The balancing act of teaching and making film

Tina Kaufman

The Kitchen, director Ben Ferris

The Kitchen, director Ben Ferris

Filmmaking, more than most creative pursuits, is not only a collaborative medium; it can also be a very expensive one. Of course, it’s possible to make short films, and these days even features, on the smell of an oily rag, using what Tropfest founder John Polson once described as “a digital camera, some friends and a free weekend.” But those with more vision and ambition need to go through much more preparation, writing scripts, seeking development funding, creating working partnerships and raising the money. And filmmakers, more than most, are used to disappointments and hold-ups: projects are knocked back, people go on to other work, and finances fall apart.

IN FOR THE LONG TERM
Margot Nash, UTS

To get a film into production can take years; take one of our filmmaker teachers as an example. Margot Nash, who teaches at the University of Technology, Sydney, began making films in the early days of the feminist film movement of the 1970s and 80s with We Aim to Please (1977); she was one of the makers of the seminal documentary on women’s work, For Love or Money (1983), with Megan McMurchy and Jeni Thornley; and made her critically acclaimed first feature, Vacant Possession (1995). After a number of years with several projects in development, she was asked to direct Call Me Mum (2006, see review, page 23), which premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. At the first screening, she explained how she had taken a 6-month leave of absence to direct the film, but when the finances fell apart, she went back to teaching half time. Second time lucky, she took 6 months off and made the film, but when she returned to work she still had to finish the sound post-production, so worked three-quarter time while doing that.

Leo Berkeley, RMIT

Film production is a complex, multi-layered activity, and one that some filmmakers are admirably suited to teach, although their reasons for doing so may also be complicated. Leo Berkeley teaches in the School of Applied Communication, RMIT University in Melbourne. His first low budget feature, Holidays on the River Yarra (1991) was critically very well received, but he then spent years working on several follow-up feature projects that never got off the ground. As he explains, he got into teaching as a way of earning a regular income at a stage of his life when he really needed one, and found it occupied most of his time. Recently however, frustrated by the standard processes, he has made Stargate, a 300-minute fully improvised drama with a cast and crew of friends which was screened at last year’s Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF), in the “extreme narrative” strand, while his 12-minute Machinima work screened at the 2005 Machinima Film Festival in New York. (“Machinima, where real time 3D computer gameplay is recorded as video footage and then used to produce more traditional linear videos.” Berkeley, http://conferences.aoir.org/viewabstract.php?id=564&cf=5). “I enjoy teaching film and TV production because students keep you on your toes”, he says. “I like passing on the things I have learnt through experience and my reflection on that experience, and it gives me access to equipment and facilities that are central to my creative practice.” So, is the filmmaker a teacher, or the teacher a filmmaker?

BETWEEN ROLES

Margot Nash tells of “a wise teacher friend of mine (who) once responded to my question, ‘what makes a good teacher’, by saying `I think it helps if you are learning something too.’ Certainly my experience as a screenwriting teacher means I’m constantly learning about film and the craft of screenwriting and this in turn feeds back into my own creative work. I’m a writer-director and I teach screenwriting at UTS which means that I am always on the lookout for interesting films to teach and for new approaches to screenwriting. Reading and analysing scripts and finding constructive ways to respond to student work in order to encourage good work to develop means I am constantly exercising my critical faculties (like exercising the body, one’s critical and creative faculties need to run around the block pretty well all the time to remain sharp). This kind of work can only help me as a practicing filmmaker. I feel very lucky that I am teaching something I am also practicing so I am constantly in a learning situation.”

Trish Fitzsimons, Griffith Film School

Trish Fitzsimmons is a filmmaker and writer on film who is a senior lecturer in the School of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Griffith University, Brisbane. Her films include Retreat (1990), Above Water (1991), and (with Mitzi Goldman) the documentary Snakes and Ladders: A Film about Women, Education and History (1987), and she’s currently working on several projects. She explains, “It’s only by continuing with my own practice that I can be an effective teacher. For me, a hallmark of university teaching (compared for instance with high school teaching) is that one is teaching from a constantly expanding fund of knowledge based on one’s practice in whatever field (from Latin to film and all points in between) and on knowledge/scholarship of what others in the field are up to. Teaching in a university I also feel that an important part of my job is to theorise practice and to be involved in producing an historical record of practice, so the job description becomes very wide indeed.”

Ben Ferris, Sydney Film School

Ben Ferris is director of the relative newcomer, the Sydney Film School, and a pioneer of the global resurgence in “one take” cinema. His film The Kitchen screened alongside Russian Ark at the Inaugural One Take Film Festival held in Zagreb, Croatia in 2003. In 2004 he went on to win the Grand Prix at the same festival for his one-take film Ascension, and has been invited back this year as an international jury member. He sees the interplay between the roles of filmmaker and teacher as fundamentally harmonious. “As a filmmaker, I view teaching as a very important process in the development of my skills. As a teacher of film, my practice as a filmmaker keeps my ideas fresh and relevant.”

AHEAD & BEHIND

“One advantage is that one can more easily take on long term projects”, explains Trish Fitzsimons. “For example, in the mid to late 90s I made a doco that observed a group of male prisoners taking part in a set of workshops, and then followed them for 3 years afterwards. This kind of project would be very difficult with conventional documentary funding structures. And currently I have funding from Film Australia and the Pacific Film and Television Commission to develop a doco that again follows characters for a period of a couple of years. From a permanent tertiary education position one can take on projects that are less commercially oriented, and that have a strong research dimension, that would not be easily possible without a full-time wage coming in. The disadvantages are certainly that you produce work more slowly and that in teaching and working across such a wide sphere it is easy for hands-on skills to slip.”

For Margot Nash the disadvantages are to do with time. “When I was a fractional appointment and not working full-time I managed to carve out enough time to develop scripts, script edit other projects and work on developing projects as a director. Now I am full-time it is almost impossible: teaching full time in real terms means over 40 students writing short film scripts I’m reading, plus another 20 or so starting to write long form drama, plus 6 post-grads, and 2 of these submitting full length feature scripts. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. The net result is I haven’t looked at my own creative work for months—although I do think about it a lot.”

Pat Laughren, Griffith Film School

Time and time are the issues for Pat Laughren who teaches in the School of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Griffith University, and is the maker of social and film history projects. His very extensive filmography stretches from Exits (1980) to Stories from the Split: the Struggle for the Souls of Australian Workers (2005), an oral history documentary treatment which premiered at The Great Labor Split 1955—Fifty Years Later Conference in April 2005, in Melbourne. (His other films include Queensland’s Silent Films: the Newsreel years 1910-1930 (2004), The Fair Go: Winning the 1967 Referendum (1999) and from 1994 Red Ted and the Great Depression). As he says, “there is time to work on projects which may not be able to be supported otherwise in such a sustained way. But of course there’s little opportunity to respond immediately and ‘lose’ yourself in a production. There’s always a class, meeting or other commitment to be factored in. That’s not a complaint. Just a description.”

“One of the most exciting things about teaching for me”, explains Ben Ferris, “is when the students challenge me about my process. This keeps me on my toes, and forces me to constantly examine my approach to filmmaking. This is what excites me as a filmmaker: to question the status quo; to challenge conventions; to investigate the creative process. The only disadvantage that I can see is not having enough time to do both properly. It’s a delicate balancing act and if tipped the wrong way, focus on one can easily compromise the other.”

A SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Being an independent filmmaker can be very isolating. As Margot Nash says, “There are so many of us hunched over our computers trying to get films made and competing with each other for small amounts of money. In the old days when we had the Filmmakers Co-op I had much more of a sense of community. When I started working at UTS I think it was both the contact with students and with the academic community that gave me a sense of community again. The students…keep me up to date with what’s happening out there.”

For Ben Ferris, practising filmmaking is a more communal experience than most other art forms, “however, having a community of practitioners, teachers and students around you on a daily basis is exhilarating. It forces dialogue about the inexhaustible aspects of filmmaking on a regular basis, and allows your ideas to be tested and provoked, rather than letting them sink in a vacuum. Personally, while I am prone to be intensely private in the development phase, I like working with people, and it is one of the great attractions of filmmaking as an art form.”

DO STUDENTS BENEFIT?

Margot Nash thinks that students engaged in creative study benefit if their teacher is actively engaged in creative work rather than teaching something of which they have no active first hand knowledge . “It makes everything more real and much more lively. I know my students appreciate my industry knowledge and contacts as they always say so on student feedback forms. I take a very practical and pragmatic approach to teaching screenwriting, as well as a creative one. I bring technical knowledge and a current understanding of the Australian film industry to the classroom and I also write references for students and often try to find work experience for them.”

“I’ve always felt that when I’ve completed some of my own work that it is a buzz for our current students,” says Trish Fitzsimons. “My teaching is certainly constantly informed by practice. As far as possible within the Griffith Film School, we bring in other current practitioners, especially graduates, so our students have a sense of being part of a creative community. And whilst I never employ students for free on funded elements of my projects, it can be good for both parties to get students doing some exploratory work.”

Pat Laughren believes that it’s for the students to say what the benefits are, although he’d like to think it’s a sense of contact and engagement with issues beyond the strictly assessable. But for Leo Berkeley it’s that students recognise the value of the knowledge that comes from the practical experience of making a film. “Teachers who have both extensive and current film production experience have a lot to offer students, so in my opinion if filmmaking is to be taught in universities, there have to be opportunities for university teachers to keep making films.”

TEACHING TO SURVIVE?

“Unfortunately the kinds of films I have chosen to make have never made me a lot of money and I have never enjoyed being a ‘gun for hire’, making films I’m not interested in”, explains Margot Nash. “So even though I love teaching and get a lot out of it, it has always been connected to survival. I do not see it as integral to practice although it certainly enhances my practice. However, on reflection I wonder if I would have continued as a filmmaker if I had had to do something else to make a living, and had not had the option to continue to practice and develop my craft in the class room.”

For Trish Fitzsimons, being a doco filmmaker/social historian working in an audiovisual mode, university teaching is a huge privilege and a very satisfying career. “My goal is to take a long view, to keep growing creatively and intellectually and that that will also sustain me as a teacher. As part of this I am currently doing a Doctorate of Creative Arts, with Ross Gibson through UTS, and I’m off to Brazil in early August to give a theoretical paper about documentary voice at the Visible Evidence conference. That kind of professional opportunity is certainly valuable to me and should help me to guide my students in future, especially postgraduates.”

“Given the sort of projects I’ve been working on over the last years (essentially, social and film history projects), the students challenge my comfortable assumptions about what’s worth doing. And how it might be done”, comments Pat Laughren. “I hope I offer them some of the same. One trick of the trade is to find some serendipitous union between a project you want to do and the conditions in which you can approach it. The university/film school is still a place where a certain amount of disinterested research (in terms of topics, forms and techniques) can prosper and an agenda can extend beyond the limits of, say, the broadcast schedule.”

Leo Berkeley has some strong opinions, and some demanding questions. He believes that teaching is integral to practice if teaching is connected to research. If a filmmaker is developing their own experience and pushing the boundaries of their practice, then this can feed productively into teaching, the way it does across most other university disciplines. At the present time, however, he believes that “universities are moving away from an environment where active filmmakers can get involved in any meaningful way with teaching. The increasing focus on research has a related focus on postgraduate qualifications for people working in higher education, and not many filmmakers have a Masters or PhD degree. This increased focus on research raises a number of interesting issues for filmmakers who are already working within the university sector as teachers. There are growing possibilities for screen production to be included as the major, if not sole, component of a higher degree by research. More and more productions are occurring as ‘research’ within Australian universities, yet their status at the present time is quite ambiguous. These productions are often made by experienced practitioners and are specifically developed to extend the boundaries of that individual’s creative practice or the field they are in. It seems strange that this potentially significant sector of the industry has so little visibility or status.”

ADDRESSING THE ISSUES: ASPERA

Concern over the status of screen production courses within the education sector and the relationship between the screen production education sector and the wider Australian screen industries led to the formation in 2004 of the Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association (ASPERA), now the peak discipline body of Australian tertiary institutions teaching and researching film, video, television and new media as screen based production practices. It represents 16 institutions offering degrees at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including bachelor, master and doctorate, in various screen production disciplines. By playing an active role in shaping quality education for those planning to or working in research and production for the screen, addressing issues of concern to the sector, and liaising with industry, secondary and TAFE sectors on matters of mutual interest, it aims to lift the profile of the screen-based industries within the wider economic, social and cultural development of Australia.

In fact, tertiary education institutions do seem to be finding a new place within the screen production community. Trish Fitzsimons remarks, “From a broad perspective I think that universities are a vital source of documentary and creative arts practice that might not happen with the same depth and integrity if all the work was produced with the pressures of freelancing.” Pat Laughren comments, “In terms of the wider industry, we may be the last refuge of a certain kind of institutional filmmaker that once inhabited places like Film Australia or the public broadcasters. Privilege indeed!”

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 17-

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006