A Teacher’s Guide to Use of Personal Essay Films

Personal essay films have been widely diffused to teachers and community organizations, because they so powerfully evoke responses from and make connections for audiences. They are also favorites of film scholars, who use them to demonstrate with all the drama of the personal voice, the formal structures in filmmaking.

Film scholars have been among the first to seize on these resources for teaching. Teachers used them to show formal innovation, combination of techniques, and the way in which films deal with questions of identity. It is easy to see why teachers like such films for this purpose. They are not only creative approaches to the medium, but they engage viewers’ curiosity and empathy with their personal stories. They are useful in many different classroom settings. For instance, the films we have selected for case studies could provide the basis for a film production-related or media studies course that might be called A New Personal Documentary. Some combination of these units would provide students with plenty to discuss, about stylistic choices, their relationship to what is said and shown, and the impact on audiences:

  1. The Persona of the Person in Personal Film. Films such as “Sherman’s March” and “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter” allow discussion of the crafting of a personal voice, as a stylistic choice, not a transparent representation;
  2. Collage as Critique. A film such as “History and Memory” or “Intimate Stranger” demonstrates the representation of documents and objects as a poetic device and in support of an argument;
  3. Enactment, Reenactment and Mockumentary. Films such as “Bontoc Eulogy”, reenactment scenes in “Means of Grace” and “Halving the Bones” raise the questions of what makes the difference between fiction and documentary, why documentarians often turn to some form of fiction or recreation, and how different reasons for that choice result in different stylistic choices;
  4. Diaries. Films such as “Legacy” and “Kelly Loves Tony” offer contrasting examples of ways to shape a diary film and ways to work with the diarist; in comparison with other films in the course, they can prompt a discussion of the difference between a diary and an essay;
  5. Journeys. “Regret to Inform” and “Family Name”, among others, demonstrate the opportunities and limitations of such structuring, and raise questions about the relationship between viewer and filmmaker
  6. Testimonial and witness. “Blood Lines” and “Calling the Ghosts” offer an opportunity to talk about private and public issues and spaces, and how they are defined;
  7. Collective personal voice. “A Question of Color” and “Tongues Untied” are two examples of a filmmaker’s choice to construct a collective voice, led by his or her own;
  8. Family secrets. With films such as “Personal Belongings”, “Delirium”, and “A Healthy Baby Girl”, family relationships become public, and sometimes painful. Each of these categories can also be an opportunity to either imagine or make a video based on students’ own lives, social networks, and concerns.

Teachers use these films for other subject areas, precisely because of their emotional richness and the way in which they perform the problems they discuss. Students find themselves drawn into an experience rather than studying a problem. In literature classes on autobiography, these films are rich texts. In sociology classes and within social work programs, they vividly address questions of power and culture. In communications classes, they demonstrate the relationship between media and power.

They are particularly good at dramatizing the human implications and consequences of large social forces. These small personal stories can be well used in relation to such broad issues as:

  • The conflicts of World War II and their impact on the innocent–the Holocaust (“Letter without Words”; “Children of Chabannes”; “Tango of Slaves”; “Diamonds in the Snow”), the U.S. Japanese internment (“Rabbit in the Moon”, “Family Gathering”, “History and Memory”);
  • Anti-colonial struggles that put an end to European imperialism and began an era of new struggles (“Allah Tantou”; “Lumumba”);
  • The Cold War and its far-flung implications and aftermath (“Personal Belongings”“Theme: Murder; “Means of Grace”).

These films work to illuminate big issues in history because they are small statements about big things. They are about resisting the voice of the powerful, and about claiming the power of representation. Sometimes they work to connect the disconnected, including students who have refined their skills at not caring about people who want them to learn.

They are interesting films to raise moral and philosophical issues, because they deal with how individuals can and do take responsibility in a life where very large forces set the terms and limits of action. Macky Alston’s search for family relationships across race lines in “Family Name”, Ross McElwee’s challenge to the traditions of white male elitism in “Sherman’s March”, Barbara Sonneborn’s questioning of the male terms of war in “Regret to Inform”, Judith Hefland’s indictment of corporate profiteering at the expense of women’s lives in “A Healthy Baby Girl”, Patricio Guzman’s struggle to break through official silence on repression and torture in Chile in “Chile Obstinate Memory” are all great launching pads for discussion about morality and society.

These films have some special advantages for classroom use. They are often shorter than fiction feature films, and they can easily be excerpted, with a short backgrounder. They function somewhat like inviting a guest speaker into the classroom; they are rich in the personality of the maker, and they have the authenticity of documentary. They are good discussion starters, because you can go right to the question of the speaker’s perspective, and what shapes and motivates it.

They also raise basic philosophical issues about how we know what we know. Because they are personal and individual stories, they make a claim to the truth of a perspective, and they also raise real, big questions about what we think we know, who tells it to us, how we know they are right, and whose version dominates. They are also testimony, each of them, to the importance of history, the importance of a public memory, of a record that represents the subjectivity of the participants. So these films are excellent tools to encourage critical thinking about the role of media in public life, the role of history in a culture, the role of representation in the maintaining of social power.

Finally, these films have had vigorous and varied lives as community and social activists have put them to work. Environmental toxics campaigns have found “A Healthy Baby Girl” a way to galvanize viewers into a realization of the connections between corporate action and public health. Caregivers organizations have made common cause using “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter”. Activists have used “Golden Threads” to secure better treatment for elderly lesbians in nursing homes and senior communities. Human rights organizations have organized campaigns using films such as “Sacrifice” and “Calling the Ghosts”. Bereavement groups have turned to “Theme: Murder” to educate members and spur discussion.

The stories that these films tell, open-ended as they are, are only the beginning of the connections to be made with them.