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February 25, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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“University Redefines Robust”: Questionable future for Film at Victoria

Out of the eighty or so students currently enrolled in Film 231 this year (the compulsory second-year paper for a film major) few would suspect that in a year or potentially less, the degree they unwarily signed up for will effectively become defunct. Students this week were unexpectedly made aware of a new proposal to dissolve the Film programme as we know it and create a new school of Visual Arts in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The ambiguously-titled school will incorporate Art History, Museum and Heritage Studies, and “Cinema Studies” — a slimmer and more narrowly defined arena of film teaching. Under this new model, the Art History Department will gain an associate professor, and all five of the current academic roles in Film would cease to exist in their current form to be replaced by three Cinema Studies lecturers. Budding film academics and filmmakers would have a significantly reduced core of papers to study at 200 and 300 level, as well as a “more tightly defined set of courses than currently exists” at Honours level. According to the proposal, Film students will instead be able to choose electives from currently existing film/culture courses from across the Faculty through schools as diverse as Philosophy, History, Italian and Music. The ever-popular film production and scriptwriting courses are likely to be withdrawn as it would be “more appropriate” to offer them at postgraduate level, despite the increasing demand for entrance into these practical courses from second and third year students. In addition to this, as the stated objective of the proposal is to “manage undergraduate enrolment,” it is likely that entrance into this token cinema major will be capped. Given that a pressing concern for most students is the completion of one’s cripplingly expensive degree — and having something to show for it upon completion — many current Film students are questioning what this means for their filmic future. The proposal does not make this explicitly clear.

Second-years should by now have enrolled in their chosen papers and will no doubt be interested to know what’s on offer in 2009. Sadly, it’s not to infinity and beyond for the Film department. As Russell Campbell, Film Course Coordinator, laments, “it is extraordinary that the document doesn’t even specify if the Film major will continue next year or not.” This is especially concerning for students either currently in the sweaty throes of postgraduate study or who had planned to begin next year. 2008 currently finds 17 Honours students in Film, as well as four Masters students, one PhD student, and another potentially on his way from the UK. Although these advanced postgraduate students have been assured that their degrees will not be affected, the question remains whether the lecturers currently supervising them will still be employed in 2009. One of the current Masters students, Brannavan Gnanalingam, points out that his studies “have absolutely nothing to do with Visual Culture… it’s a social and cultural analysis… you can do this under film at this current stage but I have no idea what will happen in the future.” Although Art History obviously incorporates social and cultural analysis in its programme, Gnanalingam studies are predominately based on media studies theory and so working within an art history framework “wouldn’t make much sense for my research.”

The confusion surrounding the future of film studies is exacerbated by the vague reasoning of the proposal. One specifically articulated aim is to “manage undergraduate enrolment whilst increasing the number of research students.” It is noted that despite large numbers of undergraduate students, Film has a “weak” postgraduate record. This is “disappointing” in light of Wellington’s prominence as a film city (Wellywood) and the large amount of film related industry and organizations here. What the proposal doesn’t highlight is the relative youth of the postgraduate arm of the Film department. Campbell points out that “I’ve been teaching film since 1972… we only got a major in 2000, and Honours in 2003 — it has taken a long time to get here.” Not to mention that the number of teaching staff has only increased to five full time positions in the last few years. As the proposal itself notes, the number of undergraduate Film students has grown recently from 67 in 2005 to 165 in 2007. As Tim Groves, a current lecturer in Film, says, it is hard to see how three staff can perform better than five in encouraging postgraduate enrolment — “it just seems counter intuitive.” Nobody puts baby in the corner… The new funding scheme that seems to be driving force behind this proposal — and in all likelihood a similar plan to axe Theatre and Film studies at Canterbury University next year — uses a combination of EFTS (estimated full time students) numbers and PBRF (performance based research funding) to allocate funds to University departments. It is generally held that although there are many benefits to encouraging quality research, the PBRF model tends to favour the science model of research output — the impact of articles in scientific journals is much easier to measure than the impact of an avant-garde film. Victoria University claims that Film’s assimilation into the School of Visual Culture would give this new grouping an emphasis on the moving image, and would help focus the programme’s efforts, particularly in relation to postgraduate study.

Attempts to contact Professor Deborah Willis, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, were made difficult by her busy schedule and the sudden nature of the discovery of this proposal. When questioned about the hasty judgment of Film’s postgraduate record in light of its relative infancy, she replied via e-mail that “one of the key goals of the University is to increase post-graduate study throughout the University.” The words vague and indifferent come to mind. It is unclear how cutting the number and scope of the film courses offered, as well as staff (and potentially undergraduate numbers) will encourage the quality research the university so aspires to. Groves points out that “the current staff have worked extremely hard over the past years to build up a programme which previously only had one and a half staff and which only had subjects at 200 and 300 year level. We provide our students (within the limits of five people) with about as broad a programme as you can get… and we’re now reaping the benefits. We are only now reaching critical mass.”

These masses of Film students are largely made up of those who chose to do a double major in Film and either Media Studies or Theatre, a natural combination. According to Campbell, “that’s a highly attractive feature for many students coming to study here, studying the two alongside one another. In the workforce many graduates may have to be multi skilled, writing a play one year, writing a screenplay the next, as well as acting, directing, and designing across the media.” It is difficult to see how Theatre would fit under the proposed school of Visual Arts, and the current combined courses offered in Film and Theatre face a perilous future. The Faculty Dean believes that the new proposal “is in response to our Investment Plan, which emphasises the need to enhance the University’s interdisciplinary strengths in the creative disciplines.” The Investment Plan itself points to an area of strength in the Creative Disciplines as “the production and study of important creative work through working visually and through performance and music.” What is the fruitful relationship between Theatre and Film if not a creative and interdisciplinary one? Media Studies lecturer Tony Schirato told Salient that the film programme had a review not very long ago “which actually strongly pushed the idea of this close connection with theatre… [the new proposal] completely and utterly disregards its own review!”

Another current interdisciplinary strength is the close connection between the Film and Media Studies department, something that postgraduate student Gnanalingam has made ample use of. Groves believes that out of the double major film students, 75–80% do their second major in Media, Theatre, or English. Fewer than 5% do their double in Art History — this translates to only 3 students in 2007. Visual arts theorist Schirato explains that there are clearly very strong disciplinary affiliations with media and film, both at the teaching and potentially at the research level, and also at the level of postgraduate students. “One of the things that’s really obvious when we talk to students is they are wanting to do postgraduate degrees that make use of the expertise between film and media studies.” If, as the Faculty has made relatively clear, postgraduate numbers are a number one priority, then surely capitalizing on this fertile ground would make sense. 2012 will find all research coming under the scrutiny of the next PBRF round, which could determine the university’s funding income for a long time. Schirato believes that any serious changes would be hugely disruptive. “Clearly it’s more likely that Film Studies people are going to enter into research relations with people in Media and Theatre than in Art History… the university is perfectly aware that this a serious deal and they really want us to do well.”

Should the proposal be adopted, new research projects would be under the auspices of the school of Visual Culture, a concept which according to Schirato, “doesn’t make a lot of sense… most of the visual culture and visual theory expertise are in fact in the Media and Film school.” Within the realm of academia, attempts to produce it as a kind of discipline “haven’t been particularly successful.” The proposal refers to Auckland University’s plan to implement a similar amalgamation, something Schirato believes had “nothing to do with the idea of disciplinary affiliations… it is being entirely driven by bureaucratic and financial reasons… I can tell you this because I was talking to the staff there, who basically said ‘look, this is not something we initiated, it’s not something we want.’” The final cherry on the ineptitude pie of this proposal is that if there is a visual culture expert in the University, it’s Schirato, who was not once canvassed for his opinion on the new school. “As far as I understand nobody in the school knew anything about it until right at the end… we were never consulted, nobody ever said ‘do you think this is a good idea?’”

A general feeling of bewilderment seems to be a recurring theme in this cinematic saga. The University considers its consultation plan “robust” — this involved notifying staff whose jobs will undoubtedly be affected three weeks before the submission deadline on the 3rd of March. The VUWSA Executive discovered the existence of this proposal thanks to an e-mail from Professor Campbell to

President Joel Cosgrove on the 18th February. “Piss poor” is how Education Officer Paul Brown sees the complete lack of communication with student representatives on the proposal, especially considering the recent assertion by the Tertiary Education Committee that students are the number one stakeholder in Universities.

Current Film students were notified in a similar manner, that is, no thanks to official channels, and their confusion is palpable. Chantal Bertalanffy, an international student from Germany, is shocked at the proposal, not to mention the speed and apparent secrecy with which it is being pushed through. Bertalanffy reckons that this puts her degree in serious jeopardy after three years of paying international fees, as she is starting Honours halfway through this year. Hamiltonian Brendan Olphert moved to Victoria with the express purpose of studying film, after being forced to do “unnecessary and irrelevant” papers as part of his Screen and Media degree at Waikato — “I definitely wouldn’t have moved down here for a Visual Culture degree… at least Hamilton had Media as a core component… I don’t see how this current structure makes sense at all.” Tim Groves understands this sentiment perfectly well, finding little room under the new structure for any of the social, political or economic elements of film-making, not to mention that “it seems also to particularly ignore narrative, sound and performance elements of film in asserting the kind of primacy of the visual.”

Clearly Film Studies stands little to gain from this venture. Art History Programme Director David Maskill had no comment to make on the new proposal, despite the potential benefit for his programme. Few arts students would bemoan the improvement of this fine tradition, but the expense to the Film and Media programmes, and the haste with which the proposition is being forced through negates the tangible benefits. Encouraging research, for both intrinsic and funding benefits is an admirable plan, but the serious inconvenience to current students and the academic future of film in Wellywood is truly lamentable. Schirato offers a concise summary: “If you’re going to do this and disadvantage students and staff perhaps, and certainly not help the PBRF, then you would think this is going to be done for a remarkable, obvious advantage. But there isn’t one.”

To quote the immortal Flashdance; “When you give up on your dream, you die.”

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  1. Eleanor Bishop says:

    Shocking. First the pending closure of Canterbury’s combined film and theatre department and now this. I was aware of this issue, but only through gossip and rumour, so it’s great to see this article revealing what’s actually going on (limited in knowledge though those actually making the proposal may be).

  2. Jono says:

    I was one of the unfortunate students who took the 400 film production paper last year. It was the worst experience of my entire time at uni. Something needs to be done!!

  3. Tania says:

    So it has been said. But I hardly think depleting the film department’s resources, staff and academic scope will go far in improving the quality of the courses offered. If that was the real concern, then surely consulting students and lecturers on what changes needed to be made would have been a good start . . .

  4. Joe Nunweek says:

    I’ll have already said this is an awesome and timely article elsewhere, but it bears repeating. I’m passing it on to the AUSA president, too – he’s aware of the Canterbury and Vic stuff and I’d hope our middle management in Arts will be under pretty heavy scrutiny if they try anything similar…

  5. Concerned 1st year says:

    I started at vic this year with the idea that i was going to graduate with a degree majoring in film, without a piece of paper with the word film on it, theres really no point in me going through three years of cinema studies and media, art history etc and then trying to get out into the world of directing and script writing with that degree and see how far it gets me. If this proposal goes through and becomes concrete, I’ll be out of vic faster than they can say ‘restructure’

    Excuse my language but “Restructure” is the condom of a word that these bastards are attempting to fuck us with! If this goes any further, we fight!

  6. Rooster says:

    the current film department situation is not so black and white. im not saying the programme should be abolished but something needs to be done. in my opinion two of the current three staff should at least be replaced.

  7. Rooster says:

    ooops that was two out of the current five positios…

  8. Tania says:

    Head on down to the inaugral meeting of the Victoria Film Collective this Thursday, 5pm at the Meeting Room in the SUB if you’re interested in aiding the perilous future that film at Victoria faces.

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