Let’s Get The Rhythm (USA, 2014) is a 53 minute long documentary that explores the importance and universality of girls’ hand-clapping games. Utilizing both archival and current footage of hand-clapping, interspersed with interviews with girls, parents, musicians, cognitive neuroscientists, and ethnomusicologists about its significance in girls’ lives and in life in general, first-time filmmaker Irene Chagall develops a beat of her own, almost polyrhythmic enough to hold the attention of a roomful of children for an hour in the late afternoon on a school day.
Starting out with one woman’s assertion that a remedy for dis-ease may be rhythm, the film did a good job of stretching ones thoughts about these games that (mostly) girls play with each other, in all parts of the globe, to include a recognition that they are one of our most wide-spread oral traditions, as well as a very social and joyful activity.
Making connections between other genres of hand-clapping such as Spanish flamenco palmas; and water slapping of the South Pacific; and the patting juba and hambone of African-American slave traditions and the African diaspora, the video clips provide time travel as well as global travel for viewers.
One segment presenting information on the release of oxytocin – the hormone of love and trust – that occurs during these musical, rhythmic games, includes speculation about them contributing to the more developed social-relational skills and greater ease with affectionate touch that many girls exhibit in contrast to many boys. Another segment interviewed some young girls about what some provocative (sex or drug references) lyrics of their clapping game meant, and it was obvious from their answers they didn’t understand them in the way many adults might. I was glad to see this included in the film. One of the core principles of media literacy is that “People use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages.” Pope and Round (2014) have written about their research into this aspect and their conclusion “that children’s responses to children’s literature—already massively overlooked in comparison to the perceptions of adult reviewers and critics—need to be further explored.”
With the help of experienced documentarian Steve Zeitlin, and interview segments with the likes of folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes (the archival footage was from brother Alan Lomax’s collection), cultural anthropologist Dr. Kyra Gaunt, and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, as well as footage taken during her own world travels, Chagall has constructed a cogent argument for taking girls rhythm games seriously.
PCFF Screenings Program Elements Description and Analysis
At the 2016 Providence Children’s Film Festival (PCFF), Let’s Get the Rhythm was screened three times, in three different locations, and had an after-screening film talk or workshop at each. I attended the entire event at the Wanskuck Library and arrived toward the end of the film screening at the Wheeler School Gilder Center for the Arts. My goal for this report was to review the film, compare and contrast these two events being held in very different venues and parts of the city, and provide some analysis from a media literacy perspective.
The format and program elements for most of the PCFF events I attended was the same. As start time nears and audience members enter, a kid-friendly, colorful, cartoon-like, and very professional-looking festival promo reel plays. Stills or snippets of many of the films in this year’s festival are included. At start time, audiences are all welcomed to the film festival, a few festival features like the PCFF Film Passport and the voting ballot are explained, and a brief appeal for donations is made. The film about to be shown is introduced in some brief way. With this film, the filmmaker, Irene Chagall, who was in attendance, was also introduced, and her talk or workshop after the screening was mentioned and attendance encouraged. Not all films at PCFF offered a talk or workshop following the screening.
Setting and Behavior of the Participants
A free screening and workshop event on Friday, February 19th at 2:30PM took place at the Wanskuck Library, a branch of the public Providence Community Library system in the North End of the city. About 45 people attended, predominately children of color, 6-7 adults, and PCFF staff and volunteers. Wanskuck Library is a well-used neighborhood library, with an active children’s area and programming serving 30-40 children every afternoon. Besides the attendees at the film event, there were many children upstairs working on computers and activities at tables in the children’s area.
The film was screened in the downstairs activity room with folding chairs set up horseshoe-style in front of the screen. Along with PCFF materials on a display table, popcorn in brown paper bags was offered and disappeared quickly. Additional folding chairs were brought out to accommodate late arrivals, and some attendees stood in the back.
When the promo reel ran, some children gasped audibly at the scene of a tightrope walker falling off the rope from high in the sky. There was some concern expressed by the festival’s Director of Programming about how kids were horsing around.
In her article on film festivals, media and community, Carole Roy (2012) wrote:
“For some festival attendees, the films were their first exposure to information that did not come from the mainstream media.” (p.299)
“Because most people approach films and film festivals as leisure, they are often more open and receptive to new information.” (p.305)
I wondered if both statements might be true for some of the children attending the film that day. Being surrounded by friends and peers after a day at school plus popcorn certainly would lead to a relaxed and leisurely attitude and atmosphere, which could bode well for an expectation to sit quietly through a documentary film…or not. As it turned out, it was a bit of both. The children were, for the most part, engaged during the first half of the film, but eventually, some started getting up and going in search of more popcorn or leaving the room to go to the bathroom, or perhaps upstairs. Most returned, but movement and activity for about a quarter of the children participants was common in the second half. There was some talking, and occasional giggles or shouts (“I saw a naked man!”) at some more adult-oriented moments or when the kids in the film said something they found funny (“Patty cake is so last month!”).
In Teaching with Movies: A guide for Parents and Educators. (Heartland Film, 2012) the authors discuss the research about the development of overarching patterns in media viewing which begins early in life, and I wondered if the half-hour children’s television show time slot pattern might have been at work here. I also thought about Akthar Badshah’s quote in the Dialogue on Public Libraries video that the library “is the family room of the community.” These kids were definitely acting like they were in a family room!
When the film was over, the room was cleared of chairs, leaving a newly popcorn polka-dotted carpet for the workshop. Irene Chagall taught the 25 or so kids and adults who stayed a Turkish hand-clapping game, and two students from Providence College taught them another. Both kids and adults were very engaged in this workshop, which was starting to wind down when I had to leave at 4:45.
At the Wheeler School on Saturday, February 20th at 12:30PM, the ticket-required ($10 adult, $7.50 youth/seniors) screening at the Gilder Center for the Arts was a somewhat different experience. Wheeler is an independent school on the East Side of Providence, and the two-year-old Gilder Center for the Arts auditorium is a modern venue with an audience capacity of 350 or more in comfortable tiered seating.
I counted a total of 68 predominantly white attendees when I arrived, including 28 children. I noticed two African-American families.
The audience watched quietly during the part of the film I saw, and had a number of questions for the director during the Q&A. Chagall also taught the Turkish hand-clap game here, and many audience members participated, with a bit more difficulty in the theater-like seating than in the open space activity room at Wanskuck Library.
Throughout the week of the Providence Children’s Film Festival, I saw three feature films, 19 shorts, attended three workshops and the opening and closing events. Via the magic of film, I visited eleven countries – more than my PCFF Film Passport could accommodate. I spoke to and met many new people from Rhode Island and beyond. From my media literacy perspective, even some minor additions to the festival could produce much more film-savvy and media literate audiences. My experience with facilitating media literacy presentations and workshops for both youth and adults, parents and professionals, is that all audiences enjoy learning these skills and insights. Some thoughts about introducing more of these elements to PCFF are:
- Include, at the very least, a bit more in the introduction about the genre of the film.
- Make more attempts to engage the audience by determining prior knowledge of the subject matter of the films about to be screened. In a film like Let’s Get the Rhythm, that could mean asking those present if they know any hand-clapping games, and maybe even allowing a quick demonstration before mentioning the workshop.
- Using prior knowledge, challenge the audience to watch actively: How many of the games in the film do you recognize? Whose voices are you hearing? There are a number of very helpful guides listed in the Bibliography section and online (Baker (2010), Buckingham (2003), Heartland Films (2012), etc.) for introducing youth to media literacy.
- Consider use of the PCFF passport (a fantastic idea!) and The Language of Film word search inside to bring attention and awareness to one element (animation, documentary, setting, sound, costume) prior to the screening that could set up some follow-up questions at the end. In a film like this, you could ask, “How many countries do we visit during this film?” which might engage some youth to pay closer attention.
- Could PCFF partner with some local schools to provide short media literacy workshops either for teachers or students prior to the festival venues?
- Acknowledging short attention spans, could you consider stopping the film halfway through, have a bit of active participation, allow a water or bathroom break, engage about the second half, then restart?
- It would have been great to see more diversity at the larger venues and ticketed events. I wonder if sliding fee scales, promotional contests in the schools to win tickets, or more collaboration with youth-serving organizations in the city would be helpful in that regard. Roy (2012) shares an interesting model for community partnerships in her article.
The Providence Children’s Film Festival obviously took many hours and many heads, hearts and hands to organize. I was thrilled to see the growing list of festival partners and supporters, and hope this event will continue to grow and enlighten more Rhode Island and New England families for many decades. Thanks for all your hard work. I had a great time at the 2016 PCFF!
Baker, F. (2010). To Kill a Mockingbird. Seeing the Film Through the Lens of Media Literacy. Media Literacy Clearinghouse.
Buckingham, D. (2003). Questioning the Media: A Guide for Students.UNESCO: MENTOR. A Media Education Curriculum for Teachers in the Mediterranean. UNESCO: Paris (p. 1 – 15).
Heartland Film (2012). Teaching with Movies: A guide for Parents and Educators. Indianpolis, IN.
Pope, J., & Round, J. (2015). Children’s Responses to Heroism in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Children’s Literature in Education, 46(3), 257–277.http://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-014-9233-z
Roy, C. (2012). Why don’t they show those on TV? Documentary film festivals media and community. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 31(3), 293–307. http://doi.org/10.1080/02601370.2012.683610