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Camera Obscura: Behind the Scenes at the VES Film Track

Deconstructed Camera
The Visual and Environmental Studies Department's film track emphasizes creativity over vocational training.

Such artistic idiosyncrasy by way of broad academic exposure is something that Moss attributes to the flexibility of the program. “Generally people aren’t told they can’t do something—students are exposed to different kinds of filmmaking, so they try different things,” he said, recognizing the richness and distinctiveness of student work and applauding their willingness to take risks. “I think there’s a tremendous urge to make things that are like Hollywood or the television shows that you love,” he said of young filmmakers. “You go to the movies as a child, and it’s completely natural to want to make something like that.”

He asserted, though, that filmmakers considering the VES film track need not disavow themselves of their interests in creating more traditional or less experimental projects. “[They] have plenty of opportunity to make something like that going forward, as a graduate student or as a career,” he said. “We think that it’s important to give students the opportunity to do something that isn’t an interpretation of something else. To find out what is inside them, what interests them, what kinds of form that takes.”

AUTEURIAL AUTONOMY

According to VES film concentrator Alistair A. Debling ’16, the artistic freedom that comes with the liberal arts education is one of the principal strengths of the program. "It’s chiefly about being an artist,” he said. “We’re given the freedom to follow our own interests and organize our own learning, be in charge of our own projects."

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The result of such autonomy is a remarkably diverse collection of student art produced by VES students each year. It also enables a certain experimental aesthetic, one that casual moviegoers don’t get too much exposure to in the high-budget Hollywood films that dominate mass-market theaters. Debling maintains that in exploring their own interests, VES students learn to challenge industry conventions by “breaking established rules of cinema such as the three-act structure that most all Hollywood films fall into and finding ways of defying strict set of narrative rules.”

This deconstructive artistic act isn’t just edifying for the artist, Debling said, but results in novel and interesting ways of engaging the viewer. For example, he said that a VES class he’s currently enrolled in attempts to probe the space between the alive and the performed, resulting in installation films that “more resemble art that you might see in a gallery as opposed to in a cinema.”

In the hopes of developing their artistic identities, individual students in the VES film track often form what resembles a self-contained mini-production team. They write, shoot, direct, and edit their own material. Moss sees this personal creative process as fundamental to the development of able and distinctive filmmakers. He likens it to the process to of writing—just as authors develop their skills to better understand and translate the world around them through prose, filmmakers develop their own methods to interrogate the world through their various types of work.

"A big component of filmmaking requires you to reflect on life experiences. So, I felt that if I went into a conservatory-type program, I would be going into the field with the life experiences of a high schooler. I thought that it might be more interesting if I just went to school, studied something unrelated, and see where that took me," said Zachary L. Wong '16.

ZOOMING OUT

For students outside the concentration, the creative aspect is what attracts them to the department as well. One such student is Zachary L. Wong ’16, who is currently concentrating in English. Though he’s been interested in animation since high school, when it was time to select a college, Wong said the choice represented a major decision in how he would pursue his dream. “I wanted to have a college experience that would allow me to experience life as an artist,” Wong said. “A big component of filmmaking requires you to reflect on life experiences. So, I felt that if I went into a conservatory-type program, I would be going into the field with the life experiences of a high schooler. I thought that it might be more interesting if I just went to school, studied something unrelated, and see where that took me.”

For that reason, Wong declined offers of admissions to film schools and also decided against the film track of the VES concentration here at Harvard. “I figured, I turned down conservatory, so it doesn’t really make sense for me to go to Harvard and kind of take a conservatory path program.”

However, Wong does admit that there are downsides to his decision and is currently considering a secondary in VES. "I miss being a part of a creative environment. I haven’t done a lot of creative work, so now [my motivation] is a feeling of restlessness,” he said." Wong’s decision to take part in VES programs through a secondary or individual classes seems to be a popular one. Even though the size of the film track of the VES department is small, Moss notes the abundance of students outside of the concentration taking VES film classes, adding those classes are practically “bursting at the seams.”

Eric Rentschler, chair of the graduate Film and Visual Studies Program, runs a Harvard Summer School program in conjunction with the Berlin Film Academy Germany that is aimed at providing students like Wong, or students who are less vocationally interested in the art of filmmaking, with a creative outlet. For eight weeks, students in the program take classes, learn about the city, and work on their final project, the artistic culmination of their stay. Like the professors of the VES Department, Rentschler stresses an emphasis on personal artistic realization over learning vocational skills. “By and large, students were curious about the city and getting to know the city and letting the endeavor of making a film be something that helped them focus their stay,” he said in a phone interview. The purpose of the program’s final project was to encapsulate and bring to a head the experience that students had during their time in Berlin in a personal way. “There’s a value in that that is above and beyond pragmatics,” Rentschler said.

FINAL CUT

The VES film track’s approach to filmmaking, though distinctly in line with the goals of the liberal arts education, seems to not be necessarily the best fit for all students. Though anthropology concentrator Temi Fagbenle ’15 said that while she was intrigued by the non-vocational emphasis of the department, as an aspiring actor, she’s more interested in honing her craft through theater classes. “Delving into the performance is what I wanted to do,” she explains. “I was interested in the work being done on the other side of the camera in terms of the creation of the performance, but acting is my chief interest.”

For students like Fagbenle who are more certain of their career aspirations in filmmaking, the VES Department’s lack of focus on teaching those specific crafts isn’t optimal. At the same time, the majority of filmmakers on campus seem to be attracted to VES precisely for the experimental structure. McGillivray lauds, “I personally love that it’s called ‘Visual and Environmental Studies’ because I think that sums up very well the visual objective of the department as well as the environmental—absorbing and conceptualizing the world around us.” It seems that the VES Department, by offering freedom with experimentation and individuality, grants its students a way to look at the world, rather than just skills and training.

—Staff writer Caleb M. Lewis can be reached at clewis01@college.harvard.edu

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