Do we still need film schools?

As Europe’s leaders scrabbled to save the Eurozone this week a fair slice of the world’s films schools were assembled in Prague “Exploring the Future of Film and Media Education”.  Fifty or so countries were represented at the annual conference of CILECT, which was founded in1955 by a generation of filmmakers and film educators still scarred by world war two and determined to ensure the burgeoning cold war did not cut off the international mobility and exchange of ideas that had been one collateral benefit of the global conflict.  Perhaps not surprisingly then ‘internationalisation’ remains high on their agenda.  The desire to ensure students and staff are exposed to different cultures, practices and experiences is a major part of CILECT’s raison d’etre and the focus of many of its more successful projects.  The world changes though and whereas in the past film educators may have worried more about their students lacking exposure to world cinema now they are equally concerned that immersion in a globalised media world comes with the price that students may struggle to offer the world something ‘distinctive’.  It is the same paradox that haunts global culture – the search for ‘difference’ promotes the creation of similarity.

Behind such concerns lies a deeper challenge to film schools – their very existence.  This fuelled the conference debate on the ‘fundamental values of films schools’. The growing popularity of the (very silly) idea that ‘all you need now to make a feature film is a camera and a laptop’ continues to sway even normally intelligent people and it has to be said that even film school staff can fall prey to technology fetishism.  The now very tired debate over ‘should we still be teaching using film as well as digital’ received yet another airing in Prague when the important question is not about the technology but about the methodology.  Film-making is about making creative choices within the means at your disposal – about what to film , where and when to film it, with whom, in what way, when to cut, when not to cut – in which what kind of technology to use is merely one choice.  Learning how to make those choices, experimenting, risking, failing, getting advice and feedback and learning from each other – these are the lessons learned in film school, not which buttons to press (though that is a necessary part of the process). With enough time, a manual and judicious use of Google  anyone can work out how to use a Digital SLR or an ARRI ALEXA. Using the same approach they are unlikely to have the same success casting two compatible actors, coaching believable performances or ensuring a team of five, ten or thirty pull together under pressure of time on a cold wet moor towards a common creative vision.  They are equally unlikely to be challenged about their values, forced out of their comfort zone or exposed to films they would never have chosen to watch themselves.

Yet given demand for places at film schools has by all accounts never been higher it may seem strange that such anxieties trouble at least some of the world’s film schools.  The explanation lies less in the attitude of young filmmakers, who still seem to appreciate what film school offers, but more in the attitude of public policy-makers who, swayed by the popular impression that ‘anyone can be a filmmaker now’, are questioning the value, and more specifically, the cost, of maintaining national film schools.  Those that are directly funded by culture or education ministries outside the university system feel exposed as ‘luxuries’ while those that are based within Universities are in some cases being pressured to drop their ‘small numbers, high quality’ approach to reduce costs.  The fashion for ‘teaching creative skills’ has overtaken ‘nurturing creative talent’ and engendered a ‘more=better’ approach by funding bodies. This, combined with the dead hand of educational homogenisation, is starting to squeeze the risk-taking out of film practice education in favour of a technocratic approach in which, it is presumed, armies of multi-skilled creative technicians will march into jobs in the expanding creative economy and save us from deindustrialisation.  There are good reasons to pursue aspects of this strategy in addition to what in music or drama is well understood as a ‘conservatoire’ approach,  But some countries have never even accepted that the centre of excellence idea might apply to more modern (albeit now a century old!) art forms such as cinema while in those that have, the pressure to conform to wider higher education norms and numbers is growing inexorably.

Here we should acknowledge a big caveat as what is described above is largely a European phenomenon.  The rest of the world is developing film schools fast and from Singapore to South Africa their growth is a symptom, perhaps, of the fact that with few exceptions a commercially and culturally successful film industry is rarely found without the influence of one or more film schools.  Europe’s film schools are increasingly partnering up with the rest of the world to promote international collaboration amongst both staff and students.  This year our own Screen Academy Scotland’s extension of its EU MEDIA funded ENGAGE programme to embrace participants from China and Canada is just one example with the EU’s MEDIA MUNDUS programme supporting several such projects.  As China, India and South Korea become global players in co-production and not just markets for Hollywood product, the opportunities for Europe’s new filmmakers to ‘think global, act local’ are expanding significantly and film schools are increasingly in the vanguard of brokering such relationships.  Whether they will be able to hold their end up, though, depends on their continuing to be valued as small-scale centres of excellence that  are an investment in long-term success and not short-term ‘outcomes’.


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