Alain Bergala. The Cinema Hypothesis: Teaching Cinema in the Classroom and Beyond. Trans. Madeline Whittle. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 144 pp.
Review by Marsha Gordon
The 2016 republication and debut English-language translation of The Cinema Hypothesis (originally published in France in 2002)—a joint effort of the Austrian Film Museum, British Film Institute, Scottish Film Education, and Creative Scotland—is an intriguing and very French engagement with film’s value as an object of study. Bergala, who worked as a teacher and filmmaker as well as in an editorial capacity at Cahiers du cinéma, lays out the principles that undergirded the film education advocacy that he performed at the behest of France’s secretary of education, Jack Lang. This is no “how to teach film” book, though there are morsels of that nature peppered throughout. Rather, it is an impassioned plea to create a nationwide cinema education project in which the study of film as an art form is fully integrated into classrooms. As such, it is a rare attempt to lay out in prose, and sometimes in something more akin to poetry, a case for film as a rightful object of study. It also serves as a time capsule, of sorts, for teaching film at this particular moment in time, with discussions about format (the liberating power of DVD technology) and cultural context (the status of movie theaters and film museums) that will, I suspect, also prove valuable to future historians seeking an understanding of early twenty-first-century film culture.
The edition’s introduction, penned by Alejandro Bachmann and Alexander Horwath of the Austrian Film Museum, aptly describes Bergala’s book as “a manifesto” for film’s integration “into an educational system that has either neglected it completely or cropped it down to fit educational standards which are themselves highly disputable” (p. 5). Indeed, Bergala issues a call for France’s school teachers, even at the primary level, to treat “cinema as an art” (p. 29). The Cinema Hypothesis partly provides material for film education advocates with regard to both why and how film should be taught. “Encouraging and perpetually engaging with other films is, today, the best retaliation against popcorn cinema,” Bergala offers to combat perennial anxieties about the influence of “bad movies” on young people. He vehemently rejects the use of film “purely as a pretext for debating a big subject,” arguing that “good films are rarely narrow-minded, which is to say immediately digestible and recyclable in simple and ideologically correct ideas” (pp. 30–31). This is all part of his case for “film as art,” and in truth it is a startlingly necessary case to make given how film has historically been deployed (and neglected) in classrooms, not just in France but in the United States as well.
Far from being a dry work of educational theory, Bergala’s book is immensely readable, opinionated, idiosyncratic, insightful, and also at times single-minded. He offers brief but compelling assessments of films ranging from Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1960), while he dismisses the lumping together of “cinema and television” (“not unlike mixing water and oil”): “The most intelligent analysis of framing and lighting by Orson Welles or Jean Vigo will never provide an instrument suitable for analysing one of those nauseating shows (psychobabble talk shows or reality programs) . . . ” (34). Bergala does not hide his prejudices here or elsewhere: “We would do more for children by showing them a shot by [Abbas] Kiarostami than by spending two hours dissecting who-knows-what televisual slop” (p. 35). This cinematic chauvinism may put off some readers, but I would not allow that to deter me from reading The Cinema Hypothesis for what it is: a reckoning with film’s potential role in the survival of intellectual life through the creation of a space for its consideration outside of the relentlessness of “purely consumerist cinema,” to which Bergala argues a good film education can offer a much-needed alternative (p. 53). His commitment to cementing a place for film study in the classroom is heartening, for this reader. I found reading Bergala’s book, which alternates between tactical and romantic ideas, to be useful, refreshing, and validating at this particular moment in our irrepressibly cynical world.