Filmmaking: A Scholar’s Choices

The chief evidence of filmmaking scholarship is a roster of collaboration.  Selection criteria for film projects may differ from commercial to scholarly arenas, but should not diverge so widely that the teaching filmmaker’s work offers students and graduates no accessible model for their own careers. Avoiding a false choice between meaningful aesthetic and pragmatic purpose, the following questions governs my choice of scholarship projects:

  • Will aspects of its viewing or production contribute to cultural renewal, improving the life of its audience, its subject, or its makers?
  • Understanding that filmmaking is historically and inherently a cooperative undertaking, may I make an identifiably personal imprint on its content or forms?
  • Does its content or form offer an opportunity for new expression?
  • Does the film’s production offer opportunities for student apprenticeship?
  • Will my participation increase my access to other professionals?
  • Does my participation improve me as a teacher?
  • To what extent is peer review possible in pre-production, production, and distribution?
  • To what degree might it improve the institution’s reputation for scholarship? for teaching? for community involvement/service?
  • Do I have a sincere enthusiasm for the project?

Androgogy: A Filmmaker’s Character

The Academy’s courses in media theory and history demonstrate an obvious critical bias. Their assumption – largely an application of Bazin’s auteur theory – is that, through manipulation of its formal elements, media conveys the beliefs of its makers. A resulting pedagogy in suspicious media consumption allows professors ample and obvious opportunity to shape their students’ worldview.

But a similarly reflective approach to media production is less common. Instead, lighting, camera operation, and editing are too often presented as values-neutral skills to be mastered, redeemed chiefly by the content on which they are brought to bear.   But consider the scriptwriter who acquires “an ear for dialogue” by developing the virtue of empathetic listening; or the audio engineer who improves voice-over performance by hospitably anticipating an announcer’s need for water; the director who chooses lower camera angles to empower a child actor.  A cinematographer schooled in humility might shoot more takes of a challenging shot, balanced by a stewarding producer mindful of cost- and time-efficiency.

Importantly, I’m not describing a moral or religious indoctrination.  I am, instead, identifying points of intersection between my academic discipline and the soft skills employers demand.  Believing shooting ratio, camera angle, and editing pace, to be opportunities for character formation, I pursue inquiry and present reflection which offers a distinctive androgogy that may be applied to the process (and not merely the products) of media creation.

Diversity: A Citizen’s Conscience

For years, student filmmakers were taught to light actors in ways dictated by photosensitive chemical emulsions. Thoughtlessly or intentionally, film stocks (and, later, digital cameras) were configured to favor caucasian skin. But if you can’t light flesh of all colors, there are stories you’re not telling, audiences you’re not reaching. And if you can’t light multiple skin tones in the same scene, then you avoid depicting relationships that bridge ethnicities. And I want to tell all the stories.

I also want to win all the prizes. And there are festivals and competitions that I qualify for if women are well-represented in creative positions. There are production grants I can apply for if a rainbow of skin colors, and abilities, and lifestyle orientations are at work behind the camera. If I’m going to be in show business, then I have to be good at business. And it’s just good business to spread the weight of filmmaking across as many different kinds of shoulders as I possibly can.

The broad embrace of that thinking leverages high profile social differences in the cause of filmmaking. Remote learning during the pandemic spotlighted a less evident distinction. When a professor gathers students on campus in a video editing lab, they’re sitting behind rows of identical desktop computers; they’re sharing files on a common server, accessing assets at the same download speed. But send them home and some are using the spiffiest new Mac. Others are slogging through sandy molasses, trying to get a cranky, eight-year-old Windows laptop to run the newest version of Adobe Premiere. One student in town successfully uploads project files ten minutes before class. A farm kid needs to complete the same assignment a day earlier to accommodate rural internet speeds. Of course that’ll be further complicated if Mom needs the computer for a job search and a brother’s watching Netflix in the next room.

Sometimes, accommodating diversity requires creating opportunities for students to identify with people who aren’t like them, putting them to work in groups with collaborators they didn’t grow up understanding or trusting. And sometimes addressing diversity requires talking to folks frankly about their own disadvantage and how to strategically navigate roadblocks of finance and digital access.

I’ve heard it said that empathy is understanding that I don’t have empathy. I really can not feel your pain. The best I can do is to demonstrate willing advocacy, to model what it looks like to confess and correct my mistakes. Perhaps the best I can do is to signal an openness to learn, to mindfully research, to make it safe for colleagues and students to call out my errors and offer me their own wisdom.