Early & Silent Film

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A Level Film Studies



WJEC A Level Film Studies Syllabuses


The WJEC has schemes in both GCSE and GCE Film Studies. The AS sections of the latter have some scope for studying silent film: whilst the A2 section has specific module options on silent film. For the next year or so the situation is slightly complicated as the Board are introducing a new syllabus. The changes to AS will start to take effect in 2008 – 2009, but [as far as I can see] most students this year will follow the existing syllabus for A2. The following comments apply to that syllabus, 2007 – 2008.


There could be scope for silent films to be used as part of wider topics in the first year [AS} modules, for example, early examples of genre films or British films. I have used Hindle Wakes [UK 1927] as an example in the study sections of British Cinema. I have also used short early films like the British film Rescued by Rover (1905), or US films like The Great Train Robbery [1903] or A Corner in Wheat [1909], in studying aspects of film technique and style.


The second year [A2] modules do specifically list topics on silent cinema. However, the choice is a little tricky. In the World Cinema Module [FS5] there is an option on German and Soviet Film of the 1920s. However, all the examination questions for this option that I have seen required students to study both cinemas. I think this is beyond the time available for groups to study one option. The syllabus suggests ‘exploring how films from both countries advanced cinema as a visual medium’. It then proposes titles that fall into the categories of either ‘Soviet Montage’ or German Expressionism’. And the two study films listed for the examination [Nosferatu, 1922 and Strike, 1924] also fit these categories.  And it mentions ‘artistic and political factors’. I think the gulf that separates filmmakers in Weimar Germany, part of a capitalist system, and those in the Soviet Union where [despite the New Economic Policy] there were serious limitations on capitalist political economy, make this a suspect endeavour. It tends towards that unhappy practice where students are shown the Odessa Step sequence from The Battleship Potemkin (1925) as an illustration of ‘montage’. Hopefully, it does look as if the news scheme will allow a choice [as happens in the other FS5 options], and will set questions in future that allow students to study one or other of these important industries.


In FS6, on Critical Debates, there is an option of Early Cinema, before 1917. Prescribing this topic by a period seems rather arbitrary and I think important trends cross over this dividing line. Certainly, students would benefit from viewing films that show the continuing developments beyond this date. The Early and Silent Cinema book discusses a number of films and filmmakers from the early period. The Lumières and Méliès, British directors like G. A. Smith and Hepworth, and, of course, Griffith in the USA, are all good subjects for study. The Russian Evgenii Bauer would provide an interesting contrast, and like those above is available on video.


One of the suggested texts in Teachers’ Notes is D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation [1915]. This epic film could clearly be approached from number of these aspects. I would however strongly urge comparative studies regarding this film. It is generally considered extremely racist. There are now available on the Internet video copies of African –American films from the early period. In particular, a very good study would be Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates [1921], a film that was a direct riposte to the pro-South romanticism of Griffith.


One way of handling the contradictions is to make Silent Film a larger and broader component across the three modules of the second year. It is possible to include Silent Films in most of the options in Modules 4 and 5. Thus there are a whole series of ‘auteur’ type directors working on silent film: Griffith, Hitchcock, Sjöström, Eisenstein, Lang, Epstein, … Silent films certainly help to fill out students’ sense of genre and stardom, especially in the way these have developed over time. And the [FS6] Critical Studies issues around Censorship, Performance, Independent film, Audience and Gender would offer rich material in the silent period.


Just to offer some examples. If the pre-1917 option were offered then a study of D. W. Griffith as an ‘auteur’ in FS4 Making Meaning would be an option. This could be extended to studies of the growth and increasing dominance of Hollywood in this period and even the development of censorship institutions: both topics suitable for [FS4] Producers and Audiences. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is the key film in the development of Hollywood, both economically and stylistically. His films provide some of the earliest stars of the new medium. And his more controversial films spark action under the emerging censorship institutions. His early stars, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, offer contrasting types of on-screen femininity and both became powerful players in later Hollywood.


Clearly, most students do not have much experience of early film. However, when presented sympathetically it can engage their attention. A colleague used to start his courses with a one of the great silent melodramas. And that can work, because in many ways the parameters laid down in the teens and twenties are still central to modern cinema. The star system, narrative forms, and the tendency to melodramatic approaches all develop in this period. Continuity editing proper develops at the end of this period, but the simple tool of crosscutting remains one of the most powerful techniques available to filmmakers.



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