Lifelong Learning: An Interview with Dr Josh Nelson


MIFF Schools is an initiative that aims to enrich the cinema experience for younger viewers, enhancing their learning both in the classroom and beyond. Returning in 2024 as part of MIFF’s 72nd edition, this year’s program has been curated with a view to presenting high-quality, diverse films in some of the languages and learning areas commonly taught in Victorian schools.

We speak to MIFF’s film-analysis and education expert Dr Josh Nelson about his lifelong love of cinema and the importance of nurturing visual-literacy skills in schools and classrooms.

What’s your background, and what drew you to the world of cinema?

My background is largely in academia, although I’ve worn many hats in the world(s) of film. At university, I trained in visual media before making the transition to lecturer, where I taught in cinema, media and cultural studies courses for a number of years. Since that time, I’ve also regularly presented to high school students around Victoria on various film texts/topics as well as working in radio as a film critic for 3RRR and ABC Melbourne.

I suspect my passion for cinema was born out of the escapist possibilities of the medium. We couldn’t afford a VHS player until I was well into my teenage years (does that make me sound ancient?), but I’d fallen in love with the rituals of filmgoing long before that. That dreamlike experience of watching films in a theatre as a child has never really left me.

Can you recall the first film to have made an impact on you as a young person?

There are actually two films that left a lasting impression. The first, which also happened to be my first experience of seeing a film on a big screen, was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (If you’re going to fall in love with cinema, it’s a pretty great place to start.) The second was seeing Taxi Driver in my teens at the (sadly) now-defunct Lumiere on Lonsdale Street. I remember walking out of the cinema and it was as if my world had suddenly changed. Let’s call it my epiphanic moment! I realised then that film was going to be a significant part of my life going forwards.

Above: Josh Nelson  |  Header: The Concierge

Speaking from the perspective of MIFF’s education expert, why do you think cinema presents such rich opportunities for classroom learning?

Perhaps more than at any other time in history, young people are growing up in a world dominated by screens. As a consequence, their visual-literacy skills are developing from a far earlier age than previous generations. That provides immense opportunities for learning through cinema, since students have an almost innate understanding of film that comes from their relationship to media imagery. There is also a rich diversity of experiences (across different cultures, genders and languages, etc.) represented in and through the MIFF Schools program, which can only benefit the students in a positive way. Given the extent to which social media and certain online communities seem to increasingly function as echo chambers, cinema offers a valuable alternative by placing audiences (especially young audiences!) in worlds that may be utterly unlike their own. It’s the kind of educational experience that can be genuinely transformative.

Having worked with MIFF for many years now, what is unique about the MIFF Schools program?

I’ve worked in varying capacities for multiple film festivals over the years, and MIFF is the only one that I’ve been involved with that actively engages with students and educators, providing detailed resources and assistance connecting the screenings back to their in-class studies. In that sense, MIFF Schools not only serves a unique role from an educational standpoint, but also establishes and maintains a link to the kinds of youth audiences that will sustain the life of the festival for many, many years to come.

What is your advice for teachers and educators looking to incorporate cinema and film analysis into their teaching plans this year?

Keep it simple and begin with the basics. Cinema is a complex language, but once students can identify the various techniques (cinematography, mise en scène, editing, music, etc.) used by filmmakers to create meaning within a given text, they’ll have at their disposal the tools for understanding and analysis. I always recommend that teachers equip students with certain film elements to be on the lookout for prior to the screening. That way, they’re more likely to actively engage with the film while they’re watching – which makes for a far more productive post-screening discussion. That holds as true for the various language-study students as it does for English and Media students. (And keep an eye out for all of our teaching resources – coming soon!)

Bookings for MIFF Schools (held at ACMI on 8–25 August) are now open. To browse the program, or to make a booking, click here.