Journeys in Film: A Children’s Program

Inside Manhattan’s City Hall Academy on a dark and wet Friday morning this past February, actor Liam Neeson introduced some 35 New York City public school teachers to Journeys in Film, a nonprofit educational program using feature-length foreign films such as Whale Rider, Bend it Like Beckham, and The Cup as a springboard to instill cultural awareness and tolerance among middle school students. Neeson, national spokesman for Journeys, stressed the importance of creating global citizens and said he was honored to be in a room full of teachers, explaining that he comes from a family of teachers himself and highly respects the profession. Neeson ended his brief introduction by telling the teachers their work is vital to the long-term well being of the United States. “For the next generation,” he said, “knowledge of the world is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

Neeson’s appearance was followed by a Journeys in Film workshop—a professional development seminar for teachers sponsored by the New York City Board of Education—that included sample lesson plans and a screening of Children of Heaven, another film used in Journeys curriculum.

Journeys, which was officially unveiled to more than 4,500 students in seven cities in 2004 and could reach as many as 50,000 students in the 2005-2006 school year, is the creation of Joanne Ashe, whose background certainly informs the program. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Ashe grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s in Beverly, Massachusetts, among families of numerous ethnicities. She holds a master’s degree in humanistic education and has curated art exhibits on racism as well as children’s mental health issues. She’s also the mother of two daughters and an adopted son, who is originally from Siberia. That experience prompted Ashe to work for an international adoption agency and, later, to co-produce The Waiting Children, a short documentary taking viewers inside Russian orphanages that appeared at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

Ashe, who serves as Journeys executive director, says the idea to teach children through film came to her during the 2001 Palm Springs International Film Festival, held a few months after 9/11. At the festival, Ashe saw nine films, two of which, she says, “stood out and got me thinking.” One, Abandoned (2001), written and directed by Hungarian-born Árpád Sopsits, follows a young boy thrown into an orphanage even though his parents are still alive. The second, Baran (2001), written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, focuses on an unlikely relationship in Tehran between a 17-year-old Kurdish worker and a young Afghan with a secret. “After that film,” Ashe says, “while the credits were still rolling, I came up with the idea.”

Originally, Ashe thought the project, which today involves in-class screenings as well as pre- and post-screening discussions and related lessons and assignments, would be geared towards high school students and focus on human rights issues. “In order to reach the masses,” she says, “I knew early on I had to take the project to schools, rather than theaters.” She also figured kids wouldn’t care as much about a human rights issue unless they were familiar with the culture in which it was based. So she thought to take the program to middle schools and center it on connecting to characters and story, which she hoped would lead to cultural understanding. Ashe then decided to combine the program with geography, history, and social studies lessons. “It was a way to get into schools,” she says. “It couldn’t be arts-based, because arts funding was being cut.”

While the idea began to grow, Ashe met Neeson in a bar in New York. Two of her daughter’s friends were appearing with him in a Broadway production of The Crucible, and at an after-party, Ashe was introduced to the actor and thanked him for his moving portrayal of Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List. Ashe’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and her father worked in Schindler’s factory. “That film validated my parents’ lives,” Ashe says. “Until then, survivors had largely been forgotten.” After Ashe told Neeson all this, he said, “God bless you. And God bless your father. Tell me about him.”

She did, and then told Neeson about her idea for Journeys. “I just let it out,” she says, “and right away he said, ‘How
can help you?’” On the spot, Ashe asked Neeson if he’d be her national spokesperson, and he agreed. “It was still an idea then,” she says, “but that got me focused.”

The first Journeys screening occurred in 2003 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at a theater not far from where Ashe lives and bases Journeys. (For logistical reasons, screenings are now held in classrooms.) About 250 kids from five schools watched The Cup (1999), a film about two young Tibetan refugees who, along with several teenage monks, are transformed during the broadcast of soccer’s World Cup. Ashe hoped the kids watching would be transformed, too.

The outcome didn’t disappoint. “At the end of the film the kids were clapping,” Ashe says. “And during the Q&A, they were jumping out of their seats to ask questions.” Before the film rolled, kids were asked to look out for stereotyping, various cultural objects, and the different ways in which food is prepared and people greet each other—all of which is standard procedure in Journeys’ lesson plans. Kids were also asked what they’d think if they were to meet a Tibetan boy who wore an orange robe with a sash. “Most thought it would be ‘weird,’” says Ashe. “But after the film, when we asked them the same question, they said it would be ‘cool.’ It went from weird to cool. And that was our data.” Additional data came a few weeks later when Ashe heard that many kids had asked their teachers if a Tibetan exchange student could come to their school.

In 2003 and 2004, while searching for other middle school-appropriate films with which to rollout the project on a wider scale, Ashe focused on creating alliances and landing funding. As a result, she discovered Building Bridges: A Peace Corps Classroom Guide to Cross-Cultural Understanding, an online resource that teaches students about the universal aspects of culture and the ways in which it influences behavior. Ashe thought Building Bridges would complement Journeys and today, the curriculum includes it. The Peace Corps’ Donna Molinari, who works alongside Ashe, praises the program. “I know of no other organization that approaches cross-cultural understanding in such a meaningful and effective way,” she says of Journeys. “Films are meticulously screened for content as well as screenwriting quality, and students are drawn in by seeing their own likeness on screen—but in a far away place.”

Ashe also formed an advisory board, which includes actor, director, and writer Harold Ramis; Alan Dershowitz, a prominent law professor at Harvard University; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor and chair of The African and African American Studies Department, also at Harvard. Ashe says, “I wanted to get the blessing of the film industry and the heavy hitters in the academic world and connect them together.” Ramis, a Chicago resident and friend of Ashe’s prior to joining the Journeys board, connected her with the CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan, who was instrumental in bringing Journeys to his city.

As for funding, actress Shirley MacLaine, the former chairperson of the New Mexico Film Office’s Film Advisory Board, heard about Journeys, loved the idea, and took it to an anonymous Hollywood philanthropist who wrote Ashe a generous check. Soon after, Ashe hired cross-cultural communications specialist Anna Mara Rutins and filmmaker Ethan Silverman to help out. Silverman, who wrote and directed The Waiting Children (the film Ashe co-produced), writes Journeys’s lesson plans specific to teaching film as literature. “For example,” Ashe says, “with Children in Heaven, we show students how to look at the structure of the film through a pair of shoes. We also teach them what to look for in a film, such as the use of different camera angles, and about perspective in film.” Ashe explains that the lesson plan for The Cup includes asking kids what monks playing soccer with a coke can says about the West’s influence on the Tibetan culture. “So kids are also learning about their own culture too,” she says.

In September 2004, Journeys’s pilot program began in Chicago, Tulsa, Seattle, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Toronto, and New York. Support has come from production companies such as DreamWorks and Miramax, which donated DVDs of its films to be used in classrooms, as well as from corporate sponsors, including Continental Airlines, Liberty Group Publishing, and Ameritest. So far, Ashe says Journeys hasn’t run into any major obstacles, and teachers couldn’t be more pleased.

“The opportunity to invite students to look at a problem from the viewpoint of another culture is remarkable,” says Georgia Piechpander, a teacher in Chicago. Students at her school were “spellbound with The Cup,” she says. “They laughed in all the right spots and really related to the little ‘wheeler-and-dealer’ character.” She adds that the subtitles kept students engaged throughout, rather than turn them off, and many kids expressed an interest in the Dalai Lama, so some classes did extra research.

Meg Venckus, another Chicago teacher, recently showed her students Children of Heaven (which, like Baran, one of Ashe’s inspirations for Journeys, was written and directed by Majid Majidi). “A few kids actually cried when Ali told Zohre he’d lost her shoes,” says Venckus, who adds that as a result of the film, her students “gained a better feel for the land, customs, and people of Iran than any chapter unit could ever provide.”

Bradley Goodman, who teaches fifth and sixth graders at New York’s East Village Community School, has held viewings of both The Cup and Children of Heaven. “The kids enjoyed The Cup,” he says, “but they loved, and were very moved by Children of Heaven. They were amazed at how important an old and very un-cool pair of shoes were to the kids in the film.” Goodman explains that his students often obsess over their expensive sneakers and says they were also surprised that the Iranian family in the film had such a beautiful house with a courtyard and fountain, even though they were clearly poor. “It’s just fascinating to see them making connections and realizing the differences in priorities in other cultures,” Goodman says. “Although my students live in New York, their own worlds are actually rather small. Watching and discussing films from other countries and cultures has been enlightening for them, priming them to think on a global level.” Goodman partially attributes the Journeys curriculum for inspiring his students to initiate an in-class project that involves raising money for a school in Sudan.

Along with affecting participating students, Journeys has provided an additional outlet for filmmakers. Ashe says several filmmakers have asked her to look at their films, and one, Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, expressed hopes that Ashe would bring Journeys to Iraqi school children. Ashe, in turn, would like to use one of Ghobadi’s films, Turtles Can Fly (2004), as part of Journeys’ curriculum. But due to its mature subject matter—the film focuses on two Kurdish teenagers living in a refugee camp in Iraq near the Turkish border on the eve of the American invasion—she admits it would have to be included in a future series for high school, not middle school students. “Eventually, we would like to have a series on films with strong messages that bring issues to the forefront,” she says, echoing her original idea for the program. “Journeys was developed to teach kids about other cultures, rather than issues, but that will come.”

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Derek Loosvelt is a Brooklyn based freelance writer.