Lassie Come Home - to the School Library

Shrek, E.T., Lassie, Billy Elliot and Orson Welles will be welcome guests in Israel's classrooms when school opens, this year and in years to come, in the wake of the Education Ministry's new list of recommended films. The list, organized by grade level, is to be distributed to kindergartens and schools within two months. Teachers will be encouraged to screen them and discuss them in class.

Years after visual culture, particularly movies and television, became central in children's lives, and long after the recognition of film as the seventh art, ministry officials finally decided that the time has come to use cinema as an educational tool and to expose students to its artistic qualities.

"If there is a list of recommended children's books, why shouldn't there be a similar list of films?," Senior Supervisor for Media and Cinema at the ministry, Dorit Ballin, who drafted the list, said. Film is often perceived as an inferior, mass medium, Ballin said, an approach the new program aims to change. "Movies must be on the shelves at every school," she argued, in order to clarify the fact that film is a respected art."

Ministry officials came to see that just as they issue recommendations for literature and theater, a list of recommended films was needed. "It is untenable that a student can finish school without being familiar with 'Citizen Kane,'" Ballin said. "He must know that such a film exists, that it is a classic, and that it was produced in 1940 - that is, at the height of World War II. In addition to its cinematic significance, no contemporary article on the power of the press and media fails to mention that film," Ballin stated.

Ballin, a film school graduate, met with film and education experts to collect recommendations. "On the final list, I chose to include classics, more popular films and also ones I call three-star movies - good films that are not necessarily masterpieces. That decision was based on the assumption that a child who picks a movie next to 'Citizen Kane' on the shelf may become curious and take that as well. It's a way to expose children to movies and foster their interest in film," she said.

Lighter fare such as "Billy Elliot," "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," "The Breakfast Club" as well as old and new animated films deemed appropriate for younger children thus appear on the list together with "Apocalypse Now," "Citizen Kane" and "Modern Times."

What were the guiding principles behind the choices? In addition to classics ("I included a Charlie Chaplin film in the lists for almost every age group"), Ballin took pains to include Israeli films ("Broken Wings" and "Yellow Asphalt"), foreign films that are not American ("Watching films should also expose pupils to different languages and cultures"), and films that highlight schools and the role of the teacher (such as "Dead Poets Society" and "The Sound of Music").

Preference was given to films with relevance for other academic subjects. "Citizen Kane" is relevant to media studies; "Dead End" [an Israeli film called "No Exit" in Hebrew] provides a lesson in citizenship and the workings of mass media works, while "March of the Penguins" teaches about nature. "Many considerations influenced the choice of films," Ballin explained, "but the main one was to teach students to be critical citizens and to love film and artistic creation. Nowadays, when everything is fast and very short, like YouTube, it's not so easy to watch an hour-and-a-half-long, black-and-white movie. You have to love film in order to do that."

Ballin admitted that she avoided movies with sex or violence, attributing the decision to the fact that the list is also intended for the state religious schools network. The list will be part of a teachers' workbook with recommendations about guiding classroom discussions on the films. The main instructions are to listen to what the students have to say about the film ("and not to ask them about the director's intentions, the way they used to ask about the poet's intentions," Ballin emphasized); to permit them to talk about the emotions the films aroused in them, and to encourage them to express a variety of opinions about the films.

Ballin hopes that every school will soon have copies of every recommended film for each age group, and that the list will be updated and expanded each year. Teachers will select films to screen and discuss in class, and students will also be free to check out any film on the list to view on their own.

This vision, like all grand visions, will not be easy to realize. There are significant copyright issues that must be addressed, and films meant for screening to dozens of pupils cost more than films intended for home viewing only. The ministry is still negotiating with distributors to find a solution that will fit its pocket.