At the end of May, Kat and I took a trip to Hong Kong.
This trip was part of a DEFA-Stiftung-funded project on German film schools co-authored Barton and myself: Divided Dirigisme: Nationalism, Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. This article will appear in Mette Hjort’s 2-volume anthology The Education of the Filmmaker: Views from Around the World (Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming 2013). The article is more or less about how German film education reflects Prussian traditions of centralized education control and an elusive Bildung ideal not necessarily reflected in the amount of work the subsidy-driven German film system can actually provide its up-and-coming filmmakers. We see it as a set of observations from outsiders, and a gentle-but-firm critique.
Mette was gracious to invite us to the inaugural conference of Cinema Studies at Lingnan University, three days of papers about film education from all parts of the globe held in this official-looking conference room:
Besides Mette and Barton, we had many other rock-stars of global cinema research in attendance: Duncan Petrie, Hamid Naficy, George Yúdice, Law Kar, Toby Miller, and Alia Arasoughly, to name a few. Given how far many of us were from our host institutions, the conference often felt like more of a retreat, and this reinforced the collegiality in the room throughout the 3 days.
Because I tweeted the whole conference under the hashtag #cinemalingnan, I actually took some pretty decent notes of what was said. Here’s my drastically paraphrased write-up about the current state in world cinema education. I apologize in advance for any opaqueness or esotericisms:
Yoshi Tezuka – Dynamics of the Cultures of Discontent: How is Globalization Transforming the Training of Filmmakers in Japan?
Unlike in other major filmmaking countries, Japan did not have an elaborate public subsidy system that established film schools in the country. Instead, jishu eiga (amateur films) and pinku eiga (pornographic “pink” films) served as the training grounds for the next generation of filmmakers. Japanese independent cinema has since proven the established 2nd wing of commercial cinema (much like Hollywood) and this career trajectory of cult –> “indie” –> mainstream (like with Takeshi Miike) is now more or less expected.
Moinak Biswas – Learning in Reverse: Teaching in the Age of Image Writing
One of the world experts on Satyajit Ray, Biswas tackled the larger topic of the digital shift in film education and how it can still be used as a means of critical praxis: this time through open source, local-knowledge informed image archives. Biswas highlighted the role of a filmmaker as a metadata producer, and also as a documentarist of localities such as Calcutta. He worked on projects recording ephemera such as graffiti and a closed factory across the street from his film school.
Stephen Chan – Film Education in Hong Kong: New Challenges and Opportunities
Chan looked at several institutions that helped promote filmmaking in Hong Kong, namely the broadcaster TVB, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (which apparently runs much of Hong Kong through charity efforts), and the wave of Hong Kong filmmakers educated in Europe or the United States who then returned to make films there starting in the late 1970s. The paper focused on how TVB used to play a much larger role in educating the newcomers, and now it relies on fairly piecemeal efforts to maintain an indigenous film industry,despite Hong Kong having a major investment in the history of cinema (more on this later).
Yomi Braester – The People’s Republic of China — Professionalization and its Discontents
Braester looked at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), which has been established as a school for overachieving Chinese filmmakers seeking entry into the mainstream Chinese media complex and/or advertising. They get all the latest equipment, and the BFA teachers even offer a kind of liberal arts education to have their students be more aesthetically and historically informed in their filmmaking (if not necessarily more critical). On the other hand, the titular “discontents” are the faculty and students at the Lin Xin Tin (sp?) film school, an opposition institution founded by an art critic out to cultivate a Herzogian “emotional sensibility” toward film and want students to actually stop taking classes and engage in filmmaking.
Gerda Dullaart – From Cinema in the Third World to Cinema in the First: Audiences and Markets
The South African entry, Dullaart focused on her own film school AFDA in Cape Town as a film school that emphasizes target demographics and markets over aforementioned artistic “sensibilities.” This has actually produced many excellent student films, ones that are well-informed about genre tropes and subverting expectations. By producing successfully for a local audience, AFDA in theory now has a wider global reach that would be imagined.
Osakue Stevenson Omoera – Bridging the Gap: Answering the Questions of Crime, Youth Unemployment and Poverty through Film Training in Benin
Omoera comes from Nigeria, where there are hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous languages and a prominent culture of crime dominates its youth. Omoera sees film education as a solution to both: the Benin language can be preserved through a native media culture staffed by young men who would be making films rather than mugging others. Omoera’s forthcoming article on the economics of the Benin video film in Nollywood will appear in the forthcoming Quarterly Review of Film and Television.
Hamid Naficy – Branch-Campus Initiatives: The Advantages and Liabilities of Knowledge Transfer
Naficy talked about a major topic in U.S. higher education, namely: elite U.S. branch campuses in the Middle East. He taught for Northwestern in Qatar, and noted that his students were primarily women who were given opportunities in their home country that they could not otherwise seek out abroad, as the men could. He weighed both the neo-colonialist projects of NYU, Columbia and Northwestern while also praising their impact on the populaces receiving their services
Alia Arasoughly – “Confessions” at the “Crossroads” of “Summer in Palestine”
As the head of the Palestinian women filmmaker group Shashat, Arasoughly presented a courageous picture of women who overcame all odds and began producing and exhibiting their films in places like Gaza and the Golan Heights. She has a situation in which the filmmakers do not want to explore film history, but wish to make it, and do so by filming scenes of their “everyday” and showing them in traveling cinema exhibitions to Palestinians. In this way, she sees a slow path to empowerment and autonomy of an entire media complex of marginalized voices.
Mette Hjort – One (Wo)man Documenatarians, Networks, and Gift Culture: The National Film School of Denmark’s Contributions to Film Training in the Middle East and North Africa
Hjort discussed the “Middle East Project,” a 4-week exchange program between Denmark and various countries in the Middle East starting in 2006. The program has produced many different filmmaking friendships, as well as the origins of a thriving cinematic dialog through global networks. Films such as Painting Our Secret and One Woman Army are testimony to the fact that good cinema will and does emerge from such cosmopolitan encounters.
George Yúdice – Audiovisual Culture in Latin America’s Peripheries
Yúdice honed in on Brazilian favela filmmaking, and the fact that music videos, remixes and other popular forms of expression actually form the current backbone of the critical Latin American film aesthetic. In dialog with Robert Stam’s research on this point, Yúdice talked about programs such as Urban Connections and the Afro-Reggae movement that (like with the Nigerians in Omoera’s paper) emphasize filmmaking as an alternate mode of economic and cultural production outside of criminal channels.
Christopher Meir – Building Film Cultures in the Anglophone Caribbean: Film Education at the University of the West Indies
Meir’s talk revealed a sparse film landscape in the Caribbean, a collection of islands that does not like to consider itself a collective in any case. The paper primarily focused on challenges of maintaining even a nominal film program in such an environment, but noted efforts to have students learn some film history and make streamlined feature films sometimes work.
Armida de la Garza – Children and Practice-Based Film Education: La Matatena and Comunicación Comunitaria in Mexico
The talk focused heavily on La Matatena, a Mexican children’s film festival that teaches the cinematic imagination and filmmaking praxis to young children. Another effort in L.A., Comunicación Comunitaria, concentrates on similar goals to the South African AFDA: audience development and the construction of certain subjects/people in the media. “The room was teeming with stories,” she said, reminding me of other projects to teach children role-playing, larp or other interactive fiction.
Nicholas Balaisis – The Alchemy of Place: Local Immersion at the International Film and TV School in Cuba
Cuba always proves an interesting case study on any topic, and Balaisis delivered the goods on the legacy of filmmakers such as Alea or Guzmán. In effect, there is a “residual socialist ethos” to be found at film education sites like EICTV, but the shift towards a kind of bland global brand at the film school (and all across Cuba) can certainly be felt.
Toby Miller – Good-bye to Film Schools: Please Close the Door on Your Way Out
Miller’s talk brought up some sobering facts about going to film school in the USA. There are 600 film schools available, but even the graduates from the top programs – USC, UCLA, NYU – are finding themselves working in an industry rapidly downsizing (either Hollywood or pornography) or a new media industry (i.e. YouTube/Google) that just doesn’t pay sufficient wages for the graduates to pay back their student loans. So somehow there’s a major gap between the universalist “storytelling” narrative on these top schools’ websites and the realities of those who pass through their halls.
Scott MacKenzie – Film Process and Processing: Film Practice and Education in Canada
MacKenzie introduced us to Phil’s Film Farm, a week-long retreat in Canada that has filmmakers writing, shooting, developing and screening 16mm material for fellow filmmakers. The profile of this institution has increased over the years, with a lot of women filmmakers showing up from all over the globe and even Kino Arsenal in Berlin curating some of the final film selections. The mistakes and contingencies that are part and parcel of developing 16mm footage in a bucket are seen as part of the finished artistic product from this retreat.
Anna Westerstahl Stenport – Film Education in Sweden, with the Gothenburg Region Film Industry as a Case Study
Stenport interviewed a host of Swedish film professionals and students and discovered the Swedish film industry to be a fragmented establishment which is now moving over to a freelance employment system that actually (in the case of Trollhättan Trade College, at least) presupposes any film school student to be going into the working world as a freelancer. However, western Sweden in particular seems to be primed for a potential film boom in the coming years, thanks to fruitful networks, entrepreneurship, and a growing cinephilia among young people.
Charlie Cauchi – A Significant Cultural Industry”: New Developments in Local Audiovisual Education on the Island of Malta
Malta’s chapter in the film business is still very short indeed. A native of the Mediterranean Island, Cauchi discussed ambitions of Maltese filmmakers like Elio Lombardi and about newer films like Alan Cassar’s spoof Maltageddon (2009). Usually Malta is a service-provider nation, as in the case of The Game of Thrones. But now Malta is subsidizing its own film industry to produce arty shorts like Simshar (2012).
Renata Šukaitytė – Informal Film Education in Lithuania: A Vital Precondition for New Film Policies, Film Talents and Critical Film Audiences
Šukaitytė also dealt with a very small nation’s cinema and film training culture: Lithuania. Citing influences of filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Sarunas Bartas, she reconstructed the experience of various Lithuanian filmmakers negotiate their native Lithuanian-ness and efforts to bring a mobile film culture into a nation very protective of their national language but unable to finance even independent feature films.
Marijke de Valck – Film Training and Film Festivals
De Valck’s paper handled a topic with which I’m familiar: film festivals in Europe. Dieter Kosslick and other familiar figures turned up as De Valck discussed the role the Berlinale Talent Campus, the Cinefoundation in Paris, the TorinoFilmLab in Turin and the Odessa Summer Film School (among others) serve to promote young filmmakers at site-specific festival training workshops. These workshops primarily help initiate the filmmakers involved into the global film scene and promote intra-European film collaborations.
Duncan Petrie – The Struggle for a Scottish National Film School
Petrie looked at the recent history of the Scottish Film School establishment and found all sorts of schisms, political partnerships, and efforts between TV stations, independent filmmakers and Scottish art schools to get something going. He attributes the initial failure of establishing any Scottish film school to uninspired leadership in Edinburgh and a lack of common purpose or cohesion among Scottish filmmakers.
Barton Byg, Evan Torner – Divided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies
Here, we talked about the history and formation of German film schools from the Weimar and Nazi eras to the present, and how that history reflects continuing processes of centralization and paradoxically lofty efforts to try to systematically cultivate the exceptional filmmaker. My portion of the paper compared two films – The Edge of Heaven (2007) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) – as two different paradigms for German film careers: one theauteurmodel that relies on subsidy, the other the German studio craftsperson model that also relies on subsidy.
Tom O’Regan, Ben Goldsmith – Beyond the Modular Film School: Australian Film and TV Schools and their transition to digital media environments
O’Regan and Goldsmith did an admirable job of listening to everyone else’s presentation and then tried to wrap things up with a productive “spectrum” of film school issues, which I re-print here in their entirety:
* General – Specific
* Traditional – Modern
* Industry – Art (mainstream/alternative, product/process)
* Practice – Theory
* Craft – Creativity
* Individual – Collective – Network
* Education – Training/Retraining
* Inside – Outside (a system)
In the Australian context, film education is primarily accountable to government audits, but not necessarily to the students themselves. They advocate for a way of evaluating film education in terms of the kind of work students are able to secure afterward.
Round Table Discussion – Meaghan Morris (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong), Shu Kei (Dean of the School of Film and Television, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong), Law Kar (Project Researcher, Hong Kong Film Archive, Hong Kong), Tammy Cheung (Documentary Director, Hong Kong), Xavier Tam, (Vice-Chairperson (Hearing), The Second Hong Kong International Deaf Film Festival Organizing Committee)
This impressive array of Hong Kong film experts essentially found that the Hong Kong locals are losing touch with their own venerable cinema history, and film history in general. They actually found that partially a decline in the teaching of literature itself was to blame, because so much of Hong Kong cinema is (unexpectedly) accessed through a kind of literary framework. Some complained at length about how everyone paid attention to Wong Kar-Wai (who has a new film coming out The Grandmasters), John Woo and Johnnie To that they’ve ignored the “classics” of the 1940s and 50s. I’ve now got a to-watch list!
Also RIP Paul Willemen.
Although I’m still working out the meta-picture from all this, I think the papers connote a larger picture of a world coming to grips with a post-cinema world in which governments and major forces still attempt to exercise control over their media, but otherwise localities and their audiences are also pitching in with their own take on the notions of “nation” and “film.”
Anyway, now on to what you were waiting for, namely…
…like this delicious peanut-coconut curry at a restaurant near Central Hong Kong and the Symphony of Lights.
…or this divine vegetarian dim sum at the Lock Cha Teahouse.
…or even the crazy food that one can get for super cheap at the (very 1950s) Mido Cafe in Mongkok. We tried the “tea mixed with coffee” and some egg sandwiches. Oh, and some bitter melon in black bean sauce (not listed here).
I certainly have more material to mine from this trip, but I’ve got a lot of preparations this week underway for several weeks to be spent in Ithaca, NY, so I’ll leave you hanging in mild suspense for now.