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Produced by Sharon Ann McGowan and Robert Duncan; directed by Robert Duncan
National Film Board of Canada, 1992. VHS cassette, 47:38 min., $26.95


Produced by Alan Handel and Sally Bochner; directed by Alan Handel
National Film Board of Canada/Studio B and Alan Handel Productions, 1992. VHS cassette, 47:46 min., $26.95


Produced by Bill Pettigrew; directed and animated by Robert Doucet
National Film Board of Canada, 1992. VHS cassette, 8:43 min., $21.95
All distributed by the National Film Board of Canada

Grades 10 and up/Ages 15 and up

Reviewed by Allison Haupt.

Volume 21 Number 3
1993 May

These three videos from the NFB are about our growing awareness of the extent and impact of functional illiteracy in Canada. Illiteracy can take an enormous toll on the psyche of the individual, affecting whole families and communities.

These films document the desperate need for intervention to break the generational cycle of illiteracy in a society that demands greater and greater literacy skills. Every aspect of our lives and more and more jobs demand reading skills, which four out of every ten Canadians don't have. These films will get every viewer out of his/her chair and actively involved in literacy programs, whether as participants or as volunteers.

Ellen's Story is the most impassioned of the three videos. Bordering on melodramatic at times, the film cannot but move viewers as Ellen Szita chronicles her struggle with illiteracy. Beginning with being labeled in the "D" levels as a primary student in Brighton, England, we follow Ellen through a horrifying childhood of demoralizing and destructive events, her immigration to Canada and marriage, which eventually was destroyed as she resorted to alcohol to deal with her shame and insecurity, the disastrous effect her hidden secret had on her own four children and, finally, as a young grand­mother, to admission and intervention.

What the film does brilliantly is point out that illiteracy is not just one person's problem. Ellen's brother and sister never learned to read, and, since Ellen chose to hide her illiteracy, her attitudes towards education affected her children: three of the four never graduated from high school. Most poign­antly, her young son, who dropped out of school at fifteen, is carrying on the denial that ruined Ellen's life and the lives of the ones closest to her. This is a contemporary and very real story. Ellen is an attractive and vivacious narrator and the level of intimacy shared by all of her family members makes this a very passionate and powerful film.

A Passage from Burnt Islands is "the story of a one-man literacy crusade which grew to include an entire community." This film is more than just a plea for literacy, it is a wonderful portrait of a dying town in Newfoundland and the characters that inhabit it. Fishing will no longer support the community as fish disappear into the nets of giant fishing trawlers. Education is impera­tive, but the people were demoralized, the school system was failing them, and few were gaining the literacy skills they would need to succeed. Dropping out and going on welfare was the fate of most of the young people.

Enter Ray Bown. Taking on the challenge as principal of the elementary school, Bown changed the attitude towards reading, involved the parents, and began fund-raising for the provision of books, listening centres, photocopiers. His "one-man crusade" sparked the entire community. But he didn't just increase reading abilities, he became involved with each family and affected the way they viewed themselves. Several children interviewed near the end of the film talk about what they're going to do when they grow up and where they are going to live. These children now have dreams of growing up to be doctors and police officers, but none of them see themselves staying in Burnt Islands.

It's a moving portrait of a man, of a community, and of the central and critical role that literacy plays in shaping us as individuals and as members of society.

In contrast to the 45-minute videos discussed, Second Debut is an 8-minute animated clip about Sophie, who, upon retirement, finds fulfillment as a volunteer teacher at a literacy centre. Obviously a "recruitment" clip for retired people, the film, especially paired with a viewing of Ellen's Story, could motivate individuals to become involved.

Ellen's Story and A Passage from Burnt Islands would be especially useful in public libraries and literacy centres, but also to high school students who might not realize what a valuable gift literacy is. Luckily, the phone numbers for literacy organizations are included on the cover of Ellen's Story, so you can give them a phone call and get involved right away!

Allison Haupt is Coordinator of Children's and Young Adult's Services for the North Vancouver District Public Library in North Vancouver, British Columbia.
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