Trash Palace is a back-alley basement space that screens everything from horror classics to old kung fu flicks. Classroom films—those 16 mm oddities that helped explain everything from reproduction to workplace safety in the pre-video era—have been part of the mix since the cinema opened in 2008. Now, owner Stacey Case is giving Torontonians the chance to make their own classroom films as part of the Safety First! Make Your Own Classroom Film Festival.
For Case, classroom films aren’t just hokey, ironic entertainment. They’re windows into the social mores of times gone by.
“Every classroom film is trying to teach you something,” he says. “We’re human beings living a life, and at some point we need to be taught things, whether that’s as an adult in your workplace, or when you’re five years old and need to know not to talk to strangers.”
“The classroom film is kind of unique in that it doesn’t just teach things like construction safety or whatever, but also social etiquette. Classroom films go right back to the beginning of film…and you can see the changing mores of the day.”
Jonathan Culp is one of the programmers at the Palace. He says that he’s always interested in seeing how well these films age.
“There are all these different philosophies that come and go about education,” Culp says. “Some of them, by the time the vogue has passed, wind up looking pretty ridiculous.”
Culp was the first one to bring old educational movies to the Palace, and says he’s loved classroom films for years.
“My grandfather was actually a distributor of classroom films,” he says. “So they were always sort of on the periphery of my life…In the early ‘90s, I was at the St. Catharines public library, and that was around the time when everyone was switching over to video and selling off their film libraries, so I grabbed a bunch of these for a dollar each.”
Case says the idea to have Palace devotees make their own classroom films came while batting around ideas with Culp and their third programming partner Dan Lovranski. (It’s worth noting that Case and Culp almost always refer to Lovranski by his nickname, The Mouth.)
“Trash Palace has been rented out for other film festivals over the years, but we’ve never done our own,” Case says. “I was talking it over with Mouth and Culp, and I said, ‘I want to create a festival that’s unique to Trash Palace,’ and Mouth said, ‘Oh, it has to be classroom films.’ ”
Culp says that the challenging part of making a classroom film is to fit the educational content into something that people want to watch.
“The ones that aren’t completely boring are like experimental films,” he says. “The kind of film you’re trying to avoid is one that relies too heavily on narration, where you have a guy in a chair talking.”
“What I look for in classroom films is the same thing I look for in any film: entertainment value, the element of surprise, the element of discovery…You’re watching people who aren’t necessarily schooled in the traditional values of filmmaking and things catch you off guard, whether it’s the use of violent puppetry or the utter wrong-headedness of the message.”
Part of the key to making a great classroom film, according to Case, is to borrow from traditional film genres.
“There are a bunch of different ways to tell your story,” he says. “You can do a construction safety film and shoot it like a horror movie. You can take a classroom film on insects and shoot it like a Western.”
Which isn’t to say that classroom films are always derivative; they have their own subgenres and conventions.
“The stranger danger film is a big one,” Case says. “There are nature documentaries, day in the life of, where you follow around a mailman or a hairdresser. Construction safety is always a good one. Venereal disease films, used in the army. There are anti-communism scare films, warning kids about the red menace.”
Safety First! is accepting submissions until June 28. Both Case and Culp say that, in addition to organizing the festival, they’re also participating.
“My movie is called Salvia: Yes or No,” says Case.
Case adds that while he’d love to see someone make an authentic classroom video on 16 mm film stock, he’s not actually expecting anyone to go find an antique camera for authenticity’s sake.
“Everything we’ve received so far is on video,” he says. “I expect everything will be.”