“It is a document of a love for cinema and a sophisticated vision of its potentials for each and every individual. It is, equally, a manifesto”, Alexander Horwath and Alejandro Bachmann write in their preface to the first English translation of Alain Bergala’s The Cinema Hypothesis. Indeed, right at the beginning, I’d like to address the reputation of Bergala’s book as the essential reference on film education. Obviously you cannot teach film without a deep understanding of the medium, therefore the ingenuity of the book doesn’t primarily lie in its value for educational purposes but in the ideas it formulates about the essence, theory and practice of film. Grounded by a thorough understanding of cinema, Bergala articulates a number of propositions how to approach, talk about and share films. These propositions, however, make a great starting point for further investigations in educational matters – therein lies the grandeur of Bergala’s book.
Bergala wrote the book in 2002, two years after he was appointed an advisor to Jack Lang, France’s secretary of education at the time. Lang tried to implement new ways to teach art in schools and Bergala should contribute his experience as a writer, teacher and filmmaker to create innovative models of film education. The book, more or less, originated from Bergala’s work at the ministry of education: on the one hand, sharing his practical experiences on the project, on the other hand, thinking about certain principles in film educational matters that could be deducted from his work there. The book should not be taken as a guideline on how to implement film education in school. It’s not a manual that lists all the necessary initiatives for such an endeavor, nor does it recollect the steps taken by the French ministry of education, but rather tries to outline a system of thoughts that led to these steps.
There are two central concepts which somewhat anchor Bergala’s view on film education: “le passeur” and “l’alterité”. The passeur (a term he borrows from Serge Daney) is a special kind of teacher, a mentor who passes down his knowledge and enthusiasm for a subject. His objective is to incite passion in his students, triggering a chain reaction, Horwath and Bachmann call it “learning by contagion”. L’alterité can be translated as otherness. It’s the encounter with otherness that needs to take place in education – for the school is often the only place where children can encounter this otherness (in the form of art). Art is, paraphrasing Godard, the exception to the rule of the everyday. It “cannot be taught, but must be encountered, experienced, transmitted by other means than the discourse of mere knowledge […]. Teaching is concerned with the rule, while art must aspire to the rank of the exception.” Obviously, the encounter with otherness is strongly tied to the idea of the teacher as passeur, who not so much teaches a predetermined set of facts but needs to transmit experiences. Thus, it’s not as important to teach some kind of filmic grammar, than to talk about “something that burns in the shot” (Jean-Marie Straub).
Contrary to the usual way film is taught in schools, it’s not so much about trying to proof that films, videos or TV shows the children watch for entertainment are “bad objects” in themselves, by superficial ideologically-driven analyses of a few selected examples, but rather to give them a chance to encounter films that are somehow different than the ones they know. Bergala states that only little by little, by having seen numerous films or film excerpts and comparing them to one another, the children can acquire taste which will help them appreciating films that are “resistant” at first, but eventually can provide intellectual pleasure which regular media products, that are aiming for quick consumption, could never provide: “The pleasure of understanding is as emotional and gratifying as the supposedly ‘innocent’ pleasure of pure consumption.”
In the later parts of the book, Bergala goes more into detail, outlining his methodology of film analysis, presenting the DVD collection he implemented for use in school and closing with some chapters on filmmaking in school, where he points out, that film education should always include practical exercises where the children could make creative decisions themselves. He also gives a quite prophetic outlook into the digital culture of the near-future (which is, now, the present), especially in his assessment of the relatively new medium of DVD and its technological and pedagogical potential.
The experience of reading The Cinema Hypothesis was rewarding. At the very least, Bergala’s prose succeeds in transposing his enthusiasm for film: the way he describes films that had a lasting impression on him, the way he writes about the gratifying experience of working with children, the way he struggles for words in sharing his passion. I really felt quite the same compassion while reading the book, I found new enthusiasm to converse about film, to share and defend my views, to fight for what I care about. For me personally, this was as valuable as the insights into the field of film education and the astute theoretical observations in the book.