Film Platform (http://filmplatform.net/), a project created in 2014, aims to bring exceptional documentary films to educators and students. In conversation with film experts, leading academics, salespeople, and distributors, Film Platform collects films from across the world that address a wide range of subjects. The long list of topics include history, political science, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern Studies, colonialism, disability, food, nature and wildlife, poverty, gender and sexuality. The films include biographies, ethnographies, and conventional narratives, as well as through experimental stories and filmmaking techniques.
Films for the Feminist Classroom editor Agatha Beins had the great fortune to set up a Skype conversation with Elinor Kowarsky, CEO of Film Platform.
One of Israel's leading documentary producers and filmmakers, Elinor Kowarsky worked as a commissioning editor in the documentary department for Reshet’s Channel 2 (Israel's major commercial broadcast channel). During her years as a partner at Eden Productions Ms. Kowarksy produced and created many international prize-winning documentary films such as NO. 17 (dir. David Ofek), Checkpoint (Dir. Yoav Shamir), A Hebrew Lesson (Dir. David Ofek), 9 Star Hotel (dir. Ido Haar), and Blood Relation (dir. Noa Ben Hagai).
Below are some excerpts from Elinor’s comments about the platform’s efforts to be a resource for educators, not only as a distributor of documentary films but also as a site of teaching and learning.
Film Platform began as a desire to extend the lifespan of documentary films. Being a filmmaker myself, I felt that sometimes we have great documentary films that do well in festivals and are broadcast worldwide through various documentary channels, but then they kind of die out. They appear in our world less and less as they get older. And yet sometimes, these films remain relevant. You feel like they should continue to be part of a discussion, part of research, —they should live on. That is how Film Platform emerged.
Beyond that, we felt that we needed to change the way people look at documentary films outside the departments of film, media, and journalism. Outside these departments, films are often still regarded as entertainment and not as a reliable source, like a text. Why is it not a text? Why is it not a legitimate document for research? We’re trying to see what the needs are, and we’re developing tools to change it, to get films out to different disciplines, not only to the obvious film and media schools that focus on the filmmaking itself. We’re trying to get other disciplines to look at filmmaking and video and actually analyze them as texts.
We are still in the beginning stages, but so far, the responses have been great. Films are not just entertainment but are a way to connect with students today because this is the material that they are comfortable with. This is how young people interact with media: they watch it online.
We aim to connect filmmakers and their work to the educational world by working to understand the needs of filmmakers and educators, seeing how we can bridge the two worlds to make documentary films more accessible. For documentary films that are not commercial we’re getting the noncommercial rights, mainly education rights but also screening rights—for schools, colleges, libraries, NGOs and community groups.
Further, some students often don’t go to the libraries—they prefer to access items online. So we are building different models by giving libraries access to sections of our catalog or to the entire catalog as an online curated streaming archive.
By creating easier access to great films, and by creating opportunities for online access, we hope to enter this next generation, beyond DVD. We are continuing to distribute via DVD as well, but we are building for this post-DVD reality.
We’re working with films from all over the world, covering so many topics and so many areas of research, and I really hope that people from various departments find material relevant for their diverse curricula. We are also testing various ways to integrate the films into different educational environments. We gave one film to an online course (MOOC, a massive open online course), and we’ll see how it goes. There could be as many as 20,000 people enrolled in this course, so 20,000 people will have the chance to watch this documentary and engage with it in a different way.
For another class—an anthropology class—we’re providing access to a number of films, offering students the opportunity to enter the platform and analyze various films for their research. We’re making the films accessible to them through their Internet provider and we’re opening a chatroom where they will be able to comment on the films. First the professor will show one film and then students will go into Film Platform where they can search the archive, read the research material that the professor has made available, and link to other resources. Then they can choose which additional films they want to see. Maybe they will look at a little bit of each film and then they will decide what they want to watch. This is something that will turn the platform into a learning environment.
Curating the Platform
Our catalog has been developed by our sales agents and our Academic Advisory Board. Our sales agents have chosen the best films within their collections to distribute on the platform, picked for their quality and their educational relevance. This was the initial concept for Film Platform: creating one space where educators would have immediate access to the very best in a vast and diverse catalog of films.
Academics and researchers from different fields have been working with us to curate unique collections. These collections offer students different points of view about a topic, designed specifically to instigate discussion. I think a lot of interesting material can come out of these collections.
We’re working on incorporating more and more resources, so this platform will be a dynamic learning space where educators can find learning resources connected to the films, and students can go and see what viewers from other universities around the world are writing about films and they can add their own comments. Beyond the research articles and discussion kits, we are interested in developing interactive tools to connect with the filmmakers themselves.
One great resource will involve opening chat rooms with filmmakers and holding Skype question-and-answer sessions with the filmmaker following a screening to bring the audiences closer to the filmmaker. We’re trying different models. The advisory board is helping us to see what might work, what is needed now, to get this tool as relevant as possible. And we’re making changes all the time.
Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (dir. Kitty Green, 2013)—I don’t know if you’ve seen this documentary—is a film about Femen [a feminist group founded in Ukraine in 2008]. This is an amazing film for gender studies. You start out thinking one thing and somewhere close to the end of the film something really blows your mind and changes the way you’ve been looking at the subject. To make it more accessible we’ve asked one of our curators to have an online conversation with the filmmaker, so you will have this online conversation that students can access, and we hope it will address a lot of the questions students might have after watching the film. It can also help students understand how to use the documentary as a text they can analyze.
And then of course they could have a Skype with the filmmaker if they choose. The filmmakers are usually more than happy to be available; people don’t understand how much filmmakers want to connect with audiences. We’ve tested a Skype question-and-answer event following The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012) in the last year, and it worked amazingly. We booked the screenings at the different universities and colleges, and when the film ended we would Skype with Josh, the director. It really changed the experience completely, because there are so many questions from viewers and so many things that Josh can contribute to their understanding of the film, and their understanding of the choices that he’s made. So this is really a great tool that we want to use more and more.
People are welcome to log on and give us feedback and to comment on films. We want teachers and students to give voice to the fact that they are using films, what films they are using, how they are using them in their curriculum. I think that this sharing of ideas can really benefit us all. We at Film Platform are trying to get the discussion going on a variety of subjects and topics. There are so many different films that can go into so many different areas. Take law studies. I can think of amazing projects, for example The Staircase (dir. Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, 2004). In this documentary the filmmaker follows the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife and through the film you’re shifting from this side to that side, wondering, did he do it, or didn’t he do it? It’s really a thriller. And it really goes into the legal system. Just think what it would be like to start a course in law studies by showing this film. It’s a really amazing project, and though it’s from 2004, it’s still relevant.
We’re just starting out but it feels really timely, something that people seem to need. I know that there are a lot of distributors that distribute DVDs and films to the educational world, but I think what we’re trying to do is to get this connection with the filmmakers and to really understand their needs and educators’ needs. We don’t want to be just an online shop.
It’s not cutting edge technology; we are using the available technology but understanding the connection that’s needed. Being able to discuss the film with the filmmaker makes the film much more of a learning tool. Apart from the experience itself, it’s much more moving when you talk with the filmmakers or to the people who might be the subjects of the film and learn a bit more. We’re trying to get viewers involved, interacting as much as possible. I think this is where we are all going. The fact that we can do it on the computer, online, is amazing.
We are a platform, now use us. We have the content, but we also have technological abilities and can make many things especially for instructors. If someone has a class on a particular topic, what would they like? Would they like a twitter conversation with the filmmaker, would they like a chatroom? All of this is possible today.
We want the platform to become a hub for documentary films, where people come to see what other professors are using and what other students are talking about, to see comments about films and to share ideas. Using the films to generate dialogue. Giving the films a longer life.