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Nancy Joseph 07/08/2008 July 2008 Perspectives

Tristan Seniuk’s love affair with film began at age 12. He remembers the moment. “My father showed me Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” says Seniuk. “It just blew my mind. I’ve wanted to study film ever since.”

Seniuk graduated from the UW in June with a degree in comparative literature, choosing the cinema studies track. He figures he’s taken 20 film-related courses, ranging from a Germanics course about Aguirre director Werner Herzog to a summer intensive course on film production offered by Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS). 

Tristan Seniuk has taken about 20 film-related courses at the UW.

Seniuk would have had fewer choices ten years ago. At that time, just a handful of film courses was offered. But since the establishment of the Cinema Studies Program in Autumn 1998, the number of offerings has been steadily increasing in departments across the humanities. And two new programs—Native Voices and DXARTS—now offer courses in film production. 

Finding Unexpected Depth in Familiar Films

When Cinema Studies (CS) was introduced as a degree track in the Comparative Literature Department, 90 students immediately chose it as a major. That figure quickly grew to 120. “As a result of the program, the number of majors in the department has tripled since 1998,” says Jennifer Bean, associate professor of comparative literature and CS director. 

Most students start by taking a 200- level CS lecture course. They can choose from courses on film analysis, or a specific film genre, or an individual director. 
“These introductory courses serve as a gateway to the major, but also allow students from across the college to get a taste of what it is to study film seriously,” says Bean.

Many are surprised by the experience. Bean recalls a biology major in her genre course on horror films telling her, “This class changed my life. I’ll never look at a movie the same way again.” 

Spend more than five minutes talking with Bean and you can understand why. She’s able to show how horror flicks, like all films, reflect aspects of ourselves and our culture that we often choose to ignore.

“Horror films may seem to be the most formulaic of genres,” she admits, “but there is a complex art involved in generating fear. By studying this art, students also learn about what frightens us as a culture.”

Jennifer Bean, director of the Cinema Studies Program, shares a laugh with colleague Yomi Braester.

In classic American horror films, Bean explains, the monsters are from elsewhere. They’re back from the dead or they are exotic, usually from the East. Fast-forward to the 1970s and 80s, to the phenomenon of slasher films, and horror comes from the family home. “Psycho was the turning point,” says Bean.

When students begin to see films in a historical context and learn how to dissect their many layers, going to the movies becomes a very different experience. “You can have a powerful emotional response right away,” says Bean, “but once you think carefully about how a film works, the screen opens on to so much more.”

Building Visual Literacy

Many students come to CS thinking they already know how to watch films. After all, they’ve grown up going to the movies. “They know a lot of films, but they don’t come to them with a visual literacy,” says Bean. “We might spend 90 minutes doing a close reading of a sequence in a film. They can be resistant to that. It’s the switch from thinking of film as entertainment to seeing it as something more.”

Consider the popular course “Chinese Martial Arts Cinema,” cross-listed by CS and Asian Languages and Literature. Fans of the genre often sign up, thrilled to get academic credit for watching martial arts films. But they soon discover that critical viewing requires effort. 

Yomi Braester, associate professor of comparative literature and adjunct in Asian languages and literature, co-teaches the course with Christopher Hamm, assistant professor of Asian languages and literature. Braester focuses on cinema literacy, teaching students the basic vocabulary for discussing film. Hamm places the films in a cultural context.

Hamm’s passion is martial arts literature, not film. But he teaches the course, and another that combines Chinese fiction and film, to introduce more students to Chinese culture. 

“There is a way in which film makes a lot immediately accessible, especially for students who haven’t had contact with Asian history or culture before,” says Hamm. “These courses are intended to introduce undergraduates to our discipline and to the possibility of taking further Asian Languages and Literature courses.” 

Other language departments from Scandinavian Studies to Slavic Languages and Literature also have made film an integral part of the curriculum. Some faculty hold joint appointments in Comparative Literature; many courses are cross-listed with CS. 

Eric Ames, assistant professor of Germanics, was hired specifically to teach film and cultural studies. Nearly all of his courses are film related; past offerings have included Weimar Cinema (German cinema from the 1920s and 30s), Eastern German cinema, film and opera, and film noir. The latter, he says, is a great opportunity to explore the influence of the creative community that escaped Nazi Germany and ended up in Hollywood.

“These were the writers, directors, actors, and technical people who shaped what we later call film noir,” says Ames. “It’s interesting to look at those films from the perspective of people in exile. Suddenly films that may be familiar have another context, a strong European influence.”

Jose Alaniz, assistant professor of Slavic languages and literature and adjunct in comparative literature, teaches both film and literature courses. He finds that they have different emphases.

“In both literature and film courses, initially students are primarily responding to plot, and we try to have them pay attention to other aspects, like style,” he explains. “But with film, there’s an extra layer because it is a visual art form. You’re looking at specific scenes and shots. In a sense, we’re really doing the same thing with both—analyzing texts. But in one case they are written texts while in the other the texts are visual.”

Alaniz finds that most students come to their first film course having watched mostly plot-driven Hollywood cinema. He introduces them to less familiar films and provides the tools to study them analytically and critically, looking at lighting, editing, sound, and other choices made by the filmmaker.

“By the end of the class, students are looking at films in a completely different way,” says Alaniz. “I compare it to a magic show. You can see a neat trick and that’s fun. But if you know how that effect is achieved, you appreciate the subtlety of what the performer is putting into it. And you find that watching a film is not a 
passive experience at all.”

Experimenting Behind the Camera

As with magic, students experience film on a whole new level when they try it themselves. 

In her course on silent films, Bean has students produce their own film, up to three minutes in length. “I tell them to pretend it’s 1905 and ask them to make a film without sound, without dialog, without any film editing,” says Bean. “They have to see what they can do with just images. I’ve found that it’s the best way to get students to think historically. Through the experience, they realize all the aesthetic aspects of cinema that have developed since the early 1900s.”

Although Bean finds occasional filmmaking assignments useful, they are not the focus of the CS curriculum. Students wanting to create films themselves must look elsewhere—usually to DXARTS. 

Students film a scene during the Summer Production Studio offered by DXARTS.

Tristan Seniuk discovered DXARTS as an entering freshman. He participated in a DXARTS summer course, “Digital Production Studio,” through which students created a full-length film. The students rotated through a variety of roles—camera crew, set designer, art director—to learn all aspects of the craft. 

Seniuk went on to take many other DXARTS courses, starting with an Introduction to Video class described by DXARTS Director Shawn Brixey as “film boot camp.” DXARTS also offers a year- long sequence in digital cinema production (yup, Seniuk took that one as well) that takes students through every aspect of production, from lighting and digital audio to writing, compositing, and art direction. “The students make four films each quarter in that sequence,” says Brixey. “That is a lot of filmmaking. They’re thrown into the deep end and have to learn to swim.”

While DXARTS is known for experimental work that stretches artistic boundaries, Brixey says the program’s undergraduate courses emphasize more traditional filmmaking. “Before students are allowed to bend and break the rules, they have to understand that there is grammar and syntax to filmmaking,” explains Brixey. “They are trained severely in narrative filmmaking.” They not only create films but also analyze them—diagramming all the edits in a short clip or freezing an image to diagram the lighting. 

Yet even the most traditional DXARTS course is taught by faculty dedicated to experimental work and new technology, and that is reflected in the teaching. “We show students that the true tradition of film is the avant garde,” says Brixey. “Students can make traditional films, but we expose them to other forms.” 

Students in a DXARTS course.

It helps that DXARTS offers cutting-edge equipment along with its avant garde sensibility. Thanks to the Student Technology Fee (STF)—through which UW students fund technology initiatives on campus—and support from Lightspeed, Avid, and Apple, DXARTS recently purchased equipment for producing films in high definition stereo 3D. In January 2008, the program was the first in the nation to offer a course in 3D digital cinema.

Students find this new technology both exhilarating and intimidating. The learning curve is steep, and they are certain to make mistakes. But that, says Brixey, is all part of the process. “You may have a fundamental idea for a film, but how it ends up can be very different,” he says. “We have to let students have real experimental moments.”

A Foreign Perspective

Although not a filmmaker himself, Eric Ames also provided an opportunity for students to create films—in Germany. Fall quarter 2007, Ames led “Cinema/City/Memory,” a one-quarter study abroad program co-sponsored by the Germanics Department and the Comparative History of Ideas Program. The 16-student class headed to Berlin armed with four sets of film equipment—cameras, hard drives, editing software, microphones, and more —purchased through the STF. 

In Berlin, Ames led the filmmaking class and taught a course on Berlin in film history from 1895 to the present. A third class explored Berlin as a site of the Holocaust and its memory. 

Josh Huffines and Kelly Ota prepare to film in Berlin during the Cinema/City/Memory course.

For the filmmaking class, Ames first assigned short projects to familiarize the students with the equipment and the city, and then had them work in teams to create a 20 to 30-minute film.

“Making films gave students something to dream about that was tangible and exciting to them,” says Ames. “And it got them out there, exploring the city, on their own terms.”

Cinema Studies also offers study abroad opportunities, with the focus on 
film analysis rather than filmmaking. Yomi Braester and James Tweedie, assistant professor of comparative literature, lead a CS summer program in Beijing, with a colleague from the University of London. Held at the Beijing Film Academy, the 
program combines two-hour classes, frequent film screenings, city outings, and visits with Chinese film directors.

“We have leading directors in Beijing speak to the class,” says Braester. “It’s surprising how willing they are to be part of this.”

The class also attends informal and independent film screenings. Advertised solely by word of mouth (for political reasons), these screenings “are a very important part of our students’ experience,” says Braester. 


Tapping Into Seattle’s Film Scene

Back in Seattle, Braester has created a course that taps a valuable local resource: the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). The month-long festival, held annually in late spring, is the centerpiece of Braester’s spring quarter course, “History of Cinema: Contemporary Cinema.” 

Prior to the festival, Braester shows the class nearly a dozen films that provide a snapshot of contemporary cinema from 1989 to present. Students then head to festival screenings. They are required to watch at least 15 festival films, including 7 with a common thread such as region of origin or genre.

“This is an international film festival, and that’s important,” says Braester. “Whatever I can do to change the perception that Hollywood is the center of the film industry, I’ll do.” He adds, “Getting the students to the festival, getting them to see film as something not just on DVD but with a social and historical context, is my main goal.” 

Of course some students don’t need encouragement to attend SIFF. Seniuk served as an usher for the festival while enrolled in Braester’s course. A week after the festival ended, he headed to China for the Beijing program. 

But then again, Seniuk—who is applying to film schools this fall—is not your average student.

“Once I get all my other work done, I try to watch two films a night,” he says matter-of-factly. “That’s my priority.”

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