Educational filmmaker Rachael Lawson tells us about her experience helping students in Hong Kong make documentaries about something important to them, through the medium of English.
How did the project come about?
It has long been a dream of mine to run a film festival to showcase students’ work. The chance was offered to me by Friends of the British Council (a registered charity) through funding.
Filmmaking is difficult but can also be very rewarding. Filmmakers need to be creative and have something to say but they also need to be able to work in a team and problem solve. Working with young people to help them develop these life skills through filmmaking is very rewarding.
We worked with schools which might not have had the chance to offer a filmmaking project before. We had a wide range of students from different backgrounds and ethnic minorities. Most of the students hadn't made films before and none of them were native English speakers.
How did the project work?
The focus was documentary filmmaking with the added challenge that all the films were to be produced in English. We wanted to make it real for the students and give them the chance to make a film about something that was important to them.
We launched a project website with activities, information and discussions that the students could access without a teacher.
The students formed groups, submitted proposals, and attended a hands-on filmmaking masterclass where we looked at shot types, sound, lighting, interviewing, filming techniques and editing.
The project received a huge amount of support from the community. Richard Sargent, senior editor for global news agency AFP TV, told us that “getting young people involved in journalism is crucial for the industry's future”. I capitalized on this enthusiasm by creating a networking event where journalists, photographers, filmmakers and people working in sound talked to the students.
How did you deal with the fact that English wasn't their native language?
Many of the students had fairly low levels of English and weren't confident using it so for many the duel challenge was to make a film and produce it in English.
The project didn't overtly focus on teaching English as we wanted it to be live and real and give the students a chance to experience a project where they used English for a purpose rather than studied it. So for example, teachers assisted as script editors, working with the students in a very similar way that scripts are edited as part of any other filmmaking process, making sure they got their messages across in clear English. The students responded very well to this approach.
As film is a visual medium it meant that we were able to convey quite complex concepts through English film clips. I think this alongside the hands on activities gave them a sense of confidence and engaged them.
What really stood out about this project was the work the students put in and their efforts to use English in their films. From meeting them early in the project and then watching their films I would say that through this project they had really improved their confidence using English.
What topics did they cover?
Topics included education for Islamic girls, the US involvement in the lives of Muslims in Hong Kong, the poverty gap in Hong Kong, virtual gaming, ethnic costumes and food, and teens over-using smart phones. They used interviews, surveys, voice-overs, graphics, music, presenters. They thought about how to present the information in a way that was progressive, told a story and was engaging to the viewer.
How did the students respond to the project?
Many students found the project difficult but ultimately rewarding and an amazing opportunity. One student wrote
This is my first time shooting a documentary and it really developed my shooting and editing skills. As a group member, I also learnt how to co-operate with each other because in the beginning, I really didn't put much effort but in the end, I tried my best to finish our project and we succeed. It was not easy shooting documentary and it really takes a lot of hard work and so it was such a nice experience and had a great time being involved.
At the film festival I was unable to stop myself crying as I started the welcome speech. The whole project far exceeded my expectations through the level of engagement from the students, the teachers and the community. It felt like we had been given the chance to help young people make a difference and become future filmmakers who will influence change.