Sat | Jan 23, 2021

Films – a kaleidoscope of our lives

Published:Sunday | November 29, 2020 | 12:09 AMLisa Tomlinson - Contributor

Some persons’ idea of studying film, like any other discipline in the humanities, comes with the perception that the field is a waste of time, offers limited job opportunities, or in the case of film, its focus is exclusively on film-making and production.

Lecturing a wide range of film courses has reminded me of the importance of the discipline in developing students’ critical thinking skills. In a recent seminar on documentary film practices, Michèle Pearson Clarke, visual artist and Photo Laureate for the City of Toronto, pointed to the significance of equipping young people with the knowledge and skills of applying image literacy.

In this way, image, or visual literacy, enables students to hone essential skills that allow them to “interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the definition of literacy, which commonly suggests interpretation of a written or printed text”.

Additionally, in their book Tooning In: Essays on Popular Culture and Education, Professors Cameron White and Trenia Walker advised that creating lectures that build on students’ prior knowledge and lived experience or previous learning event is key in using films to develop students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In a diverse, and complex world, film studies as a discipline allows students to gain a global outlook in understanding and unpacking social and political issues. Many film courses aim to expose students to non-conventional Hollywood films, which gives students the chance to learn about varied cinematic movements or traditions.

Cinema Novo is one example of a film tradition that I regularly like to include in relevant lectures. In addition to providing a historical overview of Cinema Novo’s contribution to the development of Brazil’s national film industry, students are drawn to the attention of the social (i.e. military coup in 1964) and the intellectualism that occurred throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Therefore, students can see how film, in fact, has the potential to shape the political and cultural landscape of a society. According to Visara Ekahitanond article, “Learn, Think, Act: Using Movies to Develop Critical Thinking Skills”, films can be treated as a “contemporary and timeless instructional tool because they carry universal negative and positive values” and they “portray the lives of people, which can be appreciated and learned from”.


In my course City in the Film, we watch various films that represent the cinematic city as a place of cultural expression, as a site of diversity, displacement, conflict, and social liberation. Through the various themes examined in this course, students gain a political consciousness of the many issues affecting marginalised cities such as structural violence (i.e. homicide, homelessness, unemployment, food insecurity, and limited or no access to quality healthcare) that deprives people of the basic necessities of life.

In his master’s research thesis, “Developing Tertiary Students’ Critical Thinking Skills Through Movies”, Meriem Rehim notes that students’ “responsiveness to critical thinking skills increased” when watching drama films with social themes like social justice activism, poverty, and politics.

Culturally, students become aware of the creative art in its relationship with these same marginalised city spaces.

One of the films studied in my course is Rick Elgood and Don Letts’ Dancehall Queen (1997). This Jamaican film not only exposes the visual details of the dancehall culture, but students are able to discover the creativity emerging from Kingston.

Many students often leave the course debunking the common narrative of Kingston as a dangerous and overcrowded city that is defined by crime and violence. And they begin to better appreciate or reimagine the inner city as a site of innovation and artistic production.

One of my favourite film courses, Documentary Film, provides students with the hands-on experience of making a short documentary while simultaneously engaging contemporary or local themes. Using their creativity, students have produced thought-provoking documentaries that critically analyse the history of street vending in downtown Kingston, the cultural practices of herbal medicine in Jamaica, and a look at how some of the residents of the Riverton City landfill make use of the debris as a source of employment.

I teasingly tell students that once they acquire critical lenses on how to assess films, they may never enjoy watching films again. I reassure them, however, that they can still get pleasure from watching films. But importantly, they will cultivate analytical and critical thinking skills that are transferable career paths in education, international studies, television, politics, business management and entrepreneurship, sales and marketing, and the cultural and creative industry.

In a digital age where much of our information is received through moving images, it is crucial that we start to change our mindset about the study of film not being useful or marketable in today’s job market. We need to embrace film as an effective tool for improving literacy skills that will encourage our young people to watch films from a variety of perspectives, inspire creativity, and to become culturally literate.

Dr Lisa Tomlinson is a lecturer in literary and cultural studies in the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and the deputy film director for GATFFEST Film Festival. Send feedback to