Still on the edge of his seat when the lights go down the

Tomorrow is the start of National Schools Film Week, the country's largest free film festival for young people. Below, Lord Attenborough, the Oscar-winning actor and film-maker, explains to Ben Russell the importance of film to children, and we visit one school with cinema at the heart of its curriculum
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The Independent Online

Lord Attenborough still remembers the day his father took him to London, back in 1934, to see a genius. "First we went to the National Gallery," he says. "We walked around and then we went to the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus to see a clown in the form of Charlie Chaplin. He took me to the cinema to see The Gold Rush. I will never forget that experience as long as I live. I was 11 years old."

Lord Attenborough still remembers the day his father took him to London, back in 1934, to see a genius. "First we went to the National Gallery," he says. "We walked around and then we went to the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus to see a clown in the form of Charlie Chaplin. He took me to the cinema to see The Gold Rush. I will never forget that experience as long as I live. I was 11 years old."

Years later, he sat next to his three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter on a family trip to see him play Father Christmas in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. "It was a Christmas treat," he said. "I asked Lucy to sit next to me. But she said 'Grandpa, you can't sit next to me.' I said why not, and she said 'You have to be up on the screen'. It was a wonderful first reaction to a film."

Today, Lord Attenborough, the Oscar-winning actor, producer and director, whose latest film, Grey Owl, is released in Britain next month, is hoping to produce the same reaction in a whole new generation of children for whom the cinema has to compete with television, computer games and the internet.

He is promoting the fifth National Schools Film Week, the country's largest free film festival for young people, which opens tomorrow. More than 200,000 young people are expected to see special showings of films, from Shakespeare to Citizen Kane, Blade Runner and Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will to The Truman Show and The Full Monty.

The festival is organised at venues across Britain and Ireland by the charity Film Education, which promotes the use of movies in the classroom. Its work has proved hugely popular with teachers and students. More than 100,000 tickets have already been sold for this year's event. Teaching materials produced from films such as Nick Park's Chicken Run have promoted thousands of requests for copies.

A major part of this year's festival are screenings of Shakespeare, designed to dovetail with National Curriculum coursework for 14-year-olds. Screenings include Roman Polanski's Macbeth, Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing. Organisers have sent out nearly 40,000 programmes for the event and have produced a string of lesson plans and teaching materials based on the films on show. There is evidence that the movies work. When Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Romeo and Juliet three years ago, set on a Latin-American "Verona Beach", the film grossed £18m in the UK alone, and was credited with producing a sharp rise in English test scores for 14-year-olds. Teachers and parents saw their children showing an enthusiasm for the play they never thought possible.

That, according to Lord Attenborough, is the magic of the silver screen. "When you are in the cinema and the lights go down and that magic light opens your vision and your ears, there is a concentration which is very hard to achieve with granny putting the cat out or father reading the evening paper in the sitting-room. It's a totally different experience. I believe that not only children but adults as well enjoy experiencing reactions and emotions and feelings en masse. That is a feeling you only get at the cinema.

"In terms of artistic expression, it is the art form of this century. Behind video and television, it is the widest form of communication throughout the world, and communication is vital to our future."

He expresses deep concern at the "deluge" of violence and trivia in television, and in many of the films showing on the big screen today, bemoaning the "quite awful degree and extent of violence and confrontation". He would like to see the return of the Saturday morning screenings for children, showing films that would encourage them to learn of new cultures and be exposed to the inspirational stories of those who have changed the way the world thinks.

Lord Attenborough does not join those who bemoan the loss of the arts in schools because of the expansion of literacy and numeracy teaching. But he is passionate about promoting creativity in schools. "The arts are what life is about really, in the broadest sense. What can flourish without the arts?" As you would expect of a man whose films include Gandhi and Cry Freedom, Lord Attenborough still has faith in the ability of movies to inspire. His own recommendations for secondary children during the film festival are the classics Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations (see box below).

"A book like Great Expectations can be daunting at the age of 12, but if you see the film, the story is told in a most imaginative way, and brilliantly shot, superbly crafted for the cinema."

His new film, Grey Owl, is showing as a special preview during the festival. The film stars Pierce Brosnan as Grey Owl, a "Red Indian" who became a bestselling author and star lecturer during the 1930s, carrying stories from the New World and an environmental message about preserving the wilderness, but was later revealed to be an Englishman by the name of Archie Belaney, whose birthplace was no more exotic than the East Sussex town of Hastings.

Lord Attenborough saw Grey Owl speak before the war, queuing for five hours with his brother David, the celebrated naturalist.

"Dave and I were movie fanatics when we were kids, and going to see the cowboys and Indians excited us beyond belief. We saw all the great classic Westerns from America, and saw a world we had no concept of.

"I adore making movies about people who, by virtue of their thinking or actions, can bring about changes in the world. That's why I am an idiot and choose to make biographical films. The world is short of heroes."

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