Students want change from AU’s film program, and faculty say it’s on the way
Limited course selection, lack of narrative filmmaking opportunities are among the complaints
While the film and media arts program in the School of Communication has only been around for about 40 years, the young program has managed to produce award-winning alumni, including SOC alumnus Charlie Wachtel. Wachtel earned his first Academy Award on Feb. 24 for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”
However, some students in SOC say they have trouble envisioning their futures as narrative storytellers for several reasons. One of the biggest complaints among dissatisfied students is the lack of specificity and the program’s limited course selection, which often focuses on documentary filmmaking.
But faculty members, such as film and media arts program director Brigid Maher, say they are already addressing student feedback with changes to the structure of the program.
“We’ve established a strong reputation in the documentary work that we do, and we need to continue to communicate the significant contributions that our students and faculty make in fiction,” Maher said.
Newer changes to the program
Noelle McGlinn, a sophomore film major, said that she considered transferring from AU after experiencing dissatisfaction with the lack of focus the film program offers.
“At other schools, you can really concentrate. If you’re interested in editing, you can do a solely editing track. Here, you can take maybe one class at editing,” McGlinn said. “It’d be nice to say yeah, I’m majoring in film, but I’m concentrating in cinematography or something like that.”
Maher said the program takes student feedback seriously and that the program will soon allow students to concentrate in a certain area while having a comprehensive foundation in different areas of filmmaking.
“Incoming students who are first years now, by the time they’re seniors, can develop a capstone in their area of concentration,” Maher said.
The film and media arts division has been working to revise the undergraduate curriculum so that students would have access to more advanced production, film and video classes earlier, Maher said.
With the new changes implemented for the 2018-2019 school year, students can now take discipline tracks, taking three credits of film and media studies, six credits in production skills and three writing credits.
Other changes include the elimination of the Writing for Communication component, which mainly focuses on writing for print, broadcast and public service, as a requirement for most SOC students.
The pressure of documentary
Despite these attempts, one of the most common complaints that remain among those dissatisfied with the film program is the emphasis on documentary work.
The basis of the emphasis on documentary-style film stems from the course offerings that students are allowed to choose from, several students said. With many students sharing an interest in fiction filmmaking, most courses geared toward the subject are upper-level classes that are in high demand, making it difficult for some students to register for them.
Even though more students are interested in fictional storytelling, Maher said that it’s important for them to learn a variety of storytelling formats in the film and media industry so that they can be thoughtful in choosing which genre will best exemplify the stories they want to tell.
“We train students to be prepared for a lifetime in the profession,” Maher said. “Their interests may change, and you might start out in a specific area of film and you may find that your interests evolve over time. We would be doing students a disservice if we just trained them in a specific area.”
Still, the underlying issue of limited availability of higher level classes remains. This includes professor Claudia Myers’ Advanced Screenwriting course, where Wachtel got some of his early experiences writing screenplays.
“With the few upper-level classes that I’ve taken, we do have the freedom to do fiction style pieces, which is nice,” sophomore Christian Eberhard said. “I haven’t felt like I’ve been pushed towards documentary, but I do feel like there are more classes open on the documentary side.”
Most of the introductory courses students have blended fiction, documentary and communication together. While there are classes like Directing Actors for Camera and Writing for the Feature Film, the documentary-based classes focus on specific topic areas, including Producing Environmental and Wildlife Films and Community Documentary: Stories of Transformation.
“Part of it has to do with the resources around here,” McGlinn said. “There aren’t many ways to get involved in narrative work, it’s not like New York.”
While the majority of professors within the film program are professionals in their field, several students expressed a desire for more professors that have stronger ties to Hollywood, including Eberhard and McGlinn.
“Most of my professors have been environmental filmmakers, but they haven’t done anything in Hollywood,” McGlinn said.
Within the film and media arts department, faculty have won numerous awards including several Oscars, Emmys, Peabodys, as well as many other awards.
“The professors are still very active filmmakers and they’re devoted to incorporating experiential learning into their artistic and professional endeavors,” Maher said. “This means our students have unique opportunities to participate in significant roles in production with faculty, whether they’re undergraduates or graduates.”
Whether students are leaning towards narratives, documentaries or something in between, one of the main goals of faculty is to encourage students to make stories that matter regardless of genre.
“There’s an explicit emphasis on telling meaningful stories, on being responsible storytellers, on trying to do something that has a measure of impact,” Myers said.
Maher added that AU faculty are trying to prepare graduates to prosper in the film industry.
“Inclusivity is essential to powerful storytelling and I can speak for all of our faculty when I say that we want to train and empower students to transform the industry…through thoughtful, provocative and authentic storytelling that reflects their own experiences," Maher said.
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's March 2019 print edition.
Correction: This article incorrectly attributed the final quote to Claudia Myers. The quote was said by Brigid Maher.