My film work deeply informs my approach to pedagogy, which I express as always be learning. I consider it my mission to help each student find her or his own creative voice, to think about the conventions and traditions with which their films will engage or challenge, and to find the way to solve the unique expressive and technical problems each film presents. My experiences as a filmmaker give me the confidence to insist that my students explore their ideas, assumptions and cultural traditions with personal insight and artistic rigor. I know how much work is involved in being an artist that works with moving images, certainly, but I also know the importance of considering art-making as problem solving, and as a gratifying exercise in critical thinking as well as self-expression.
Sometimes this insistence involves imposing limitations, like “no talking heads” in your documentary (i.e., no interviews) or “must originate on celluloid” (i.e., shoot on film rather than digital or video), in order to challenge students to think more visually in planning their films, and to re-evaluate their creative strategies. Other times, it means guiding students through the process of discovering the film they have, after they think they have lost the film that they planned. One student, Alexis MacMurray, made a film portrait about an artist friend who has survived drug abuse, and who creates aggressive works on paper in a basement studio. After accidents with light meters, mistaken film speed readings, and rather poor luck in the darkroom, the student lamented the state of his film, until it became apparent to me (and to his classmates) that the film had acquired certain ephemeral qualities in the “mistakes” that would have been quite difficult to plan. The simple voiceover appeared to be emerging from a circle of hell, with peeps and glimpses of a Breugel-esque mural beneath. The student was ultimately guided by the strength of his feelings toward the freshly exposed footage, and made a film that won several campus awards and was featured in a juried screening of student works at the Pacific Film Archive.
Filmmaker and former student Marcy Saude remembers, “The class forced us all to think, plan, and solve problems in new and exciting ways.” Her film for a 2006 class, Murder Capital (2007), was the subject of a great deal of discussion among classmates and faculty alike, with its reliance on impressionistic re-enactment and unreliable narrators. The film is an investigation of place and landscape in the Santa Cruz mountains, home to several serial killers and at least one mass murderer, and it was made in a workshop that focused on landscape in experimental cinema. Murder Capital has screened at the Chicago Underground and Ann Arbor Film Festivals, and at Detroit Docs. Marcy recently received her MFA from UC Boulder. She curated recent Los Angeles film and video works for Stichting Raspoetin in Amsterdam in June this year. Her film, Sangre de Christo (2011), was selected for the International Film Festival at Rotterdam in 2011, and her brand new film, Handmade Home, (2012) screened at the Anthology Film Archives in New York this spring. Marcy Saude is one of many SFSU students who has gone on to become a successful filmmaker, and one of the more challenging and engaging students I’ve had the pleasure to teach.
Our MFA graduate thesis process can be intimidating for students – they are trying to please multiple faculty members and peers, trying to be creative on a deadline, and under pressure make a film worthy of the degree. My role as a thesis advisor is to empower my students to take the risks necessary to find and hone their own visions, their artistic voices, through their work. I work with a host of filmmaking students both as chair and committee member: from fiction filmmakers to documentarians hoping to screen their works on PBS or HBO, to, of course, experimental artists. I’ll point to one example. Scott Christopherson, a recent graduate, made a very challenging documentary film about his experience returning to Thailand, ten years after serving as a Mormon missionary there, and reconnecting with some people whom he had previously converted to his faith. In Scott’s case, “taking risks” meant acknowledging wider, and perhaps hostile, audiences, and finding ways to reach those viewers while remaining honest about himself. It also meant exposing his doubts and his ambivalence in the film, and trusting his dry sense of humor. His transformation as a storyteller was wonderful to witness and even help guide. Scott’s thesis film, Convert (2012), made a potentially divisive subject into an experience almost anyone can empathize with (doubt, regret, complicated loyalties). Scott has gone on to take a tenure-track teaching position at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Texas. I am very proud of what he has accomplished.