Many films revolve around the topic of culture in some form. Popular themes are, for instance, conflicts between first and second-generation immigrants, interethnic romance, culture shock when people experience a new culture for the first time, and conflicts when the values and beliefs of the members of different cultural communities clash. If we come from the same cultural background as the community shown in the film or if we are familiar with it, it is probably easy for us to assess how realistically a situation and the character(s) are portrayed. However, it is more difficult for us to determine how accurately they are represented if we have not been in touch with the community in question.
Fortunately, there are some easily accessible resources available into which we can tap for this type of information. First of all, movie reviews are a highly useful resource, both in print media and online. Apart from the author’s evaluation of the movie, we may obtain information on the background of the film and the people involved in its production, such as the director, the screenwriter and actors. In addition, on video platforms such as YouTube, the trailer, interviews with the director and actors and movie reviews can be found. Further information can be accessed by typing a question in the search box of a search engine, for example, on how the film was received by members of the community portrayed in the film. Moreover, the bonus material on a DVD often provides useful information on the making of the film and interviews with the people involved in its production. This information helps us to spot stereotypical portrayals and a plot lacking in credibility and authenticity.
When deciding if a film is suitable for teaching purposes, another essential aspect is its age. This doesn’t mean that only contemporary films are valid for classroom use, but we have to be aware of the fact that cultures are subject to constant change and that the social realities a film portrays may therefore not be relevant anymore if the film is dated. A non-contemporary film is a kind of historical document that can be studied to examine the social and political circumstances of a particular era and to locate its cultural assumptions.
Furthermore, a film tends to reflect the values held at the time of its production and the prevailing ideas regarding issues such as race, religion, gender, family structures and authority. Incidentally, even if a film is a historical period drama, the hairstyles and makeup in fashion at the time of its production are replicated in some way. This means that regardless of whether a film is set in contemporary times or in the past, it is a product of the particular period of time when it was made and must be seen in that context.
The following questions can be used as a guideline to determine if a film can be considered for exploring culture-related topics in the classroom:
Who is the screenwriter? What is his/her background?
Is the film based on a novel/ a true story? How was the book received?
Who is the director? What is his/her background?
Did the director have cultural consultants? Are these consultants well-reputed (if this is possible to ascertain)?
Who are the actors? What is their background?
What genre is the movie (drama, comedy, documentary…)?
When was the film made?
How was the film reviewed?
How was it received by the community that is portrayed in the film?
Is the plot plausible?
Do you feel that some of the characters are shown in a stereotypical way?