Photo illustrative. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The year 1895 is known as the birth of cinema and a little more than a hundred years later, at the beginning of the 21st century, film competency is one of the most relevant forms of literacy. Most countries consider film literacy to be vital and include it at every level of education and research.

Film has been actively used in education since the 1930s. Examples can be found among filmed versions of theatre plays or novels, but also documentaries and fiction films based on historical events or social issues can be used as an educational tool. Films have been used to “illustrate” topics and themes across a variety of subjects. Last, but not least – the film has been used as one of the most influential tools for propaganda. So, metaphorically speaking, we can say it can be a double-edged sword. The best protection against manipulation is developing competency and the knowledge of how audio-visual disciplines work.

Find interesting resources about audio-visual media here and here.

Only a broad-based and high-level approach to film competence can lead to the development of an inclusive and pro-democratic general knowledge.


What is film competency?

How does it happen that a form of art goes beyond the borders of art and in addition to being used for entertainment is also commonly used in very practical ways to communicate messages, disseminate information and even for social manipulation purposes?

What does it mean to have competency in film, or to be “film literate”? Well, it can be quite easily seen and compared in parallel with articulated speech and written literacy. Film literacy is a social construction and being film literate means having the ability to produce, interpret and understand picture language appropriately for different social contexts. When we say film language, we are referring to any way of allowing information to be seen, imagined or experienced.

A film – or a schematic story – must be a complete emotional and informative visual form. A methodically, systematically repeated visualisation is used as a grammar onto which narrative and appeal are built. The aim is to present the story to different viewers in an unambiguous way, such that the visual image and the described image are in harmony.


Developing film literacy – examples

In 2020, a massive online environment for explaining and teaching film competencies was completed in a pan-European collaboration between a large number of film institutions and partner organisations and film people. This was preceded by many years of research and development in the form of various collaborative projects. The aim was to bring together in the common region (Europe) and harmonise the concepts explaining film competence, the basis for teaching film literacy and the complementarity of existing cultural and artistic audiovisual works.

“Film has the power to influence the way we see and understand the world. It can manipulate, reflect and lead us to experience a wide range of emotions.” (Framework for Film Education)

Apparently, the curricula of many different countries include film through literature. In many countries, some classical literary works have also become film classics, and through watching films and learning the language of film, literary texts are brought closer to students at a younger age. At the same time as being taught visual grammar, students are learning about topics related to media and digital literacy, cultural diversity and, for example, history.

This is the importance of film or picture language: the same visual language that professional filmmakers have developed in the form of art also works as moving images in memes or short videos on social media. Furthermore, acquiring film competence also means acquiring the ability to take a critical approach to any audiovisual work, to be able to analyse it.


Film literacy and media literacy – connections and differences

One area of debate and often confusion is the differences between film education and film literacy, and media education and media literacy. Media encompasses the mediums of radio, television, the printed press, film and video, and now all the digital versions of these.

While “film” is a partial fit in the media sphere, it is also an art form and medium of expression with its own distinctive “language”, picture grammar and system, developed over 125 plus years. By now we might say that all the audiovisual media uses the “literacy of film” to express itself visually. That is why we need to educate young people in film literacy, and this in turn causes the grammar of film or visualisation to evolve.

The language of film is everywhere – we even see it in basic multimedia games for kids. But it does work – educating through visualisation and storytelling, and in game situations it also helps to enhance and grow creativity.

When filmmakers compiled the environment “Film Education: A User’s Guide” they based it on three Cs with the premise that any person wishing to become competent in the language of film must take a Cultural, Creative and Critical approach.

Cultural background comes from heritage, a creative approach comes from getting involved and critical thinking starts with constantly analysing: What? Who? When? How? Why?


Mikk Rand

Mikk works at the Estonian Film Institute as the Film Literacy Project Manager. He started as a filmmaker in the 90s, making animated and feature movies and documentary films. Later on, his work became more oriented towards education exploring ways on how to use film to teach any subject. Mikk has organised many film workshops and courses for kids and to grown-ups, including for students and teachers. He sees storytelling, visualising and hands-on methods as the most effective ways of teaching.