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Putting Theory into Practice
by Teri Pecoskie

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Olivier Asselin’s office at the University of Montreal looks no different from that of any other university professor. The desk is barely recognizable under stacks of papers and a huge collection of brightly coloured texts looks ready to burst from packed bookshelves. Asselin’s boyish face smiles from behind his cluttered desk, giving no indication of the many years of experience he’s had working as both an academic and a filmmaker.

Asselin is an example of a new breed of professor in Canada – an expert in both film theory and movie making. With his colleagues from the department of film studies and art history, Asselin is breaking new ground by bridging the longstanding divide between those who make films and those who study them.

The film studies program at UofM is at the forefront of a movement in this country to train students not merely how to produce films or how to analyze them, but how to do both.

For Asselin, this “intertextual” teaching style is an advantage for students who would otherwise enrol in traditional theory-based film studies programs. “Making films, you get a totally different understanding of the meaning of cinema,” he says. “You understand that the problems that arise from filmmaking are very different than the problems that arise from just watching a film.”

In the mid-90s the UofM program underwent a massive transformation – including changes to the curriculum, the faculty, and the structure of the film studies department itself – in order to accommodate this new approach to film.

The individuals responsible for the transformation are Isabelle Raynauld and Andre Gaudreault, both highly respected for their academic contributions as well as their filmmaking accomplishments. Raynauld and Gaudreault met in Paris in the late 1980s, when they were both enrolled in a PhD seminar taught by the famed French film theorist, Christian Metz. When Raynauld returned to Canada to take a screenwriting job, Gaudreault, who was working as a professor at UofM at the time, recruited her to help him revamp the school’s film studies program.

Years earlier Raynauld and Gaudreault, now the department’s chair, realized they had a common goal – to give students the chance to study film theory as well as the more hands-on skills related to film production. They both credited their personal success to their knowledge of both sides of this equation, says Raynauld, and they wanted to give students the same opportunity.

“As a film theorist, I was tired of reading film analyses that were completely oblivious to actual conditions of the filming process,” she says. “I wished they knew more about how films are actually made.”

So Raynauld and Gaudreault put themselves to work adapting the curriculum and hiring academics like Asselin, who not only had a reputation for strong research and teaching, but also for producing critically acclaimed films. “We decided we wanted theorists with PhDs teaching production,” Raynauld explains. “So we started looking for theorists who would also understand the process from the inside out.”

For someone who has not spent much time in the academic world, what Asselin, Raynauld and Gaudreault are trying to accomplish at UofM might not seem very revolutionary. But like many other academic disciplines, there is a tension between theory and practice that weighs heavily on the field of film studies as a whole.

“There’s a certain arrogance on both sides of the fence,” says Michael Glassbourg, an experienced screenwriter, actor, and director who also coordinates the Humber College film and television production program. “There’s an arrogance from the filmmakers towards the academics, because the filmmakers say that they make movies, while academics just talk about them. Then there’s arrogance from the academic institutions that if you don’t have a graduate degree in cinema studies, you don’t know anything.”

The distinction between these two conflicting viewpoints is something Raynauld noticed early on, as a young PhD student at the University of Paris. There, she says, the difference between intellectuals and filmmakers was immense, which led to jealousy and animosity between the two groups.

She even admits to hiding her credentials in the past to avoid the negative backlash. “Sometimes it’s detrimental that I have a PhD,” says Raynauld. “I’ve been in many situations where I’ve hidden my background. I don’t always come out of the closet as an academic.”

But she and Asselin agree that as film production programs move more frequently from traditional film schools to colleges and universities, this distinction could become less pronounced.

Over the past 15 years, the UofM program has evolved into a highly desired destination for aspiring young filmmakers and theorists alike. Students like Ariel Harrod, an MA candidate who studies the use of sound in film and works as a sound designer and editor, think there is a real advantage in gaining the type of instruction offered at the university.

“What the UofM program does is open students’ eyes to film as a means of thought,” says Harrod. “Understanding how film works on a theoretical level, on a technical level, and also on a philosophical level is so important. All of those aspects are intertwined.”

For Raynauld, there is a noticeable difference between UofM students and those who graduate from film studies programs that limit students to either one stream or the other. “I’m very proud of the way our students’ brains are wired when they get out of our program,” she says. “They’re more aware, they’re more humble when it comes to the practice of filmmaking, and I think they’re more flexible as well.”

Every year in Canada, post-secondary programs adapt to integrate practical filmmaking skills and film theory. Ryerson University and Humber College are two examples of this growing trend. Ryerson has worked to integrate the theoretical and practical streams since it shifted its identity from a polytechnic school to a university nearly a decade ago. And while still technically a college, Humber is in the final stages of developing a four-year film and media studies degree. Basil Guinane, Humber’s Associate Dean of Media Studies and Information Technology, says the school’s new bachelor of applied arts program will give students “a strong mix of critical thinking skills as well as the very necessary practical skills” to succeed in the changing film industry.

But will this notoriously fickle industry be ready to accept students graduating from these integrated programs? Many signs point to ‘yes’. Film boards with a nationalistic agenda like Telefilm and the National Film Board of Canada are taking a greater interest in film theory as it pertains to production. Raynauld and Asselin say they’re often approached by these boards to give seminars to Canadian filmmakers. And national funding agencies like the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council continue to support the contributions students and academics are making to the industry with research and creation grants – funds reserved for projects with both a research and a practical component.

Even though Canada’s film boards and funding agencies are giving academics opportunities they haven’t had in the past, Raynauld says the industry itself can still be hostile to academic filmmakers. “What I’ve perceived is that there is still a big divide where we can get negative responses from people who think that because we’re university professors we don’t need to make films,” she says. When people in the industry who depend on filmmaking as their sole source of income see university professors – who already earn a decent wage – awarded grants, it can foster anti-academic sentiments, Raynauld adds.

“There is an unnecessary distrust of academics in the industry,” says Glassbourg, and until big budget film studios recognize that there is an advantage to having well-rounded people on board, these attitudes will be hard to change. The industry, he says, still values practical skills over theoretical ones and will continue to do so until a capable class of academic filmmakers can convince it otherwise.

This shift, Glassbourg says, might not be that far away. As film programs move steadily from specialized film schools to ordinary post-secondary institutions, the type of professors being recruited is also rapidly changing. Film production departments, once filled with a faculty of seasoned filmmakers, have begun to require new job applicants to have serious academic credentials – a master’s degree at bare minimum – before they’ll so much as glance at their resumés. Even Glassbourg admits that if he had to reapply for his position today – a post he’s held for about 20 years – he wouldn’t even get an interview.

Since schools will also want teachers with hands-on filmmaking experience, it’s inevitable that more and more film studies faculties will look to replenish their stocks with technically skilled and academically trained professors.

With the influence of national film boards and a constant influx of academic filmmakers into the nation’s colleges and universities, things are already beginning to change in Canada’s film industry.

By shifting the way film is taught in post-secondary institutions – and the people who are hired to teach it – both the industry and academics will come to realize the divide between theory and practice isn’t such a big one after all, says Asselin. “The split between theory and practice is very artificial. You can’t have one without the other,” he notes with authority.

The problem, he continues, is that people just don’t know it yet. “It isn’t their fault,” Asselin adds. “When people have only done filmmaking, they’ve never been given the theoretical tools to understand what they’re doing. And when people have only done theory, they don’t realize that they are actually creating something that is just as subjective as a screenplay.” Even though specific skills might differ between theorists and practitioners, the best teachers, the best researchers, and the best filmmakers are often those well-rounded individuals who take the time to learn the many different ways to interpret and contribute to this diverse and ever more sophisticated discipline, he says.

Raynauld agrees with her colleague, saying the increasing interplay of theory and practice is subtle, “like a water source moving slowly under the earth.” For Glassbourg, the imagery is more straightforward. “We’re all playing baseball on the same diamond,” he says.

No matter what metaphor you choose to describe the push and pull between theory and practice in the film industry, the message is the same – the tide is changing.


Fine Cut 2009