Moving minds with moving images: Peace education through film

Films used as part of peace education can help students cultivate mindful attention and reflection that can in turn lead to empathy and intercultural understanding.

August 02, 2023 by Chairat Chongvattanakij, UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok, and Phinith Chanthalangsy, UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok
4 minutes read
Two girls watch an online platform in Timor-Leste, which allows them to access a range of audiovisual material to help them continue learning during school closures.
Credit: UNICEF/UNI320803/Soares

The prerequisites for peace include both the absence of direct violence (“negative peace”) and the presence of social justice (“positive peace”). Accordingly, peace education seeks to equip learners with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values needed to resolve conflicts, create conditions for individual and collective emancipation from any form of oppression, and thereby fashion more equitable and inclusive societies.

But educationalists face a major challenge. After all, peace cannot simply be decreed or preached into existence. Peace education is not a matter of technical know-how or recipes. Rather, it entails the application of emotional intelligence to nourish a culture of peace.

Indeed, given the multidisciplinary and somewhat evanescent nature of peace education, various peace pedagogies can be implemented or continuously reinvented to suit local contexts.

As part of an arts-based pedagogy, the medium of film can help students cultivate mindful attention and reflection conducive to empathy and intercultural understanding.

But why do films wield such power?

Early examples of using films to educate

The educational value of film has long been recognized. In 1912, the New York Evening Journal published an editorial with the headline, “The Power of Moving Pictures: They Will Educate, through the Eye, Hundreds of Millions of Children.” Essentially, films can capture and dramatize the flux of time, thereby affording viewers a captivating opportunity to interrogate experience and question assumptions.

Peace studies have taught us that peace is a diverse and relational phenomenon that must accommodate images and efforts from diverse cultures, as well as from the marginal strata of society. Films capture images and efforts, weaving them into plots, characters and aesthetic experiences that engage our sensitivity in an irresistible manner.

The January 1955 issue of the UNESCO Courier hailed the potential of films in fostering intercultural dialogue: “One can visit a cinema in Greece, for example, and see a Japanese film spoken in Japanese and carrying Greek subtitles—an unheard of thing a few years ago.”

In a 2011 opinion survey, 98% of surveyed teachers across the United Kingdom responded that “film is a useful teaching tool,” and all of them agreed that “exposure to a wide range of films helps to broaden children’s understanding of the world and other cultures.”

African filmmakers educate on the continent’s heritage

Let us consider one noteworthy initiative in this regard. In 2021, UNESCO and Netflix launched the competition “African Folktales Reimagined” with the aim of supporting young African filmmakers and promoting the continent’s cultural heritage and creative diversity on the global stage. Production grants were awarded to six finalists, resulting in a multilingual anthology of short films released on Netflix in March 2023.

Nigerian filmmaker Femi Odugbemi, who was on the panel of judges for the competition, underscored that this project is important “because the greatest education anyone receives is to travel into the unknown worlds of history, so we can grow the respect and understanding necessary to maintain and preserve mutual respect and peace in the world.” These short films are also notable for featuring strong female protagonists and unflinchingly tackling issues like gender-based violence, suicide and child marriage.

With MaMlambo, South African filmmaker Gcobisa Yako wanted to subvert the “typical and patriarchal portrayal” in folktales, whereby women are often “vilified and shamed.” In doing so, the film simultaneously draws attention to modern structural violence against women that persists in hampering positive peace in South Africa and beyond.

Films to empower today’s learners

Even though peace cannot be decreed, its presence—as well as its absence, the unfortunate reality for many—can certainly be perceived, felt, and experienced in our emotional lives and through the rich imagination that we develop thanks to films.

If we think that young people today, as the media insists, are no longer interested in politics because they are not capable of believing in ideologies or ideals, let us observe them watch a movie.

Jean-François Lyotard may be right in noting that postmodern youth are characterized by “incredulity towards metanarratives,” but films can nonetheless sensitize them to the gamut of transformative emotional experiences.

In an age of ubiquitous audiovisual content, peace education should leverage the vivid multisensorial experience of films to engage and stimulate students.

Indeed, psychological research suggests that systematic film-based courses can foster personal responsibility and positive behaviors. And more broadly, the plurality of fictional and non-fictional narratives we encounter, or author and choreograph in the course of our lives, contribute to shaping the characters of our subjectivity.

In building a culture of peace, what could be more essential than nurturing subjectivity and intersubjectivity? Ultimately, film literacy may hold the key in empowering learners to flourish as creative agents of peace.

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