Journeys in Cultural Awareness
By Marcus Robinson
“IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID THAT MOVIES ARE THE LITERATURE of the 21st century. While that might simply mean more people watch movies than read books. it also implies something else. If the pen used to be mightier than the sword, then shouldn’t we be able to say the same of celluloid today?”
Although I can’t recall specific instances where a piece of film started or stopped a war, you could certainly cite several examples of how movies have influenced events – and in powerfully different ways. Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War) managed to clear an innocent man of murder charges, uncovering key new evidence in The Thin Blue Line. George Lucas forever changed the way movies would be made with Star Wars and, most recently, Michael Moore employed his down-home mastery of the medium in a bid to keep George W. Bush from his second term as President with Fahrenheit 9/11. But can movies actually change people and the way they think?
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kinsey) and Joanne Ashe are betting they can. At least, that is, people who haven’t learned how to drive yet. The inspiration for a remarkable new initiative called Journeys in Film (JIF), which involves middle-school kids watching and discussing a dozen movies from around the world over a three-year curriculum, came to Ashe after a week of foreign films at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2001.
It was an experience that left her exhilarated, feeling like she’d circled the globe and become intimate with many peoples and cultures. She recalls wondering, ‘Why don’t kids see these films? I learned so much: Kids and movies. It seemed like such a simple way to get young people to experience and relate to cultures other than their own that she was amazed nobody had thought of it before.
Neeson entered the picture in the first of a number of amazing twists of fate. Kristen Bell, a friend of Ashe’s daughter, was appearing in the Broadway version of The Crucible with Neeson, and they were all invited to an after-party. Bell pulled Neeson over and introduced Ashe by saying, “Liam, I want you to meet my friend. Her father was one of Schindler’s Jews:’ Struck with emotion, Neeson, who had been Oscar-nominated for his portrayal of Oskar Schindler, just threw his arms around Ashe, looked at her and said, “God bless you.”
They sat down and talked, and Ashe felt comfortable enough to tell him about the program that she was planning, which was at that time only in her head. Without missing a beat, Neeson offered to serve as National Spokesperson. As it turns out, the topic hit close to home. “Being Irish and living in [the US] for 17 years now,” he says, “and bringing up two kids and traveling a lot, I’m kind of stunned by the level of ignorance in young people,”
With films like Whale Rider and Bend it Like Beckham in the curriculum’ he’s incredibly optimistic about the possibilities of JIF to teach kids to be both savvy about media and broaden their horizons. “Film, which in minutes can be screened and beamed to every country in the world is this extraordinary educative facility to go right into the heart of different cultures to show kids about different ethics, how people eat, sleep and relate with their families.”
Armed with Neeson’s passionate commitment, Ashe realized she had to press forward with her idea. She determined that the best way to reach kids, specifically those of middle-school age, was through the education system “because the kids are on the cusp of becoming adults;’ she says. “Most haven’t formed stereotypes yet, and they’re still enthusiastic. They’re not as influenced by outside media and peer group pressure.”
But she needed funding. Having developed a curriculum that included social studies (with the help of the US Peace Corps) and geography components, and received firm letters of intent from several schools, she notified the New Mexico Film Office of her project. Soon after, she received word that Shirley MacLaine, then chairperson of the Office’s Film Advisory Board, wanted to talk, “She asked me to call this person in Hollywood. And I couldn’t believe it.” It turned out to be an anonymous Hollywood philanthropist who loved the idea enough to provide seed money to get things going.
After a successful test in Albuquerque in 2003, where 250 kids saw a wonderful film from Bhutan called The Cup (1999), which combines World Cup soccer with life in a Tibetan monastery (no small feat), JIF is now set to spread across North America. The demand is such that the program has already begun in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Tulsa and Albuquerque. And in February, JIF hits New York City public schools system-wide, with a training session for teachers. “They’re giving us one of their professional development days at City Hall,” says Ashe, proudly.
If you’re wondering when JIF will be coming to a school in your neighborhood, there’s also a fateful Canadian connection. One of Ashe’s close friends, Deenah Mollin, happens to live in Canada and is equally passionate about JIF. Her yearlong involvement means a pilot version will be in seven Toronto schools this winter term, with Alliance Atlantis as a Key Program Supporter.