Cinema Circus Fights Bullies With Film Literacy

by Megan -

In 2001, before Netflix and movies on demand could deliver just about any flick imaginable directly to the nearest screen, movies other than your typical Hollywood blockbuster were not necessarily easy to come by – especially when you’re surrounded by water, with only two theaters and one local video store in the 100 square miles of land. This is the dilemma Thomas Bena ran into after he rented the local Martha’s Vineyard video store clean. In need of a good film, Thomas and friends rented the Grange Hall in West Tisbury and found some independent filmmakers willing to share their work with the Vineyard community. And just like that, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival was born, an alternative movie experience where locals could find “fantastic films, exotic food, art, and music.”

Thirteen years later, the Festival is still going strong and has even grown to include a children’s division that is doing pretty spectacular things for the Vineyard’s youth. That division was launched five years ago to cater to the younger crowd, designed with a dual mission to promote community interaction and film literacy. But they wanted to go beyond playing children’s movies, so two years ago, MVFF developed Cinema Circus.

We wanted to give families more than just a film screening,” says Lindsey Scott, the Director of Children’s Programs at MVFF. Which is exactly what families get with Cinema Circus – the ultimate festival experience. The weekly event begins outside, where families can socialize with one another, playing dress up and getting faces painted with the children. During the second half, the ringmaster calls everyone around the tent, where all of the circus performers and “animals” (they’ve got a lion and an elephant – played and powered by humans!) gather together. Cinema Circus even has a film literacy character named Professor Projector, who leads the parade inside to watch films from around the world.

When we created these other elements – face painting, art activities, etc. – we were able to hook more and more people, even getting families with really small children,” Lindsey says. “We’re trying to do a little something for everyone, and it’s been very successful! We have a mix of between 150 and 250 kids and adults every week. Cinema Circus is very playful, it has a great energy; we’re trying to crack open kids’ creativity and imagination, giving them opportunities to do things like dressing up and animating. Plus, we’re giving them this unique exposure to independent, really creative unique short films from around the world.

With such strong community engagement, Lindsey and her team were invited to start an education program in one of the elementary schools on the island, the Chilmark School. Throughout the 2012 – 2013 school year, MVFF joined the Chilmark students from kindergarten through fifth grade every Friday to explore the art of theater and filmmaking. Through film, MVFF developed a project that would address the serious issue of bullying in a positive way.

Eager to expand our education programs in local schools, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival designed a stop motion animation curriculum with positive student interaction at its heart. We began by laying a foundation of film literacy. Students were invited to be engaged film viewers and to investigate how filmmakers tell stories,” Lindsey explains in the introduction of a short video created to showcase the students’ work.

The MVFF team explained the ins and outs of filmmaking, covering topics like how different shots convey different information, such as place and mood, dialogue, or emotion. The children then broke off into small groups comprised of students from every grade level, with fourth and fifth graders acting as directors and producers. Together, the students imagined their stories and created dialogue and action to capture common, difficult situations on the playground. The children created storyboards for the scenes they were creating, displaying how the story would unfold and which types of shots they were using to communicate the story.

Lindsey continues, “Each group confronted a challenging situation and was asked to describe how the scene might go. Some stories depict scenes where students easily find ways to include each other and to share, while others depict situations where a resolution was more difficult and students were excluded or not treated well.

After spending the first half of the school year learning filmmaking concepts, the students were ready to begin filming. To shoot their stop motion animations, the program employed iStopMotion for iPad – Lindsey’s recommendation. “I tried lots of different apps before iStopMotion,” she comments. “I was drawn to its functionality. I was interested in finding an app that was simple to use and had a few available buttons but plenty of adjustability, like the light balance and focus. Then I needed to go back and figure out how to teach it, presenting in a way that was organized so the students could answer their own questions, because this wasn’t just teaching fourth and fifth graders how to animate; they had to immediately turn into teachers themselves.”

Luckily, the kids had mastered the animation app almost instantly. “The kids were whizzes with iStopMotion and iMovie, they took no time at all to get oriented with how to use it and how to work together to use it,” Lindsey recalls. “It really took little effort to get the older kids engaged. They jumped right in and were the administrators of the technology. That was really satisfying to see them with patience and confidence teach the younger kids how to use the program, while those children were the puppeteers building the sets and moving figures. It worked out really, really well.”

So well, in fact, that Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival has been invited back for another year of stop motion animation fun! In the meantime, the folks from MVFF have been keeping their iStopMotion animation skills fresh with animation stations at the weekly Cinema Circus events. With an MVFF stop motion expert manning each station, kids can jump right into animating.

We’ve found it’s bringing a nice element of hands-on activity to the event, especially for older kids who seem to be pretty captivated by this opportunity,” Lindsey says. “Our goal is to open people’s eyes to the software and how simple stop motion animation can be, and to get kids working together who didn’t necessarily come together. That’s what’s awesome about doing a community event – blending different groups, with children of all ages working together to tell a story.”

Through new education initiatives and community engagement programs, Lindsey and her MVFF colleagues have not only been able to teach children about film literacy and the art of filmmaking, but they’ve educated them on the serious issues of bullying in an engaging way that helps drive concepts home. And when students have the opportunity to explore new ways of communicating and working together while viewing and discussing film art from the world over, no amount of square footage can limit their imaginations.