Film Dept. struggles to accommodate all

For her senior film project, film studies major Emily Ferenbach ’09 might make a documentary about Hookers for Jesus, a group that brings the good news to prostitutes all across America. But unfortunately for her, Ferenbach will probably have to do it solo. Concentrating in production in a major that emphasizes critical analysis, Ferenbach said her program doesn’t give her the resources needed to bring together a crew that actually knows what it’s doing.

“The program gives you no kind of structure to create collaboration,” she said. “And filmmaking is all about collaboration. No one’s going to help you, except out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Ferenbach is not the only student filmmaker complaining. Since the 1980s, Yale students who want to make films and Yale students who want to analyze films have been herded into the same major — film studies. But recently, facing both a lack of resources and dissatisfaction with the major’s structure, some student filmmakers have begun to look toward other departments to pursue their interest in filmmaking. Some are even talking about pushing for a film concentration within the art major. After over two decades of coexistence, film analysis and film production might be going their separate ways.

Theory and production both arrived on Yale’s campus in the late ’60s. The Art History Department offered Yale’s first film appreciation class in 1966; one year later, the School of Drama invited filmmaker Michel Roemer to lead a film course for its acting and playwriting students. But while these and subsequent film classes drew large numbers of students, conservative members of Yale’s faculty and administration prevented the creation of an official film-studies program throughout the sixties and seventies. Only in the eighties, after years of pressure from students and professors, did this conservatism finally give way, leading to the creation of the Film Studies program in 1986.

Today, students can concentrate in either analysis or production. The analysis route requires only one production course, while the production route requires at least eight classes in analysis. The two prerequisite courses for the major, Introduction to Film Studies and Close Analysis of Film, are both analysis-based, and graduation requires either writing a senior essay or making a film. Over the years, very few structural changes have occurred. Instead, they’ve been largely thematic — senior essays like “Breaking Stereotypes: A Close Analysis of ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ” reigned in 1986, whereas “Iron Like a Lion in Zion: Will Smith, the One, and Us” became the norm by 2005.

Film Studies professors say they believe in the major’s combination of theory and practice.

“If you’re not interested in filmmaking at all, you have no compelling reason to be a film studies major,” said Charles Musser, co-chair of the program. “When we’re looking at grad applicants, we find that we’re most interested in those who have had some practical experience in film, either on sets or elsewhere.”

But not everyone believes in such symbiosis. While Musser and other faculty members emphasized that exposure to filmmaking can aid a student’s film analysis, students and instructors on the production side said learning theory does not actually help them make films.

Sandra Luckow ’87 was the first film studies major to make a senior film instead of write a senior essay. Luckow herself came up with the prescient idea to direct a documentary on pre-kneecap busting Tonya Harding. She said it “met with a lot of resistance” from the “theory-oriented faculty.”

“In some ways, taking theory might hurt a filmmaker,” said Luckow, who now teaches film production at Yale and Columbia. “Yale students end up making little movies about movies. They’re so smart, but their hands are tied behind their backs when they start to make a film.”

Both Luckow and production students complained about a lack of resources and classes in film production, and Musser agreed that the program should hire more instructors in that area. Luckow has a more extreme solution, however: separate the two disciplines in the same way that the art history and art studio majors are separated. Ferenbach agreed, “A program in film production should be vastly different from a program in film analysis. I don’t think there should be a major with no theory, but I still think production should be a totally separate major.”

Some students, dissatisfied with what they perceive to be an overbearing emphasis on theory in the Film Studies program, have already migrated to the art major. Amit Bhalla ’09 plans to direct a film for his senior project, but because the Fine Arts Department has no concentration in film, he is registered as a sculpture concentrator within the art major. After speaking with Musser, Bhalla was advised to “watch more films before I make a film, so that I wouldn’t do what someone else has done before.”

“I’m not trying to fit into some grand tradition of art, here,” Bhalla said. “My film is going to be bad. But that’s okay. I’m trying to learn the process of filmmaking and learn from that process.”

Rumors are circulating that a film production concentration will be added to the Art Department, and Art DUS Henk van Assen said that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if such a concentration came to be. Aaron Gerow, DUS of the Film Studies program, however, said that the “general feeling among the faculty is that there is no need” to separate analysis and production, and that separating the two “does not look good in light of the University’s vision of a liberal education.”

When asked if he thought a separate production program would violate the ideal of a liberal education, Bhalla was troubled by the term “liberal education” itself.

“What kind of term is that?” he asked. “It doesn’t define anything. I can’t imagine a liberal education that doesn’t allow students to pursue what they want to pursue.”

While some production-track students feel unsatisfied, they are not the only ones who find fault in the major. Miranda Popkey ’09, undergraduate chair of Cinema at the Whitney, said that she will probably study film in grad school; still, she opted to major in Humanities.

“It’s admirable that they try to strike a balance between theory and production, but it makes it difficult to have a cohesive program,” she said. “A part of me feels that it’s pointless to have production here. We’re not NYU. We’re not USC. We just don’t have that kind of clout.”

Nevertheless, Gerow, Musser, and others on the Film Studies faculty stand by their ideal of balance. Gerow completed his undergraduate work at Columbia, a school where the film theory and film production camps were bitterly divided before the “production people eventually just made the theory people leave.” And while Columbia has recently recovered, developing a new film theory program that does not give credit for production courses, Gerow thinks Yale’s film program is different.

“Production people and film studies people don’t always get along. Some schools completely separate them. But I think, at Yale, we share a common purpose.”

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