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Movie Nights at the Lao-German Technical College – English outside the classroom

The biggest tasks of every new team arriving in Laos is taking over the work of their predecessors. When Thomas Pelka, Anna-Sophia ten Brink and I, the members of Team VIII working at the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC), arrived in Vientiane in late February 2019, we soon discovered that Dilara, Patricia, and Nicole of Team VII had started work on a special project at the College: The “Movie Night”.

While we had been familiarising ourselves with the work of Team VII beforehand (i.e. by reading their “Weekly Reports” or speaking with Nicole during our preparatory workshops), the thought had not occurred to us that the Movie Night was there to stay. Unlike other duties that the volunteers at the College have apart from tandem-teaching – e.g. taking care of the Didactics Room – the Movie Night is not among the “Special Tasks” volunteers can choose from prior to leaving for Laos.1 As Dilara explained to us, it all started as a one-time event for their BHS students back in November 2018, but due to its positive reception, it became tradition, and this way also a new “Special Task”.

But how does one organise a “Movie Night” at the LGTC? Still a bit surprised that the “Movie Night” had become an established event for our BHS students, Anna-Sophia, Thomas, and I nevertheless were keen on continuing the work of our predecessors. Luckily, when the time came to prepare our first “Movie Night”, Dilara from Team VII was still working at the LGTC, and she was more than happy to walk us through all the steps. After settling down in Laos, which took around five days, it was now time for Team VIII to step into the picture and start hosting their own “Movie Night”.2

Of course, preparations for such an event start earlier than on the date it takes place. To properly set everything up, and more importantly, to inform the students about the next “Movie Night”, we start planning the event around one week before the actual event. Normally, one week is enough time for the news to spread. This is done by both advertising the event in our evening English classes, and by setting up and inviting all students to an online event on Facebook within the BHS Facebook group – as soon as we decide on a date, we let the students know. The “Movie Nights” mostly take place in a two-week rhythm every Wednesday evening, but things like shifts in our volatile schedule3 or sickness can hardly be anticipated. Thus, it is always necessary to reassure students when the next “Movie Night” is due and that it is sure to take place.

After announcing the event, we decide what kind of movie we want to watch with our students. This question can prove difficult, as many considerations need to be considered. These questions range from the kind of genre the movie should be to the linguistic and cultural features of the movies themselves: Is the language of the movie intelligible enough for our students? Is the movie leaning (too) heavily on western pop-cultural references and assumptions? Can the plot be followed even if some students may have trouble following the language of the movie? We soon noticed that finding a balanced solution for these questions is not always easy. Fortunately, our students are eager to provide us with both direct and indirect feedback.

Direct feedback comes from students directly expressing wishes about what kind of movie they would like to watch (or not to watch), be it a specific genre or the sequel to a movie they watched in a previous Movie Night. On the other hand, indirect feedback is given by how the students respond to a movie while watching it. Are they invested in the viewing experience? Do they respond emotionally to what is happening on the screen? Do they seem entertained or bored? After carefully observing the students during the event and paying attention to their response, one can get a good impression rather quickly.

An observation Team VII made – which we can confirm – is that animated comedy movies are among the best liked movies. Since November 2018, the “Movie Night” featured six animated and three “live-action” movies, seven of them comedies.

With a movie selected, we can then turn our attention to the more practical matters of setting up the event. This includes shopping for snacks and organising both a room for the event and a projector so we can properly view the movie. In terms of snacks, we provide our students with a small variety of nibbles (i.e. crisps or seasoned nuts) and small bottles of drinking water.

Organising the projector is quite easy, as we can borrow one from the office in the Automotive Section of the College. For the room itself, we always use one of our classrooms in the Electrical Section building.4 They are well-lit, climatised and overall the best rooms for viewing movies for bigger groups at the LGTC. With all the snacks and drinks bought, a movie projector organized, and a viewing room selected, we can move on to the night of the event itself.

Going by regular schedule, we arrive at 5:30 p.m. to prepare. This leaves us with half an hour to set up and connect the technical equipment, run a last video-and sound-check and move tables and chairs in the right position. While it may seem unusal to leave all the tables where they are, the students actually prefer to have some extra space to put their snacks and drinks or to rest their arms.  For our technical setup, we use a simple projector connected to a laptop, which is in turn connected to either a Bluetooth speaker or two speaker boxes, depending on what equipment is available for the evening.

When our students arrive at 6 p.m., we always welcome them with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. The Movie Nights are not mandatory for our BHS students, so it is always interesting to see how many attendants show up. Many of our regular visitors live in the nearby student dormitory (only a short walk away from the LGTC), so they come quite often. After around ten minutes of waiting for late arrivals, we officially start the event. All present volunteer-teachers welcome the students and give them a short introduction of what kind of movie that we will watch together that night. At this point, the students already give feedback by cheering, acting excited, or not reacting at all, so we can quickly deduce if our choice of the movie aligns with the students’ interests. Provided there are no technical issues, we dim the lights and finally start the show.

Even if everything up to this point – the planning, selecting, advertising, organising equipment and setting it all up – worked out without any hassle, we may still be surprised by hitches. During one “Movie Night”, our projector started to act up and only projected the movie in still images and in black-and-white, so we had to find a replacement. On another occasion, workers started to flatten and asphalt the gravel road outside the building with heavy machinery at 8:30 p.m. Like with many other parts of life here in Laos, you are best advised to expect the unexpected and keep a good sense of humour. When things like this happen, our students patiently wait until we find a solution. And if they do not get annoyed by such surprises, why should we?

In most cases, we can show our selected movie without any problem. For a few hours, then, the distinction between us teachers and our students fades, and as we sit together watching the movie, we are equally happy to be able to relax together, lean back, and enjoy. These few hours every fortnight are something special not only for our students, but also for us.

For both sides, the Movie Night provides a different angle to learning English and to a wider sphere of English media. As we teach English language classes to our students on a regular basis , watching English movies with them is an entirely different approach. Doing listening, speaking, and writing exercises during lessons is augmented by the Movie Night because our students can then watch and listen to English in another, more “organic” context where the language is not necessarily the focus. The language serves as a means of communication in a wider context of visuals, sounds, and images, and students can understand how English is used outside the more “constructed” situations they usually find within textbooks and even in our more authentic communicative lessons. For us teachers, on the other hand, the “Movie Nights” enables us to reach our students in new ways, and seeing them enjoy the movies we watch together is the most welcome reward for the work we invested.

After the movie is finished and the credits roll (usually around 8 p.m.), we turn the lights back on and thank them for joining us, ask if they liked the movie – to which they always answer “yes”5 – and bid them goodbye. They always leave in orderly fashion and take with them all the empty plastic bottles and trash. When all students have left, we pack up our things, turn off the lights and head home – already anticipating the next “Movie Night” in two weeks’ time.

Since our arrival almost two months ago, we were able to host three Movie Nights for our students, were we showed Madagascar 3 – Europe’s Most Wanted, Mowgli – Legend of the Jungle and Spiderman – Homecoming. Interestingly enough, Spiderman – Homecoming was both the only movie that our students directly asked for and the movie which seemed to confuse them the most. While the students enjoyed watching the movie, they struggled quite often with understanding what was being said or what was going on sometimes.

For an explanation why this movie did not quite “work” for our students, one needs to examine the context in which it is situated: It is the 16th movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a (still-)growing circle of interconnected superhero movies, and it takes place in contemporary 21st century  New York. Knowledge of the previous 15 MCU movies is not necessary to understand the plot and the world presented in the movie, but the movie itself relies heavily on references to the previous movies and characters, so it is only with this pre-knowledge that viewers could fully comprehend Spiderman – Homecoming.

Nonetheless, each one of these events proved to be a great success and was well-liked by all of us. The three of us are very glad to have taken up the reigns from Team VII, and we hope that – just like we did – our successors will continue the tradition of the Movie Night at the LGTC when they come here in the autumn.

After all, who does not like a good movie?

 

Text by S. Hadatsch

Photos by T. Pelka, A. ten Brink & S. Hadatsch

 

Notes

1 Alongside the teaching duties of 20 hours, volunteers also have a “Special Task”, i.e. being responsible for collecting and storing the media produced (worksheets, photos, reports, etc.), running the “Lending Library”, or maintaining the blog.

2 While we could not find clear guidelines regarding the legal side of showing copyrighted material in Laos, we always operate within the legal rules we know from home. All movies we show are therefore either purchased or legally streamed via Netflix/Amazon Prime, and the “Movie Night” is not open to the general public, but hosted within a private setting.

Shifts in schedule are quite common at the Lao-German Technical College: Meetings, student events, or holiday celebrations are often announced at very short notice.

The Electrical Section building at the College was partially financed and equipped by the German Government with support from the KfW (Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, “Credit Institute for Reconstruction”).

In Lao culture, the highest emphasis is placed on maintaining “harmony” amongst groups of people. Openly disagreeing and creating discord is frowned upon – it is instead considered polite to keep up this sense of harmony and concord, also at the expense of one’s own views.

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