Letter to the editor: Finding a focus, what kind of department are we?

On the first day of class I handed my basic video students a book called Peripheral Visions. The book was written by an anthropologist and on the surface, it had nothing to do with film production. I gave it to the class because, for me, more important than learning technique, was first developing a way into seeing and in turn, experiencing the world around us. This particular author Mary Catherine Bateson, was our guide, as she traveled to foreign countries such as Iran and the Philippines, and much of what she experiences, is outside her own habits of perception. It defies her own experience, and the logic of the cultural habits she grew up, which are challenged. So she has to work to understand the strange, the unfamiliar, and the unknown. She has to work to understand people who are, different than her. And she says, there is a spiritual basis to attention, a humility in waiting upon the emergence of pattern from experience. The willingness to assimilate what has been seen or heard draws other life into increasingly inclusive definitions of the self. Looking and listening, and learning offer the modern equivalent of moving through life as a pilgrimage.

I started the class here, because I wanted them to begin from a place of attention. To give students the opportunity to gradually come into awareness, without a camera in hand. To take the time first of observing a certain environment, as a person, attempting to attune themselves to what might become interesting not during the first visit, or even the second, but maybe during the third or fourth go around. Because there is a layering that happens, when we return to a place, or consider a certain situation over time. Our initial rushed and hurried instincts fade and new more dynamic forces emerge, revealing themselves to us, if only we are willing to stick around long enough, to uncover this more layered experience.

So no, in my class, we're not focusing on technique. Technique is coming after and coming through reading, thinking, and observing. It is aimed at weeding through all of those false intentions and hurried rushed reactive false starts, we're starting from noticing, considering the dynamics of our surroundings, before jumping to record what we don't yet understand.

Because it isn't like the old days. We don't need to know what we once did, to become a pro. The art of filmmaking, for better or worse, has become largely democratic, and really any of us can become directors tonight if we'd like. Taking a high quality photo, or shooting a hi-res video, is right there, in your pocket. So I'm not worried about that part. The problem now, is that we're capturing all the time, and like anything that we've lost a deep appreciation for, many of us have replaced seeing, with capturing the thing we only glimpsed at.

In a conversation I had with Spencer Parsons, who is a filmmaker and also teaches production at Northwestern University, I asked him what he thought education was all about:

We are teaching larger skills of critique, collaboration, organization, and leadership that can apply to many pursuits. Filmmaking is just the specific practice we use to do this. Our job is to graduate leaders, who are forward thinking, independent-minded, and have a solid grounding in a range of disciplines. These are people who will lead in various fields, not just a narrowly defined vocation/technical area that essentially prepares the graduates for only a few jobs in the professional world, with little chance of greater leadership or advancement within the field, or informed citizenship within our society. The exclusive market orientation in these conversations makes students, parents, instructors, and administrators think they're being rigorous and pragmatic, when they're simply settling for less than our graduates deserve.

But I get it. The biggest question here is how do we pay for education that is both necessary to most professions now and which is in itself a public good that makes society better and provides for more social mobility. Under that, we DO have to question the usefulness of education, but on the terms of how it prepares graduates to be leaders and independent thinkers and citizens. For students really serious about the film business at a school that doesn't offer much professionalized training, I'd say major in business and do a ton of theatre as extracurricular. Then take a kind of film boot camp class after graduation, and start getting jobs on film sets to learn how they work. Getting PA jobs isn't hard and you can learn more production than in any class. But a class - can teach you purpose and responsibility and critique.

Stanzi Vaubel

PhD candidate, Media Study