeing 7 foreign films in one week at The Palm Springs International film festival in 2002. I truly felt as if I had traveled around the world and met local people through the characters portrayed in all of these films.  I had one of those “Aha!” moments and felt strongly that foreign films could be utilized as an educational tool to bring the world into the classroom.

As I began researching the best way to go about this, I had the fortuitous experience of meeting the actor, Liam Neeson, and I shared my idea with him.  He understood it immediately and saw the simplicity of the concept.  His enthusiasm, encouragement, and offer to help were the very reasons that I was determined to actualize it.  I could not have had a more appropriate muse because my own father had been in Schindler’s factory, and, in my eyes, Liam was Oscar Schindler.  Thus, the power of film worked its magic to deepen my commitment!

I realized that in order to make a sustainable impact, we needed to develop a program that would be taught within the traditional school day.  And in order for the teachers to fully utilize film as a tool for teaching, the films had to be accompanied by substantial curricula. I then decided to combine the program with geography, history, social studies, language arts, and, believe it or not, even science and math!

Why are films are a good educational medium for kids?

The written word has been the main vehicle for learning and teaching. We teach our students literature that originated from all around the world, but we tend to forget that what often spurs the imagination is both visual and auditory. Everyone loves a good movie—it is a medium that evokes emotion and provokes stimulating discussion both inside and outside of the classroom.  At its best, film can reach the emotions of students and inspire lively classroom discussions.

Foreign films are windows into the world, conveying the uniqueness of a culture’s traditions, values, humor, and much more – through visual imagery and sound. They help all of us to see beyond our borders – both real and imagined.

In teaching with films, we encourage our students to be critical consumers of what they see and teach them to consider the perspective of the filmmaker and challenge generalizations.  Analyzing film and media is an empowering skill and one that is increasingly important for young people. To this end, it is imperative to integrate the film into a larger lesson, using it as a launching pad for historical and cultural exploration, as well as an examination of narrative perspective, character development, and media literacy.

What movies have changed your worldview, or inspired you into action well after the credits rolled?

Dr. Zhivago made a deep impression on me, transporting me out of my provincial hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts to the grand culture of Russia.  I was especially moved by the final scene in which Lara and Zhivago’s daughter was found in Siberia.  For some reason, I re-lived that scene in my mind and heart many times, and almost 30 years later, I began my own quest to adopt a child from Siberia.  I am certain that the film, Dr. Zhivago, was the catalyst for my passionate embrace of the Russian culture.

What are some classic examples of movies that are educational for children–and adults?

Steven Spielberg has demonstrated the power of film throughout his career, educating segments of the public who would otherwise not be reached through such historic films as Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, and now, Lincoln. Other films that could be used for lessons include Sara’s Key, The Kite Runner, Slumdog Millionaire, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Lorax  and even The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hunger Games. Samsara has numerous lessons within the film, even without dialogue.

It is important to understand that filmmakers will often take creative license, and distort accuracies for the sake of the story–herein lies the necessity of an accompanying curriculum.

How do you think film impacts viewers differently than other forms, like books and audio?

Film adds another layer of learning to books and audio in that films show us places and ways of life we might not otherwise experience.  They convey atmosphere and evoke emotions, allowing viewers to 'feel' and thereby develop empathy skills.

One teacher told us that a few kids actually cried while viewing Children of Heaven when Ali told Zahra he'd lost her shoes. This same teacher added,  “As a result of the film, my students gained a better feel for the land, customs, and people of Iran than any chapter unit could ever provide."

How do you think film and education can continue to intersect, and what are your hopes for the future of Journeys in Film?

Although many teachers have used film in their classrooms, not many have been trained to teach with and about film.  Teaching is most effective when the curricular materials are specifically designed for in-classroom use; when the lessons are keyed to mandated standards; when teachers are trained to use films in the classroom via professional development workshops, and; when there is a consistency of materials, approach and training from one film to another.

Now that Journeys in Film is based at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, we have the opportunity to bring together scholars and researchers with knowledge and expertise about education, media, and communication to build the first department of its kind in the practice and research of using film and media to teach across all disciplines.

We would like to be instrumental in helping shape a national plan for film and education that is comprehensive and deliberate.Educators understand the importance of our program and, now, we need the recognition and support from the film industry to be able to make a measurable impact on the future of using film to teach to the most visually literate generation in history.

For more information about Journeys In Film, please visit the project's website

–Video edited by Daniel Tarr, Tony Shalhoub interview shot by Evan Seplow, and footage courtesy of Journeys in Film


The Credits

The Credits is an online magazine that tells the story behind the story to celebrate our large and diverse creative community. Focusing on profiles of below-the-line filmmakers, The Credits celebrates the often uncelebrated individuals who are indispensable to the films and TV shows we love.