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"Academic Cinema": Merging Theory With Practice

by Russell Sheaffer
December 27, 2011 8:30 AM
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Back in college when I wanted to lead a revolution, I studied political theory. I dropped out of college the first time because I wanted to put my ideas into action. I dropped out of college the second time -- this time film school -- for the same reason. I loved studying though, and I particular loved philosophizing about the process, but I was afraid I might talk so much, think so much, write so much, I could lose my capacity to do. I didn't want to deconstruct things so much that I may not be able to build them. Maybe I didn't need to fear it so much. Today, filmmaker/academic Russel Sheaffer blogs about the merger -- they type that makes us all richer -- where ideas -- the big kind -- take action.

As I sit in Bloomington, Indiana grading my undergraduate class’ work and desperately trying to finish two papers of my own for PhD seminars (one on the impact of New Queer Cinema on the representation of male sex workers and the other on the links between the work of Kathryn Bigelow and Miranda July) I am simultaneously trying to schedule a trip back to Manhattan to film some experimental segments with a few groundbreaking artists from the Filmmakers Cooperative. I seem to be constantly locked between the worlds of academia and production, attempting to connect the two while, all too often, being told by other filmmakers that they don’t mesh. Well, I disagree.

In fact, film theory and academic critique have been extremely important in shaping the oppositional and experimental realms of cinema for decades (think: feminist film theory and practice) and there have been many mainstream filmmakers who have taken an especially heavy interest in areas like theory, history, and preservation.

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What happens for both the academic world and the filmmaking world when academic projects are media-making projects? What happens when a PhD dissertation has a filmmaking component? For the first time in my academic career, I have noticed that some film studies departments are getting excited about graduate students who are serious about mixing practice and theory—the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington has been extremely supportive (as was the Department of Cinema Studies at NYU). The University of California at Santa Cruz has a graduate documentary program (and B. Ruby Rich). If you are an independent filmmaker / academic / graduate student, these are the sorts of connections and support systems you need and now is the time for you to explore these avenues. Let your academic and filmmaking worlds collide. An academic department that doesn’t see practice as a valid application of theory (and vice versa) is a department that you will not be able to flourish in.

My first experiences in allowing academic theory and practice to intersect in a fundamental way have been MASCULINITY & ME, a short experimental film, and (most recently) THE FORGETTING GAME, a 70-minute documentary. It was just over two years ago that two friends (Pulkit Datta and Jim Bittl) and I started thinking about THE FORGETTING GAME while watching the U.S. propaganda film THE WALL, which tells of the heartache, pain, and personal loss that the Berlin Wall was causing overseas. As would be expected from a propaganda film of the time, THE WALL essentalizes the conflict into a simple understanding of west = good / east = bad in a way that particularly struck us that Thursday evening. While it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge and bring light to the atrocities of any conflict situation (and THE WALL certainly serves that purpose), it seemed particularly dangerous to negate any nuance in the characterization of East and West (especially in relation to our current international conflicts).

All throughout my childhood, I had heard the story of a little girl who had been peacefully released by the East German government in 1963, a prospect that the propaganda from the time would have never allowed. How could this have happened in such a political climate? I contacted the Red Cross, who facilitated the transfer, to find out more. They had no clue what I was talking about. Pulkit contacted the Ministry for Inter-German Relations (who, supposedly, keeps track of these sorts of things). They had no idea what he was talking about either.

In response, we started researching, found the little girl (now an absolutely fascinating woman), and went out to tell the story of how she had gone from Doberlug-Kirchhain, Germany in 1963 to the present day, where she lives in Wasilla, Alaska. It has been the wildest two years of my life and has taken me all over the world (Wasilla, Berlin, San Diego, Portland, and Port Townsend amongst many others). And, since we never had money, we used a lot of airline miles.

Financing an independent (and especially academic) passion project is something I’ve spoken to a lot of filmmakers about, and it’s always a struggle. Add in an interest in making it a semi-experimental historical documentary and you’ve got all sorts of funding challenges. On a particularly difficult day a few years ago, while working on the documentary A SMALL ACT, Jennifer Arnold turned to me and said something to the effect of, “you know, we aren’t in documentary to get rich” and, honestly, truer words have never been spoken. The same can be said about academic filmmaking at the moment—we do this because we love it, not because we think we are going to get rich doing it.

It seems obvious, but you have to make sure you work your budget in the most unorthodox ways sometimes. Stay with friends (a cheap hotel room is still money you don’t have), travel on airline miles (we saved thousands of dollars by flying with Delta and then using the miles from one flight to pay for the next), borrow gear (our original Canon 7D was borrowed), trade your time for other people’s time (we are all trying to make our projects and we all need to be ready to scratch each other’s backs), work with friends, and beg for whatever else you need.

Also, if you are in an academic department, utilize your status within your university (especially if you are a graduate student) in everyway you can. If your institution offers any production classes (even if you are not a part of the course, teaching the course, or even in the department that’s offering the course), you may be able to get free gear rentals. Apply for academic grants and travel funds—film projects can be academic projects, they can be ways of exploring and researching academic themes, and we need to remember that those lines of support (both emotionally and financially) are open to us, too. Once your film is completed, explore a university tour as an exhibition outlet; independent films that come out of an academic frame of mind have serious potential to find both audiences and funds (often in the form of screening fees and honorariums) by returning to the academic setting.

In reality, none of this is new. Our academic forefathers and foremothers have paved the way for us (Jean-Luc Godard and Barbara Hammer, anyone?), but let’s keep pushing and see where we can get with an “academic cinema.” University departments are just beginning to see the potential for a new sort of work that blurs the boundaries of practice and theory, and we can be at the forefront of a new way of thinking about filmmaking. If you are a young, indie filmmaker, consider what the academy can offer you and your filmmaking. If you’re a young academic, think of the possibilities for critique that filmmaking can provide. If you are a seasoned pro, please explore these new avenues with us—we need you. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but the potential for new ways of seeing the world around us is phenomenal.

For more information about THE FORGETTING GAME, please go to:

For a trailer for THE FORGETTING GAME, please go to here.

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Russell Sheaffer is an experimental film and documentary maker with a strong academic background. He received his Masters in Cinema Studies from NYU and his films have screened both nationally and internationally at venues such as the MoMA, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Torino GLBT Film Festival, Boston LGBT Film Festival, and the Anthology Film Archives.

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  • James Fair | January 10, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    I've been away for a while but catching up on my Hope For Film fix again. I think this is a really interesting post and think we've been going this way for some time in the UK, especially in my own university where they've funded my projects for the last five years on research into filmmaking models (and brought Ted & Christine Vachon in to talk to my students).

    Like Randy, I think the ways in which we can educate people about these changes are proving to be problematic. We've recently set up the Masters in Film by Negotiated Learning in partnership with Raindance in London, where students can shape their students around their own particular areas of interest and demand, as opposed to a fixed curriculum. Most are inclined to identify their learning through their filmmaking. After all - problem solving, analysis, evaluation and communication are central to education and any film shoot.

  • Gabrielle Kelly | December 27, 2011 3:39 PMReply

    Thanks for this Russell. It's great to hear how these two worlds are intermixing and providing support to each other. If you are ever out in Asia come by NYU Film School, Tisch Asia in Singapore, show your film and talk to our students in the Graduate Film Program - as an alum we'll buy you a huge feast of black pepper prawns at First Thai in downtown Singapore!

  • Randy Finch | December 27, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    As the paradigms of production and distribution are shifting yet again, I've also been thinking about how to educate 21st century filmmakers. Currently I have a lot of questions and only a few sketchy answers .

  • gabrielle kelly | December 27, 2011 3:41 PM

    Hey randy!! It's Gabrielle, all filmmakers converge at Hope for film, right? ... Drop by Singapore and say hello!

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