The cost of divine inspiration

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  Jan 2007

Each year young graduates descend on the film and TV industry hoping for work. Here, a filmmaker  shares his first-hand experience of teaching film students in one tertiary institution, and how for him this raised important questions around training and creativity within a user-pays system. (Waka Attewell writes…)


Flashback three years. I’m a tutor standing before a group of film students. As I scan their faces for clues it occurs to me that they are waiting for the moment when I will ordain them with ‘the truth’. It has taken a while for me to realise the problem – that is, they have been led to believe that I have all the answers. The students believe they have invested in a film course that has contrived within it a prophetic conclusion. On graduation the heavens will open and a voice will declare: ‘You are now a great film director, arise.’ At this unrealistic point the graduate, having spent three years on a film degree, could be as much as $30,000 in debt.

This experience made me think about the path towards becoming a director. Such niggling questions arose as: ‘can you train to be a director?’ ‘Is it a textbook subject?’ And then the biggie, ‘should we be teaching it in this user-pays system?’

It was interesting and, initially, somewhat flattering to be employed in a large tertiary institution. I liked the notion of imparting wisdom to a new generation of filmmakers. However, it soon became obvious that first I was expected to become institutionalised and only then teach, inspire, mentor, enthuse, etc.

The institution threw around words like ‘excellent’ and… well, let’s just say ‘excellent’ was used a lot, as was ‘excellence in…’. However, the more management bandied around the ‘excellent’ concept the more it seemed to disappear. This left some of us more idealistic tutors to prop up the expectation of ‘higher thought’ almost secretly. Equally disheartening was the assumption that anything too lofty or original would scare off the students. Thus we were encouraged to use a simplistic teaching approach to the ‘craft’ of film and TV. Meanwhile the institution continued to advertise a top-end course to potential students.

It seemed to me that the focus of the exercise required students to pay their money and then merely use up the oxygen. Inspirational teaching, higher thought and creative learning was alluded to in passing (in the form of staff pep-talks) but ultimately wasn’t required.

For me, this raised important questions like was the purpose of the degree to justify the costs of the course, or was it to validate the importance of the film and TV industry and supply talented people to the business?

In my view, the system let the students down. The institution required little ‘free thought’ or ‘inspired actions’ because they simply did not fit within the parameters of the ‘learning outcomes’. The clever students immediately saw that to achieve a degree all they needed to do was tick the right boxes. Graduating was about fortitude since it was seemingly impossible to fail (although, only if you kept up your payments). Meanwhile, we filmmakers who sometimes find ourselves employed in academic posts were swatted back and forth over the user-pays net: the rackets being the students on one side and the institution on the other, and I guess the ‘real’ industry fell beyond the baseline.

I would like to know what happened to those years of reports, studies, evaluations, monitoring and, especially, navel gazing? When was the film and TV industry included? I believe the process is terminally flawed due to the user-pays model and an education system that treats film studies with disdain. In my experience, it was a case of expensive bums on cheap seats, and the more bums the better to prop up the tertiary ‘business’. And therein lies the problem. The tertiary education system is treated as a business and, certainly in the institution I worked in, was managed mainly by people who had little experience in the discipline.

The thing that irked me the most about the ‘management’ model (which seemed constantly to shift obliquely to the requirements of the school on a daily basis) was the total disregard for the notion of ‘craft’. The tutors were expected to bang on top of the anvil before we had lit the fire under the forge. I can only assume that management liked the notion of the beautiful sword but maybe failed to realise that the teaching process was firstly about gathering the wood from the forest to light the fire to heat the forge… Who knows, it may even be about getting lost in the forest and then discovering that you have collected the wrong type of wood. But the idea of experience and input by knowledgeable practitioners from the industry seemed to count for little in an environment hell-bent on a revolving door policy for students.

So is there a solution to this sorry state of tertiary education? Criticism of film and TV studies courses is usually met with a glib display of hubristic and rampant justification on how the assessment and testing process maintains standards, and how the management is well trained in justification of their institutional dysfunction (they have an HR department). But when it’s all rendered, if the degree is worth nothing (but has still cost a small fortune) then the degree is worthless. (Although, arguably, the daily ructions of a large institution can contribute to a deeper understanding of the vagaries of human nature and give students an insight into their future employment.) With regard to ‘craft’-specific courses, it fundamentally comes down to the quality of the tutorship and the desire of the institution to deliver. If the industry is to benefit from a truly high-end teaching facility then they should be involved. We might even want to look at running a degree course ourselves.

Is it our desire merely to churn out technicians to service the new ‘on- shore Hollywood business’ (e.g. unit/location crew, cleaners, drivers, runners), or should we maintain the expectation of a ‘national cinema’, creating New Zealand stories by New Zealand filmmakers? If it is the latter, then we should encourage young filmmakers who show talent and unique powers of thought. We should nurture these people and encourage their creativity through high-end educational rigor rather than a one-size-fits-all expensive institutionalisation process.

Indeed, perhaps the old-fashioned apprenticeship – where you start by making the tea and stoking the fire for the blacksmith – might not be such a flawed concept after all.