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Comunicar Journal 39: Curriculum and Teacher Training in Media Literacy (Vol. 20 - 2012)

Film literacy: Media appropriations with examples from the European film context


Vitor Reia-Baptista


The increasing development of new multimedia materials as supporting vehicles of film languages has raised some global literacy questions and problems within teacher training. These new literacy problems pose a specific curricular question: How shall different media, social and cultural contexts approach the specific training of teachers (and, in fact, media makers) in order to address those global problems of a common film language with the corresponding civic and curricular appropriations? The UNESCO MIL Curriculum for Teachers places media and information literacy at the core of lifelong learning for the acquisition of necessary civic competences within a universal perspective. A review of some European case studies helps us to understand some of the most contemporary interrelations between the predominant multimedia messages and their communication channels and social networks, taking account of the preservation of the collective memory of sounds and images as a form of cultural heritage connected to the audiovisual cultures of the world at large, since these processes never occur in geographical or cultural isolation. The aim of this article is to present the context of a possible inter-disciplinary and inter-cultural approach to a global film literacy process, taking some interesting European case studies that appeared in «Comunicar, 35» as a starting point.


Film languages, media literacy, civic appropriations, European collective audiovisual memory, film culture, new media

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1. Introduction

The UNESCO Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers (backed up by the Alexandria Declaration of 2005) clearly places media and information literacy at the core of lifelong learning as a means of acquiring the competences that «can equip citizens with critical thinking skills enabling them to demand high-quality services from media and other information providers. Collectively, they foster an enabling environment in which media and other information providers can provide quality services» (UNESCO (2011: 16). To this end the UNESCO MIL document describes aspects of the major pedagogical approaches that form the main strategies, or guidelines, for the use of the MIL Curriculum, such as the Textual and Contextual Analysis of different media objects, such as films (UNESCO (2011: 37).

These guidelines urge a reflection on the necessary training of teachers in order to acquire the required competences to develop those approaches.

The increasing development of multimedia materials as supporting vehicles of filmic language has raised some new questions and problems within media studies and within different pedagogical approaches. One of the most important problems enunciated in those contexts is one that questions the extent of the media limits of the different vehicles supporting the original works. That is, up to what point are we still watching a given film when it is shown, no longer on a big screen projected from a celluloid reel (the presentation form for which it was conceived) but on a small television or computer screen beamed from a file, a DVD or laser disc and controlled through sequences of computer commands, each involving different pedagogical effects? This problem is not entirely new and we can recognize some parts of it in former discussions about the differences between cinema and television, or cinema and video for educational purposes. Nevertheless, there are some new aspects that confer a more pluridimensional character on the problem when in a multimedia network context. To approach some of those aspects is an attempt to contribute to the global reflection on the increasing development of the multimedia information and communication technologies, their real nature and pedagogical value for a higher degree of media and film literacy.

2. From the moving image to the moving mind in time

Since the very beginning of film, history film enthusiasts of all kinds, but especially industrialists and other film entrepreneurs, have been rather optimistic about the large possibilities of using films in educational environments. Thomas Edison, for example, is supposed to have said in the early twenties, according to Larry Cuban (1986: 9): «I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks».

As we know today, it did not happen exactly that way. But, in spite of the failure of the prophecy, there are many other links and connections that have been established between motion pictures and education to our day, and I think that this process is far from being completed. Those connections are not always clear enough or so well known in the media and educational fields, whose agents are, generally and intuitively, aware of the existence of some dimensions of mutual influence, but who do not act so often, at least consciously, in consequence of their presence and implications.

Some of those dimensions present quite a number of really specific and almost palpable characteristics that assume great importance for the global communication process, and therefore educational process, going on in modern societies, of which, cinema, television, video, books, pictures, texts, sounds, computers, records and other media devices are integrated parts. To research and study this complex media body is a task of great importance in general and of specific relevance in what concerns film and its languages.

In fact, Edison was not the only one with rather optimistic visions for the development of the field, and we could think that at least some of the more obvious structural connections should have been normally established between the fields of audiovisual communication and education. There are, indeed, many links between both fields, but we cannot say, in a general way, that there are many stable institutional links between the different nations’ communication industries and their educational systems, though a few exceptions can be noticed.

Travelling in time and technology, since the Edison epoch to our own epoch, we could turn our attention to other industrialists, or technology traders, and notice their beliefs, not only concerning film as a powerful pedagogical medium, but regarding multimedia as global phenomena, in which cinema and films are taking continuously a growing part. John Sculley, a former chief of Apple Computer Inc., wrote in his foreword to «Learning with Interactive Multimedia»: «Imagine a classroom with a window on all the world’s knowledge. Imagine a teacher with the capability to bring to life any image, any sound, any event. Imagine a student with the power to visit any place on earth at any time in history. Imagine a screen that can display in vivid colour the inner workings of a cell, the births and deaths of stars, the clashes of armies and the triumphs of art... I believe that all this will happen not simply because people have the capability to make it happen, but also because people have a compelling need to make it happen» (Ambron & Hooper, 1990: 7).

It is very interesting, to notice that the differences between both beliefs in the pedagogical power of the media are almost non-existent. However, this reveals more about how intensive and constant the industry’s expectations to penetrate the educational markets have been over the years, than it shows some really tested perspectives for the different media within different pedagogical contexts. Nevertheless, we have to admit that these perspectives are now much more realistic than ever before, because of the new technological multimedia contexts. This means that we can no longer dismiss them as a bunch of new/old prophecies based on the industry’s best wishes. In fact, some of them are already happening – Youtube being a good example. Thus, we must deal with them, trying to discover what are the new facts that characterize the media, their materials, their languages and their real implications, mainly from a pedagogical point of view, upon the communication processes that can be developed towards different audiences, even if the audiences consist of one only receiver at the time, within a formal educational context or any other possible context.

Some comparative studies of different pedagogical experiences done with multimedia materials which were based upon the educational use of cinematographic sequences and their reception conditions, provided the opportunity to observe some main tendencies, with regard of broader intertextual aspects such as the multitude of cinematic facts and hypertextual information that usually follow along with a given filmic multimedia material, such as different spin off materials and devices. Those tendencies were:

1) Filmic material on discs or in files, especially feature films, is still considered, in general, very interesting and attractive pedagogical materials.

2) The use of filmic materials is more effective when it is registered upon a physical support.

3) The related pedagogical processes are more stimulating if the filmic materials and the manipulation software are interconnected and compatible structures.

4) The filmic structure of the pedagogical materials and their language and narrative systems seem to remain interesting and attractive devices especially if they are connectable to each other, or to other pedagogical devices, such as hypertext film comments, or other cinematic information and literacy facts.

These tendencies may change with the nature of the end users aims and expectations, but in general we may say that they reflect some of the most important pedagogical implications that proceed from the main structural characteristics of the most common multimedia materials that use filmic language devices. Specially, they show that the interconnections between different levels of reality, fiction and virtual reality appear to have a rather complex nature assuming, consequently, a rather complex system of pedagogical effects. In turn, the use of filmic language within a multimedia context reflects with particular sharpness some of the problems that occur in different environments of multimedia users, either they are teachers, students, or other ordinary media consumers: the hyper-real character of the filmic media; the substantial degree of mutation that distinguishes the manipulation of those media through different tools; the huge quantity of information at the user’s disposal in each frame, image, sound or their sequence; the necessity to close or open the structures of multimedia systems in order to establish different possible pedagogical patterns and exploring ways. So, the user of a filmic multimedia material, in front of such phenomena, has always the possibility of playing different roles in interaction with those materials and that is why the user, teacher or student, needs specific training and adequate literacy to play those roles.

3. Films as texts

One of the most important roles is the role of the receiver decoding the filmic message through the specific devices of the multimedia materials. He is generally no longer the abstract spectator taken from the collective darkness of the movie theatre, nor is he, anymore, the single manipulator of a non-intelligent video cassette recorder with rather limited possibilities of intervention upon the original work. The user/receiver of the filmic multimedia material is, indeed, a reader of multiple texts, but his role will not only be that of a reader, as Umberto Eco (1979) has presented him to us before, creating meaning through his mental capacity of recognition, interpretation and association. He will be a much more active reader and especially a much more powerful one. So powerful that, probably, he will not confine himself to the role of a reader and will become, in fact, a new creator with almost unlimited possibilities to manipulate the original work and even preserve his manipulation as a new work to be watched and studied, i.e., the user may easily become an author and a creator. Such a phenomenon necessarily implies, from a pedagogical point of view, a vast range of complex literacy problems: towards the materials and their language systems (hardware and software); towards the pre-established working strategies to interact with the materials; and mainly, towards the structures those combine and integrate all those items. In principle, we may say that an open structure will always be more effective, from a pedagogical point of view, than a closed one, in spite of the many exploring ways that a closed multimedia filmic material may offer to its user, these will always be in a limited number, while the query patterns and manipulation possibilities of a material with an open structure are, in fact, unlimited. This fact, only, implies a great demand of film and media literacy.

Besides these textual and contextual aspects there are, of course, also problems of legal and authoral character that need to be addressed. The user should never forget the authorship implications of the original work. Although we will not approach these problems here, since from a strict pedagogical point of view they are not relevant in this context, these aspects should be properly addressed within other curricular contexts.

4. The question of Interactivity

Some of the main questions regarding pedagogical strategies to approach the different multimedia filmic materials present, generally, a common keyword: Interactivity. Nevertheless, interactivity does not mean exactly the same in all materials and its possibilities of manipulation may be quite different according to the structure of the material. A more open structure usually offers a higher degree of interactivity than a rather closed one. In my opinion, and again from a pedagogical point of view, one can only say that a multimedia material comprehends an interactive strategy when it offers a real possibility to the user to act upon the original work, preserving his results. Such a procedure represents, indeed, a wide range of new pedagogical possibilities and although there is, in general, a rather strong charge of didacticism impregnating the most common strategies of interactivity, this could tempt us to predict that the field is not too far from achieving a vast line of materials well suited to the most different of pedagogical aims. But, however it may be, we can never forget that the individual aims of the user may be quite different in essence depending from the context of his usage. He may just want to be entertained, viewing the film and playing the game, not giving it another thought, or he may have some critical, pedagogical or aesthetical aims. The multimedia authors and editors are certainly aware of the possible existence of all those user aims. Thus, the certainty of this usage will not depend only from the aims and strategies of the materials and of their producing institutions, but also, and in a very high degree, more often from the role that the user will be playing, or at least from the role that he will be given to play. We know from the recent past that some television movies have been designed and produced according to specific language patterns that are well suited to television’s way of grabbing an audience, as for example, a large number of close up shots and highly fragmented redundant sequences synchronized with some easily identifiable popular musical scores. We do also know that some actual examples of feature films have been screened in so-called interactive movie theatres. And the industry, naturally, will try to explore every technological and media novelty in order to grab larger audiences. But, in general, any film that was made in the past, or that will be made in the future within a normal film production context, will do: westerns, comedies, science fiction, tragedies, horror movies, documentaries, etc. Any film, or genre, will easily fit in exciting multimedia packages, instructional or for pure entertainment, with different aims and implying different utilization strategies, and consequently with different pedagogical implications, aiming at different audiences. We run the risk, of course, of finding ourselves playing video games instead of watching the film works of some of the major profiles in the history of film art, that will depend from which point of view the user will be looking at it and, of course, it will depend from his degree of film literacy. From a pedagogical point of view, any filmic multimedia material may become a very effective material, although of rather complex evaluation, since it is, almost always, potentially incredibly didactic, but yet, still interesting as long as it preserves in its mutant structure all the original language mechanisms intact, in order to keep on offering to its audiences the possibility of a dramatic and exciting perceptive experience, no matter what kind of interactive strategy the audiences may choose. But the main problem will be to know how to train the teachers with adequate skills in order to be able to approach, in a pedagogically effective way, those complex realities and virtual-realities that have been enunciated above?

5. Do we need Media Education to achieve Media Literacy?

In fact, most of the times, we can become media literate just by being exposed to the media, without any formal media educational process, since all processes of media exposure contain some kind of media pedagogy that forms and conforms the media users (senders and receivers) in many ways, developing production, reading, interpretation and reproduction mechanisms, of which, many times, the very same senders and receivers are simply not aware. When this happens (and it happens quite often) the media users maybe functionally media literate in some degree, but they are, nevertheless, alienated in several ways concerning the pedagogical processes that take place within their public and private media spheres. Then, some more specific media education processes may really become important in order to achieve some better media literacy results, both for media readers and media makers.

It was with this in mind that a group of independent scholars and experts from different countries and institutions gathered together to join their efforts around the attempt to produce some kind of a Media Literacy common approach that became to be known as «The European Charter for Media Literacy», which was in fact a public declaration of commitment to some essential Media Literacy factors, such as: «Raise public understanding and awareness of Media Literacy, in relation to the media of communication, information and expression; Advocate the importance of Media Literacy in the development of educational, cultural, political, social and economic policy; Support the principle that every citizen of any age should have opportunities, in both formal and informal education, to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to increase their enjoyment, understanding and exploration of the media». (www.euromedialiteracy.eu/about.php).

Coming to this point, it means that we will have to develop formal and non-formal media education strategies for school environments, for parental environments and, necessarily, for professional media environments. Since we know that the media industries are usually almost completely closed to such pedagogical approaches, it means that we will have to concentrate our efforts on the environments of academic media training, that is, universities and other media training centres. Within this perspective, besides journalism, the other fields of major importance to be concerned with media education and media literacy are film, videogames, music, advertising and, because all the media tend to converge towards it, the internet.

Some of these aspects were already raised in earlier contexts, in an attempt to develop some reflection and discussion about their nature: «The Internet is actually the largest database for information support in the daily life of individuals but even institutions and services. Among those we can count students and teachers, but also media and opinion makers, as well as information providers including journalists. When it is essentially used as a path for communication channels for electronic messages, the web contains a series of useful information, presented by individuals, institutions, governments, associations and all types of commercial and non-commercial organizations. But who are the gate-keepers of that electronic flow? Who makes up the major streamlines of the global agenda? How and where are the most powerful editorial lines shaped? Beyond the boundless and instantaneous allocation of data, the Internet developed new ways for cultural, economic and social life. This development is related to communication instruments and access to the communication and information industries. It is apparent in politics, education, commerce, and in many other fields of public and private character. All these areas contribute to the rapid change of our traditional paradigms of public sphere and space and we don’t know yet if our position as individual and social actors in the above is changing as quickly and maybe we are not yet completely aware of the implications of such changes. The potential threat of widespread alienation in such new environments of media exposure should not be dismissed lightly» (Reia, 2006: 123-134).

6. Do we need Film Literacy?

Film, is probably the most eclectic and syncretic of all media and it has an incredible power of attraction which is replicated in all other media through the usage of film languages in any kind of media contexts: music videos to promote music; real footage to enhance videogames; film genres and film stars to reach publicity targets; film inserts and excerpts of all kinds in «YouTube», «Facebook», «Myspace» and millions of other websites in the internet.

Film, in its many different forms, became the most common vehicle of those New Environments of Media Exposure, thus, becoming also one of the most important instruments for a Multidimensional and Multicultural Media Literacy among the many different media users, consumers, producers and «prosumers» of all ages, social and cultural levels, although different levels of media literacy, their nature or even their lack can show differences or similarities, according to the local and global contexts where they are developed and practiced: «Appropriations and usage patterns of these media technologies are in many ways rather specific, so one of the main risks, in a media literacy context, is the danger of generalization about common patterns of appropriation. However, one general feature in our attitudes towards these media cultural effects has been taking them as they were often ambivalent: television is still seen both as educational and as a drug; mobile phones are perceived both as a nuisance and as a life-saver; computer games are viewed both as learning tools and as addictive timewasters and film has been looked at since the very beginnings of the 7th art as a medium of great educational power as well as a medium with an enormous range of escapism dimensions» (Reia, 2008: 155-165).

The urgency to approach film, its languages and appropriations as a main vehicle of media literacy has also to do with the enormous importance of this medium in the construction of our collective memories. The richness and diversity of the film languages, techniques and technologies of film are seen as instruments of great importance, from the primitive films of Lumière and Mélies to the most sophisticated virtual inserts in YouTube. Their role as vehicles of artistic and documentary narratology and as factors of authentic film literacy, acquires an absolutely unquestionable importance in any society that calls itself a knowledge and information society as constructive contributions to our collective and cultural memories.

Having this in mind, specially within the new context of media policies that are expected to be developed all around the world and consequently some possible new media and film literacy approaches, it was a task of major importance to produce the thematic dossier of «Comunicar, 35» concerning the role of «Film Languages in the European Collective Memory» (Reia, 2010). Let us now see how its content can help us to establish some links to the necessary global media literacy strategies that have to be drawn, especially in what concerns the training of teachers in order to be able to deal with multiple film and audiovisual literacy challenges.

7. Five «Easy Pieces» of Literacy – 5 case studies in «Comunicar, 35»

Paraphrasing the film of Bob Rafelson (1970), one should always find some «easy pieces» to put together our capacities, our cultural stories and our memories. That was the challenge that was taken by the authors of Comunicar 35 – putting together different film literacy approaches in an attempt to build up some cultural bridges among different generations, movements and appropriations concerning the European collective film memory, presented here as a case study and an example of many other possible film literacy approaches.

The conservation of the collective memory of sounds and images as a European cultural heritage means acknowledging the various evolutionary contexts of audiovisual communication in Europe as well as their relations with the cultures of the world at large, as these processes never occur in geographical or cultural isolation. The language of film takes on a vital role in these processes of communicative and educational evolution as a vehicle of collective communication and education, that is, as a factor for an in-depth learning of the most varied domains of human knowledge – i.e., multiple literacies, including media and film literacy.

It is also important to examine the evolution of the pedagogical dimensions of audiovisual communication in general and cinematographic education in particular as the true starting point for an entire cultural repository that we cannot neglect or ignore, otherwise we risk casting into oblivion some of the most important traces of our European cultural identity which, by their nature, are often so fragile. We are therefore obliged to delve into the media, channels, technologies and language we have developed for over a century to add clarity to the collective creativity and necessities of the artistic and documentary narration that represents us and which enables us to reflect on our own human condition. But strange though it may seem, the societies, sciences and technologies within which these narratives develop can also suffer from memory loss, just as we as individuals are forgetful or get old and are unable to regenerate the hetero-recognition mechanisms, and sometimes not even self-recognition, or because we cannot distance ourselves sufficiently from our prevailing knowledge and narratives in order to gain a more holistic, universal and reflective perspective. It is not because artists, scientists or pedagogues, like other human beings, have a «short memory», but because the arts, sciences and technologies and their languages are closed off and isolated within their own particular spaces and sometimes separated from knowledge, application and even dissemination. This can happen in any branch of the arts or sciences, even when the fundamental principles of their languages belong to education or communication, which in itself is an enormous contradiction. Thus the technological and communicative supports of the records of the individual and collective production of knowledge turn inwards in their apparent self-sufficiency from the standpoint of the evolution of communication, taking into account the technological and linguistic development of the past century, which has shown itself to be fairly redundant as well as being a reducing agent that has erroneously and inefficiently preserved the procedural knowledge of construction and communication of scientific or cultural learning. Consequently, we are now obliged to analyze the possible risks of the loss of this collective property, which is often incredibly insubstantial and for that reason all the more valuable. To do this, we must also preserve, articulate and systematize some of the main features of the processes of cultural communication as phenomena of collective memorization and learning. As so many scientists and researchers have stated over the years, in the exercise of their scientific irreverence and theoretical restlessness, the scientist is hardly ever able to take a step back and view science, in space and time, in such a way that he can see it move, «and yet, it moves». And, as it was said before, the role of Cinema and Film Languages as vehicles of artistic and documentary narratives, in a comprehensive and holistic perspective, acquires an absolutely unquestionable importance as a factor of authentic media and film literacy, as it may be seen in these 5 different approaches gathered together, among others, in the thematic dossier of «Comunicar, 35» (Reia, 2010):

1) Cary Balzagette –was the head of the BFI’s department of Film Education for many years and her intellectual authority is recognized by many other authors when she refers to the vital, leading role of the BFI in this field– by presenting the main pedagogical approaches to film language, especially in what we call film pedagogy, as developed within the broader activities of the BFI, which pioneered an educational perspective for the media as a process that resulted in broader interest in media literacy and film literacy in particular. Her article «Analogue Sunset, The educational role of the British Film Institute, 1979-2007» (Bazalgette, 2010), traces the main lines of activity of the BFI in this field over the last 25 years, its continuous educational approaches clearly demonstrating that the study of cinema and films is absolutely essential for understanding the world and times we live in.

2) Michel Clarembeaux –director of the Audiovisual Centre (CAV) of Liège, Belgium– develops a reflection on the theme «Film Education: memory and heritage» (Clarembeaux, 2010), within which film education is identified, especially in these times of transition and migration in digital environments, as an urgent need to construct a profound literacy media, given that the importance of film language cannot be underestimated in the development of the capacity to analyze contemporary media, in which cinema stands out in its various forms and supports as the «supreme art form of memory», be it individual or collective. The author also suggests we can and should bring about a convergence between some kind of «pedagogy of film education» and a desire on the part of the public to preserve the collective memory of a broader and more varied cultural heritage, pointing with concrete examples of specific films and authors to support this hypothesis, but also remembering the importance of film clubs in this context.

3) Andrew Burn –professor of Media Education at London University’s Institute of Education– contributes with his article, «Thrills in the dark: young people’s moving image cultures and media education» (Burn, 2010), in which he discusses the role of film language in this era of transition among media, channels and cultural environments, taking horror movies as a study object. He takes cinema and videogames as an example, and emphasizes the hybridization of the genre and the transmutation of forms of interaction among the young and the media, film channels, and real and virtual videos; he shows how a particular love for horror and disaster movie genres in North American cinema, but also in Europe, still persists among the young, whose influence extends to other audiovisual forms, genres and products to the desperation of many anguished teachers who are inclined more towards prohibition than towards the more complicated option of studying and analyzing these terrifying-loving objects that are so attractive to the youngsters.

4) Mirian Tavares –a Professor of Visual Arts at the University of the Algarve– emphasizes in her article «Understanding cinema: the avant-gardes and the construction of film discourse» (Tavares, 2010) the huge importance of the historic avant-gardes in the construction of film discourse and how they were essential in gaining recognition for cinema as an art form, offering their perspectives within the cross-roads of these key concepts towards a possible renewed film literacy.

5) Enrique Martínez-Salanova –author of the «Creative Classroom of Cinema and Education» (Martínez-Salanova, 2010)– writes about «Educational Systems in the Heterodox History of the European Cinema», proposing a network of analyses that links specific films to traditionally difficult educational topics like violence, exclusion, marginalization and neglection.

8. Conclusions

Although these case studies are benchmarked by the cultural context of European cinema and European film literacy appropriations, it seems quite adequate to conclude, according to the general analysis of the evolution of the different media landscapes in the beginning of this text, that these reflections may well be taken into consideration for other similar literacy approaches in other places and within other cultural contexts, such as those that may be developed along with the desirable different appropriations that may be possibly achieved within the UNESCO Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers, since for Cinema as for Art, their various languages and their different technological supports have the ability to help us to simultaneously preserve factual records of events as well as the capacity to approach all those events and the global phenomena that surround them in an inclusive, holistic and universal way.


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