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The allegorical allusion: how new media and an ancient narrative technique can create films with social symbolism.


Even if we don't identify them as such, we are all undoubtedly familiar with several allegorical stories. By making students aware of this powerful storytelling tool and exploring such narratives through modern filmmaking technology, writes MELANIE FAWCETT, we can give young filmmakers a platform to creatively and intelligently express their own concerns about society.

There is a reason that allegories have endured as a narrative device and will continue to stay relevant to storytellers and filmmakers in the future. Allegories provide access to complex ideas through simple narratives. They delve into the social, political, cultural, moral and ethical issues of the time and reflect the writer's or filmmaker's worldview on a particular topic. They consider the big issues and convey these in ways that make audiences think both literally and symbolically. Allegories can be a highly effective mode of storytelling for young people to both study and produce, as they encourage students to think more deeply about moral problems and convey their social messages through carefully crafted plots with layered meaning. No matter what medium is used to communicate sociopolitical or moral ideas, the layering of both literal and symbolic meaning in a text is a powerful tool that audiences have long adapted and responded to, retelling fables, parables and stories to teach the lessons of the time.

Our Media students today have the ability to reinvent the past by retelling old allegorical stories through new media platforms and, in the process, write the allegorical stories of their generation. They are sophisticated users of technology and are adept at accessing and creating narratives; they are constantly surrounded by stories in advertising, social media and reality television. But students need to learn the skills to deconstruct media-created stories, and as teachers, we can help them learn to think critically by giving them opportunities to analyse and produce films that reflect their ideas about the world. Ultimately, an understanding of how narratives can confront audiences with social and political ideas will come from students' experimentation in producing their own texts. Creating an allegorical short film allows students to express their complex ideas about the world through their own simple stories.

The interpretive process of analysing an existing allegorical text can encourage students to think about a filmic approach to telling allegorical stories. The following learning sequence for Year 9 and 10 students will explore some of the new tools available for students to express their own social, cultural, political, moral and ethical views through allegorical short-film production. There are many ways to integrate and develop an understanding of allegories using new media that students may already be familiar with, including the use of tablet apps like iStopMotion and iMovie as well as various scriptwriting apps. While the media choice depends on the forms of technology available to you and your students, the key is to consider how the medium can provide interesting ways for students to pro duce their own allegorical stories.

George Orwell's classic 1945 novel Animal Farm, a political allegory about how one dictatorship in Russia was replaced by another, will be the source material used in the learning activities below. As Media Arts emphasises visual analysis, this unit of work will focus on the 1954 British animated adaptation of the same name by John Halas and Joy Batchelor, which is available on YouTube.1 This film is suited to Year 9 and 10 students as its animal narrative is easily accessible, but is also multilayered, allowing students to deconstruct the deeper allegorical subtext that Orwell intended. However, while these activities focus on Animal Farm, you could equally apply the tasks and learning to other allegorical films such as The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming et al., 1939), The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998), The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, 2005) or Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). When selecting a film, it is important to consider what aspects of allegory you want to focus on. For example, Animal Farm is a great text to use to explore social and political issues with students, highlighted by the irony of the animals creating a totalitarian regime that is the same as the human one they overthrew. Students can discuss in class what social and political issues they know and if they see any parallels to modern Australian society. Social media and its 24-hour news cycle provides an interesting discussion point for students, as they are exposed to global issues directly in ways that previous generations were not.

You might consider a popular title when selecting your film for analysis--a familiar film viewed through a different lens is a highly effective way for students to change how they are reading layers of meaning in a text.

Further, you should not be limited by the suggestions herein, as there are many more programs, apps and online platforms that can provide new and stimulating pathways for students to apply their allegorical storytelling to production. Similarly, you can expand on the activities below and examine allegories and filmmaking for students in Years 11 and 12 as well as at the tertiary level. The advantage of studying and producing allegories is that the ideas can increase in complexity depending on the students levels and abilities. Similarly, as students have increased skills in film production, the tools they use can vary and incorporate higher-level programs for post-production, such as Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro X.


In the Media Arts learning area of the Australian Curriculum for Years 9 and 10, students are asked to '[experiment with ideas and stories that manipulate media conventions and genres to construct new and alternative points of view through images, sounds and text' (ACAMAM073). They are also asked to '[a]nalyse a range of media artworks from contemporary and past times to explore differing viewpoints and enrich their media arts making (ACAMAR079).

Analysing allegorical storytelling aligns with the first requirement listed above, while the latter requirement provides additional scope for teachers to explore a range of texts, both Australian and international, in their examples, which can give students an understanding of the universality of allegories as a narrative device.

The curriculum also requires Year 9 and 10 Media Arts students to '[e]valuate how technical and symbolic elements are manipulated in media artworks to create and challenge representations framed by media conventions, social beliefs and values for a range of audiences' (ACAMAR078). Film provides the perfect reference point for this analysis, as it is an accessible and visual storytelling medium that, with some teacher support, students can investigate quickly and easily.

The Years 9 and 10 Achievement Standard for Media Arts is also worth noting, as the allegorical storytelling learning sequence adheres to much of the curriculum's aims:

By the end of Year 10, students analyse how social and cultural values and alternative points of view are portrayed in media artworks they make, interact with and distribute. They evaluate how genre and media conventions and technical and symbolic elements are manipulated to make representations and meaning. They evaluate how social, institutional and ethical issues influence the making and use of media artworks.

Students produce representations that communicate alternative points of view in media artworks for different community and institutional contexts. They manipulate genre and media conventions and integrate and shape the technical and symbolic elements for specific purposes, meaning and style. They collaboratively apply design, production and distribution processes.2

As students work in groups to create their films, the below learning sequence provides an opportunity for them to analyse the technical aspects of filmed allegorical stories and then collaboratively design and produce their own. Students will be thinking both literally and symbolically throughout the learning process, helping them to understand a particular narrative approach for conveying meaning that manipulates the medium of film in order to advance a political, social or moral point of view.


What is an allegory?

Students need to form a basic understanding of the different types of allegory. For example, moral or religious allegories may occur in a religious or spiritual text. Classical allegories are also good examples to discuss; students could research this type and include ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato as examples of writers who used allegory to convey hidden, or symbolic, moral lessons through their writing. This provides a historical context for students, as well as an entry point for them to consider the evolution of allegories into modern literature and film.

Set students an open activity, depending on the types of allegories that you want your students to focus on. As students will be watching Animal Farm, introduce them to the concept of allegorical fables, which will then help them unpack the layers of meaning in the film. This activity can be as short or long as you feel is necessary for your class, and can be a formative open-research-and-present approach or a summative individual-based assessment task.


Analysing Animal Farm

It is important that students' viewing is structured and supported; this means that, during key points of the film, you must open class discussion and help your students separate the literal from the figurative. For example, you will need to discuss the historical hypocrisies that Orwell is challenging. At the Year 9 and 10 level, students may not be familiar with Russian history, so a structured overview will help them make sense of the allegory in Orwell's text without being overwhelmed by too much historical detail. The key is to provide just enough information to help students understand the layers of meaning, so they can identify and discuss the broad points.

1. Ask students to examine the narrative of the film. As allegories are complex texts, it is important to keep them focused on how the narrative is constructed and how the filmmaker uses story elements like character, setting and plot to discuss the deeper symbolic issues.

2. Separate the students into discussion groups, whereby each group focuses on a different story element, including plot, character and setting, so that they have a specific focus for examining symbolic meaning and therefore a supported approach to analysing the text. To understand the layers of meaning, both literal and figurative, students will need to see the parallels that Orwell developed. A helpful way for some learners to understand this is to create a table that shows the literal story elements, alongside the deeper meanings of the metaphorical. For example, students can look at the character of Napoleon and discuss the parallels with the human dictatorship of Mr Jones, which the animals defeated and rejected. They can then discuss how the politics of a dictatorship work and what Orwell's message about the irony of communism may have been. Allegories rely on the audience understanding the narrative parallels between meanings, so the author's views on a particular topic can become clear and the audience can then engage with those ideas. Supporting students by providing them with clear text notes on the story elements will also help them to delve into the narrative quicker and see the deeper meanings with more ease. The key is to help students see plot, character and setting as the narrative tools Orwell uses to convey ideas.

3. Students then examine Animal Farm's production elements. What images have been chosen? How are music, lighting and narration used to shape the allegory? How successful are these elements, and could they be used to tell the students' own stories? For example, as this film is an animation, each frame has been carefully crafted so that the meaning of the story is clear to the audience. In this way, the animation is an interpretation of the original text. Students could consider the voiceover narration as a production element and discuss how it contributes to the storytelling. What sort of voice was used? Why? These questions can then lead them to consider, if they are creating their own allegorical film, would a voiceover be an effective tool to use? How could they incorporate a voiceover with the production tools they have available? What type of voice would work for different stories?


Creating allegorical films

Students will be using iStopMotion or a similar program to create short claymations that explore a simple allegorical storyline. The advantage of a claymation is that students are not constrained by realism. They can create strange and interesting characters to explore layers of meaning, which is an easier way to produce narrative parallels at a beginner's level. For example, students might create a family of monsters to look at traditional gender roles. During the writing stages, you can also task them with using scriptwriting apps such as Scriptly (for iOS) and Screenwriter (for Android). This will depend on how much time there is available for each phase of production. If time is an issue, it is better to spend time in pre-production planning than in post-production. It is also crucial to make time for sharing and reflection after the films are made.

1. If students need additional support, set a short directed activity whereby they work in groups to create clay monsters, and then act out scenes in which they experience alienation or isolation for being different in a society that objectifies and discriminates. The groups can then show and discuss their experiments with the class before creating their own allegorical films, which will be more challenging.

2. After the class examples are discussed, students work in their groups and choose a particular social issue or topic they are interested in. They then brainstorm as a group during pre-production to form their own allegorical story. Topics addressed by their films could include race, gender, religion, social media, government, law--the possibilities are endless. In conceptualising their short animations, make sure your students understand that there must be a deeper purpose to, and symbolism in, their storytelling. They must first decide on the broad concept they want to portray and then think of a simple way to convey that complex message. Students may need your assistance during the brainstorming and development stages; this may take some time and support!


3. Students then begin the writing phase. You can ask them to use Scriptly, Screenwriter or another scriptwriting app that can support members of the class who are new to this form of writing.

4. iStopMotion is a simple program, and the students who have not used it before will learn very quickly how they need to move their characters a small amount and take a photo to create a series of images that produces movement. It is important that before students start production, they have considered the symbolic meaning of their plot, characters and setting, the same way that they did in the Animal Farm analysis. They will then need to explain their allegory and the use of the story elements to create layers of meaning when they are presenting the film to their peers.

5. After students have completed their allegorical films, each group shares and discusses its work with the class so that others can engage with and ask questions about the story, and try to identify the two distinct layers of meaning. When viewing others' films, students should pay attention not just to the story elements, but also to the production elements and how these have been used to effectively convey the deeper layers of meaning.

Experiment with this process and see what works best with your students. Instead of feeling constrained by technology, use the tools that best allow your students to explore allegories through film!


(1) The film is available to view at < DsU3CdQdhWs>, accessed 10 November 2014.

(2) ACARA, Australian Curriculum: The Arts, Media Arts, Years 9 and 10 Achievement Standard, <http://www. the-arts/media-arts/ curriculum/f-10?layout=l#levelg-10>, accessed 8 November 2014.

Melanie Fawcett is an experienced English and Media educator, having taught in Queensland, Victoria, the UK and Thailand. With a Master's degree in creative media and film and television, she is now a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor, speaker and media specialist.
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Title Annotation:TEACHING MEDIA
Author:Fawcett, Melanie
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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