Critical Pedagogies & Film Education in Neoliberal Times: Notes for Educators who Haven’t Given Up



Cinema is an influential form of expression with both manipulative and critical potentials. Neoliberalism needs cinema for its manipulative potential and deploys philistinism in film education to inhibit its critical potential. To oppose philistinism and manipulation we need a critical pedagogy of film education. Inspired by the Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, this paper discusses interpellation, the dialogical self and critical hermeneutics as useful tools and cultural recycling as a strategy educators can apply in the classroom. The goal of this paper is to sketch the main features of a critical pedagogy for film education to apply, with due differences, to both the use of film in education and to the education of film-makers. More specifically, I will present two main points. In the first part, I argue that philistinism is a dangerous feature of neoliberal ideology, and perhaps the single most important obstacle to engage with the emancipative possibilities of cinema in education. In the second part, I will briefly present some concepts and one strategy designed in a preliminary effort to adapt Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy to film education.

The Neoliberal Onslaught On Film Education: Philistinism

In seeking to enforce the market as “a mechanism of rewards and punishments that would ensure effective order in social relations” (Gammon, 2008, p. 273) across the great diversity of cultures on the planet, Neoliberalism needs cinema as the form of expression that more effectively than others can be used for mass training through “reception in distraction” (Benjamin, 2008, p. 40).  Cinema, however, also has an emancipative potential: the capacity to invite resistance and subversion and not merely compliance and subjugation (Brenez, 2007) (Demiryol, 2012). Since it is through education that people learn to use their critical skills, Neoliberalism needs to control education.

One influential tool in neoliberal arsenal is philistinism. By this term I mean the selective reduction of intellectual complexity to serve ideological purposes that accompanies neoliberal efforts to defuse the subversive potential of higher education in general (Eagleton, 2015). Neoliberal philistinism preserves the manipulative potential of cinema by affecting film education in both meanings of this notion: a) in the use of films in education and b) in the education of film-makers.

In the use of film in education, philistinism is a form of anti-intellectualism that challenges the role of professional educators and places cultural (and market!) value on the emotional dimension of the cinematic engagement. The neoliberal philistine pedagogy mystifies ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ in the classroom to reach students as individualized ‘consumers’ before they could be given the intellectual tools to identify, interpret and respond to the ideological content of the filmic text. If the expertise of professional educators is removed from the process of watching, watching itself becomes a way of training younger generation in what Jonathan Beller called “the cinematic form of production”: the fundamental form of labour in the visual economy of late capitalism (Beller, 2006, p. 24)

Philistinism in the education of film-makers is usually dressed up as the shallow pragmatism or indulging cynicism of managers and educators that preach the centrality of the market, of the ‘technique’, or a mixed of both in the curriculum, while denying the ideological relevance of cinema: its role in the “politics of representation” (Giroux, 2001, p. 593). Under philistine management, professional film education is typically market-oriented and theory-averse: sensitive to the ‘needs of the market’, but blind to the risk of reducing film schools to mere training branches of production companies and film students to compliant labour for the culture industry. The philistine pedagogy for film-makers puts the emphasis on the technical rather than the conceptual dimension of film-making, on money-making rather than meaning-making, on the idea of ‘giving people what they want’ (and are willing to pay for) rather than that of inviting people to think unconventionally. To flatten education to the needs of the industry, to reduce film-making to entertainment and profit-making, to subordinate artistic creation to the ‘audience’: these are some of the visible effects of the neoliberal ‘onslaught’ on the education of film makers.

Responses in Theory and Practice: Elements of a Critical Pedagogy for Film Education

As a form of expression capable of involving the viewer in a complex sensorial engagement, cinema is also an institution with subversive potential: it can subvert neo-liberalism and philistinism rather than merely reinforcing their appeal. My suggestion here is that cinema can be a useful tool in the critical pedagogy sought by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire: a pedagogy that seeks to create individuals equipped with the critical consciousness necessary to oppose illegitimate power, to resist oppression and preserve democracy (Freire, 2013 (1974)) (Freire, 1985).

Conceptual framework: interpellation, dialogical self and critical hermeneutics 

To my knowledge, Freire did not discuss the educational role of cinema directly but there are important contributions inspired by his pedagogy [e.g. (Giroux H. A., 2001) (Giroux H. , 2002)].  In my approach, some key aspects of Freire’s critical project connect directly to the critical engagement with cinema in education through interpellation, dialogical self and critical hermeneutics.

The influence of neoliberal myths and the manipulation of people by the forces of “ideological advertising”(Freire, 2013 (1974), p. 5), for example, are usefully addressed by the notion of “interpellation” (Althusser, 1970, pp. 44-51) and the idea that “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects by the functioning of the category of the subject” (Althusser, 1970, p. 47).

When Freire asserts that “to be human means to engage in relationships with others and with the world” (Freire, 2013 (1974), p. 3), he is part of an intellectual tradition that, in the modern era, includes William James, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Lev Vygotsky, and nowadays is formalized in the dialogical self theory (Hermans, 2010). This tradition, and the fundamental idea that the individual self develops through dialogue with others fellow humans, set  the cognitive, normative and moral grounds on which films can be used in critical education and the pedagogical grounds for the ethical education of film-makers.

Critical hermeneutics is a tradition that tries to combine a theory of meaning with a theory of action, a theory of experience (or a theory about the impact of communicative action on audiences) and the role of ideology: in practice a “theoretical project that seeks to radicalize the task of comprehension” (Roberge, 2011, p. 17). The idea that education for Freire was fundamentally a process of critical hermeneutics is quite accepted among scholars (Peters & Lankshear, 1994), (Souto-Manning, 2010, p. 174) (Torres, 2014, p. 104).

The effective appropriation and use of these tools by educators and students requires a lot of training and a lot of readings. The mere watching of or untrained engagement with films cannot produce critical users or film-makers: that is, individuals critically conscious of the ideological potential of cinematic texts. This is even more so if we are discussing subversion: the deliberate use of films to promote ideas and values that disrupt hegemonic ideology.

Indeed, the effective educational use of these tools requires a strategy: a method to put these tools to work in practice.

Practices: cultural recycling 

As I argued elsewhere (Stocchetti, 2013), even ‘bad movies’, or the worst one can think of in terms of manipulative cinema or filmic ‘trash’ more broadly, can be ‘recycled’ and transformed into a training ground for critical consciousness. Based on the idea that a movie is a visual text whose social meaning depends on its usage (Stocchetti, 2011), ‘bad movies’ can be used in film education to learn more about ourselves, the society we live in and the relations of power involved.

The educational discussion of our reaction to a bad movie, for example, opens up the opportunity to problematize beauty or ugliness in the eyes of the beholder: the constitution of the subject as an agency entitled to have aesthetic preferences, emotional responses and the capacity to dig deeper into the nature of both. This step enables introspection as the capacity to reflect upon the way our social world influence and is influenced by our inner world (Stocchetti, 2013, p. 50), and is preliminary to the interpretation of our aesthetic preferences in terms of social positioning.

Furthermore, inviting questions about the preferences of others offers two educational opportunities. First, it is a way to establish the preconditions for the kind of learning-within-relationship which is associated to the constitution of the critical subjectivity (Yorks & Kasl, 2002). Second, it introduces what Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu, 2010 (1984)) discussed as the power of distinctions: the role of aesthetic preferences and cultural conventions in the reproduction of structures of power.

Finally, by questioning what bad movies actually can or cannot do, we can teach our students to address the analysis of relations of power in visual communication by looking at ‘who does what, to whom, why and how’ (Stocchetti, 2013, pp. 54-59) (Stocchetti, 2011) (Stocchetti, 2014). This training is important in film education to avoid the tendency of underestimating or overestimating the influence of cinema in society. In the broader project of critical pedagogy, however, this approach (Lasswell, 1950 (1936)) is functional and compatible with the goal of forming individuals able to recognize and, if necessary, to oppose, illegitimate expressions of power.


Works Cited

Althusser, L. (1970). On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso.

Beller, J. (2006). The Cinematic Mode of Production. Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Benjamin, W. (2008). The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility and other writings on media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (2010 (1984)). Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Oxon: Routledge.

Brenez, N. (2007). T.W. Adorno. Cinema in Spite of itself – But Cinema All the Same. Cultural Studies Review Vol 13, N. 1, 70-88.

Demiryol, G. L. (2012). Film as a Mobilizing Agent? Adorno and Benjamin on aesthetic experience. Philosophy and Social Criticism 38 (9), 939-954.

Flew, T. (2014). Six Theories of Neoliberalism. Thesis Eleven, Vol. 122 (1) 49-71.

Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education. Culture, Power and Liberation. Westport: Bergin & Garvey.

Freire, P. (2013 (1974)). Education for critical consciousness. London: Bloomsbury.

Gammon, E. (2008). Affect and the Rise of the Self-Regulating Market. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 37, No.2, 251-278.

Giroux, H. (2002). Breaking into the Movies, Film and the Culture of Politics. Malden: Blackwell.

Giroux, H. A. (2001). Breaking into the Movies: Pedagogy and the Politics of Film. JAC_A journal of Rhetoric, culture and politics, Vol. 21, n.3, 583-598.

Hermans, H. J. (2010). Dialogical Self Theory: positioning and counter-positioning in a globalizing society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lasswell, H. D. (1950 (1936)). Politics. Who Gets What, When, How . New York: Peter Smith.

Peters, M., & Lankshear, C. (1994). Education and hermeneutics: a Freirian interpretation. In P. McLaren, & C. Lankshear, eds. The Politics of Liberation: Paths from Freire (pp. 173-92). London: Routledge.

Roberge, J. (2011). What is Critical Hermeneutics? Thesis Eleven, 5-22.

Souto-Manning, M. (2010). Freire, Teaching and Learning: Culture Circle Across Context. New York: Peter Lang.

Stocchetti, M. (2011). Images: Who gets what, when and how? In M. Stocchetti, & K. Kukkonen, eds. Images in Use. Towards the Critical Analysis of Visual Communication. (pp. 11-38). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Stocchetti, M. (2013). Critical Thinking and Cultural Recycling: Research notes for the educational use of bad movies. Trash Culture Journal Vol.1, N.1, 42-65.

Stocchetti, M. (2014). Images and Power in the Digital Age. The Political Role of Digital Visulaity. KOME − An International Journal of Pure Communication Inquiry, 2014 2 (2): 1-16. DOI: 10.17646/KOME.2014.21

Torres, C. A. (2014). First Freire: Early Writings in Social Justice Education. Amsterdam: Teachers College Press.

Yorks, L., & Kasl, E. (2002). Toward a Theory and Practice for Whole-Person Learning: Reconceptualizing Experience and the Role of Affect. Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 52 No.3, March, 176-192.

Matteo Stocchetti is adjunct professor in political communication at Åbo Academy and Helsinki University, and principal lecturer at Arcada University of Applied Sciences (Helsinki, Finland) where he teaches Critical Media Analysis and Critical Media Laboratory ( ). He is also the main coordinator of the research programme Media and Education in the Digital Age-MEDA ( Recent publications include Stocchetti Matteo, (forthcoming 2015) ‘Making Futures: The Politics of Media Education’. In Kotilainen S. and Kupiainen R. eds. Media Education Futures. Nordicom: Clearing House Göteborg; Stocchetti Matteo, (forthcoming 2015) ‘The Culture Industry and the Future of Film Schools: Notes For Resistance’. In Semerdjiev S. and others (eds.). The 21st Century Film/TV School; Stocchetti Matteo, (2015) ‘Film Making, Critical Pedagogy and the Experience of Diversity’. In Nathalie Hyde-Clark ed. Documentary & Diversity. Arcada Publications; Stocchetti, M. (2014). Images and Power in the Digital Age. The Political Role of Digital Visulaity. KOME − An International Journal of Pure Communication Inquiry, 2014 2 (2): 1-16. DOI: 10.17646/KOME.2014.21.

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