How to Read a Film

How to Read a Film

Resources from Film Workshops at BAMPFA

Consider the importance of moving images in the lives of today's students. Between TV, film, and social media, the moving image is an indispensible part of learning and communicating information (and mis-information). How do film-makers convey their ideas and generate particular responses in film-viewers? What strategies can educators use to teach skills of critical film viewing and analysis? How to Read a Film introduced educators to techniques for the interpretation and analysis of film. Participants were exposed to films from around the world, while learning ways to engage students and teach core academic skills.

How to Read a Film workshops ran about 3 hours and were built around the program of offerings at UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive. In consultation with curators at the PFA, ORIAS selects films from the PFA program. Films are selected based on a combination of criteria: film-making techniques, social and historical context, and availability, among other factors.

Each workshop included:

  • a pre-viewing discussion to introduce the historical and social context for the film, along with one or two relevant film-making techniques and guiding questions to focus viewers' attention
  • film viewing in the PFA theater, including a film introduction by the curator and/or a guest scholar
  • a post-viewing discussion to interpret and analyze the film

Participants received electronic copies of pre-viewing information and links to access the film for classroom use (if available). 

How to Read a Film workshops ran at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). 

photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski Film via flickr (license)

Past Workshops

Case #1, Case #2

September 22, 2019

The focus of this workshop was a documentary by Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami. The film features a variety of individuals responding to a moral dilemma that plays out in a classroom. However, this straightforward concept is complicated by the fact that the film was shot during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and a number of the respondents are, themselves, significant actors in the events of the Revolution.

The pre-viewing discussion included:

  • Kiarostami's biography and the circumstances under which the film was made
  • a  brief timeline of the events of the Iranian Revolution
  • an introduction to a number of people featured in the film, including information Iranian viewers would have had about each one as they watched the film upon its release in 1980

Prior to watching, participants were given a set of framing questions that focused on the interplay between film-making techniques and the Revolutionary context in which the film was created and viewed:

  1. How does Kiarostami make use of the film-within-a-film motif? Does it affect your sense of intimacy or distance from his interviewees? Does it affect your sense of the passage of time? Does it make the film feel more or less real?
  2. How would you describe the mood of the film? Are the interviewees being interrogated with you, as viewer, in a position of power over them? Or is your relationship to them intimate with you, as viewer, invited to reflect along with them? What is it about the framing and focus of shots that makes you feel this way?
  3. Why identify some speakers before they talk, others mid-conversation, and others after they’ve spoken? How does this choice make use of the political context in which the film was created?


Case #1, Case #2 is not currently available for rental or purchase, though it is available for screening by theaters through Janus Films

Case #1, Case #2 event listing at BAMPFA

Case #1, Case #2 viewing guide from ORIAS

Iran's Revolutions from Crash Course History

Short videos about the 1979 Revolution from Choices

More in-depth explanation of the US relationship with Iran and events inside Iran from 1900 to 2000 from Origins at OSU

Episode on the 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh from Throughline podcast

The Search

April 28, 2019

This workshop focused on the work of Pema Tseden, a Tibetan director who is still producing films. Tseden's films are notable for exploring Tibetan identity within the limitations of Chinese film censorship.

The pre-viewing discussion focused on two topics:

  • Chinese minzu policy and "minority nationality" films in China
  • the Tibetan opera, Drime Kunden, and its relationship to traditional Tibetan values

Participants were asked to focus their viewing around three questions related to film-making technique:

  1. The Search incorporates unusually long takes with very little camera movement. How do these long takes make you feel and what do you find yourself looking at during each shot?
  2. How does Pema Tseden frame individual people and groups within space? How does this technique make you feel as you view?
  3. How does Pema Tseden position the camera vis á vis the actors? When does he break the 180-degree rule? What is the effect of each of these techniques for you, as viewer?


The Search event listing at BAMPFA

The Search is currently only available for purchase, not rental, from Icarus Films.

The Search viewing guide from ORIAS

"China’s ethnic policy in Xinjiang and Tibet: The move toward assimilation" from Sinica podcast goes into some depth about China's policies toward "ethnic minorities", past and present. It provides a historical and political context to understand all those incredible landscape shots in The Search.

"Quiet Storm: Pema Tseden and the emergence of Tibetan cinema" from White Crane Films reviews Pema Tseden's films, with particular focus on how he manages to engage questions about Tibetan identity, while operating within the limits of Chinese government censorship.

Zero for Conduct

November 17, 2018

This workshop focused on Jean Vigo's 1933 film, Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduit). The program also included another film by Vigo, À Propos de Nice. Zero for Conduct tells the story of a rebellion in a French boys' boarding school, and features a number of experimental film-making techniques.

The pre-viewing discussion focused on a number of contextual topics:

  • Vigo's family history, as the son of an anarchist/socialist who died in prison
  • the combination of rising authoritarianism and economic depression at the time the film was made
  • Vigo's influence on later French New Wave cinema of the 1950s and 1960s

To focus their viewing, participants were instructed to choose two or three of the following aspects of Vigo’s films and pay special attention to them while viewing. What ideas or feelings does Vigo generate in you through the use of each technique?

  • dialectical montage
  • animated drawing
  • camera tricks (like the disappearing ball)
  • slow-motion cinematography
  • backwards soundtrack


Zero for Conduct event listing at BAMPFA

"Vigo, Jean" from Senses of Cinema

"Zéro de conduite: Rude Freedom" from Criterion

Zero for Conduct [1933] - Old cinema [FR, ENG subs, public domain]

In the Year of the Pig

February 28, 2018

The inaugural How to Read a Film workshop included a viewing and discussion of Emile de Antonio's 1968 film, In the Year of the Pig, which critiqued American involvement in the Vietnam War. The film provides a great opportunity to discuss the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that documentary film-makers convey strong arguments through visual and audio techniques. The film's use of collage techniques and found footage also invite comparison to modern social media.

The pre-viewing discussion for this workshop focused on two contextual topics:

  • de Antonio's professional history
  • the political and social context within which In the Year of the Pig was made and released

Participants were asked to focus on two elements of the film as they viewed:

  1. How did de Antonio convey ideas and generate emotional responses through the use of collage?
  2. How did the soundtrack interact with the images to convey ideas and generate emotional responses?


In the Year of the Pig event listing at BAMPFA

In the Year of the Pig (full film)

"50 Years After "In the Year of the Pig" Radical Filmmaker Emile de Antonio Is As Important As Ever" from Cultured

"Conversations with Emile de Antonio" from Senses of Cinema

"Emile de Antonio" from 4Columns

Online Resources

College Film and Media Studies: A Reference Guide

This site, featuring contributions by students in various Film Studies programs, includes concise explanations of many elements of film, along with examples of analysis.

Soviet Montage: Crash Course Film History #8

The Kuleshov Effect - Everything You Need To Know

What Movie Sound Can Do

Quick Tips: Understanding The 180 Degree Rule!

Film Studies: 180° Degree Rule