I entered the FAMU Studio twice during September, and in both cases I was coming in with a strange mix of excited expectations, warm interest, and deep uncertainty. I believe this is a bit like what race car drivers feel before the start. Or astronauts before being launched into space. Free divers before plunging 100 metres deep. The tremulations upon the ether that encompasses every possibility, and nothing as well – because dire emptiness is part of this journey as well.
It’s the clausura exam time.
Even though I completed my last clausura exam at FAMU more than five years ago, I accepted a tacit challenge that was brought forth: to be here and now; for a few hours, to be present with something greater, something higher, something dateless and yet so fresh that it doesn’t get any fresher. The holiness of mass astonishment when things go right. The profanity of a spectrum of various and often incongruous perspectives when things go not so well.
Show your film. To the Department, to the world, to yourself. To the film itself. This is the alpha and omega of study; this is the reason why we do it – but these exams are not an easy task to accomplish.
The amazement comes anyway, however, I am thinking while taking my seat in the brand new and perfect screening room of the Studio. There is something exceptional in this, and the new screening venue is immensely convincing. The people have gathered to watch student films together, with full attention and motionless. The films are often far and away on their journey towards completion.
It’s a bit like at NASA, after all. Many times, they should not launch at all, yet their take-offs are incredible – simply because they do take off. Because of the courage and strength that the astronauts have to show to make it to the orbit. Or they may explode before they reach it. Or they transcend the boundaries of the imaginable.
I was supposed to ponder the new model of the clausura exams shared across the Departments, but instead I’m engulfed in the immersive film experience, whatever it ultimately is. As I watch, though, the strength of the film experience and the new clausura format are leading me to the realisation that is changing my view of the exams as such – for me as a former examinee and a current observer. We are confronted with a situation that demonstrates the power of film as a medium; with the hugeness that was put in students’ hands. With a surreal construct that results in the magnificent presentation of works, in the rise of the greats. In taking opportunities. In screening.
Reaching the climax inevitably involves an abyss as well, which is why a discussion follows. It means baring oneself – but this goes deeper than if the director went naked. This way, they are undressing everything. Their convictions, their self-assurance, and often their determination as well. In addition to horror, such ‘undressing’ can also bring something different: a different type of film experience. An experience in its primary sense – beyond living, beyond creating. In fact, a discussion means looking at an experience as well as beyond it. It is freeing oneself from the film’s embrace and then rediscovering the trajectory into its innards. It is a guided tour of the film medium; it is a different way to live the film. It is also power, but a different type of power than the power of the film itself. It is the power to proceed further, beyond the finished film. To progress as a filmmaker, as an artist.
The new model clausura exams were not realised fully in their pilot edition; most teachers from the collaborating Departments did not attend, whether due to time constraints or for other reasons, but at least several (almost) complete film crews took part. As a result, students from the Department of Documentary Film and the Department of Directing were confronted with opinions coming from the Departments of Production, Editing, and Sound Design during the discussion. Such structure of the discussion field is quite natural; after all, a film is a collective work, as the Head of the Department of Directing Bohdan Sláma said at the beginning of the screening of the second-year student’s films. So, all students involved (and their teachers) should be given an opportunity to comment, preferably as part of a collective screening. Film is not just a collective work; it is also a shared experience, and that applies to all stages of its lifecycle.
The clausura exams are also a bit of a match. A struggle. With what? Actually, with everything. Most often, with time; also, with technology; with one’s own idea that can never be fully realised; with the thing we call reality; and also, with one’s dreams. And then with yet another thing that is difficult to define but is always present during the exams. Stubbornly, inevitably, and doggedly. It simply sits there from the beginning to the end; like a shadow, like a cloud, like one’s own breath. It’s criticism. It can be helpful, constructive, and necessary at times. Other times, it can be unpronounced, fumbling, and subjective. It can be gentle and precise, or cruel and tough.
It’s clausura time, after all.
Does tilting at the windmills of subjectivity pay? I am watching the shared exams, inhaling the swirling energy flowing from film to film, and answering my own question in my mind: most importantly, it pays to listen. To ask and learn. Learn new, unconceived-of things. Visit distant shores that can be concealed unbelievably close. Such as at the next-door Department.
drawings: Lea Petříková
Notes from the Conference: Artistic Research as an Option; a Necessity; the Future
Famous film director Claire Denis ponders in an informal interview what has to be there at the beginning of each of her projects, so that carrying on with them makes sense to her. The filmmaker duo of Kersti Grunditz Brennan and Annika Boholm joins in from a hall where, using installed panels, they create a big timeline illustrating their film project BLOD, in which they explore femininity using their own performances and montage techniques, during a lecture that actually looks more like a performance. Researcher Kristoffer Gansing is online too, but he is not speaking; instead of a live performance, he is playing his filmed paper in the form of a desktop essay, combining early film, Lev Manovich and the current Netflix output to demonstrate that artistic research is associated with the very beginning of cinema.
This is just one of the ways that an expert conference on the topic of artistic research in film can look like. However, it is difficult to express succinctly how the Transversal Entanglement conference went in early June, as it is to define what artistic research actually is. At the core of artistic research, there is the conviction that the envelope of artistic expression and scientific research must be constantly pushed in search for new options for both. The existing tools are not enough; it is necessary to unlearn traditional methods and (re)invent new approaches that view filmmaking practice and research methodology critically. The event brought together filmmakers, film scholars and persons who combine both worlds: filmmakers who work with research and researchers whose practice overlaps with art. As a result, the conference was typified by an emphasis on the process rather than on the result, whether speaking about the conference itself or about the artistic research projects that were presented. It was also typified by constant self-reflection and asking of the principal questions: what is artistic research, what are the boundaries between creation and research, and what new can artistic research projects tell us about film practice?
It is not easy to sum up what the conference brought because artistic research resists the evaluation of isolated outputs. Artistic research puts research back into the filmmaking process, breaking it down to pieces uncompromisingly and reassembling it to put it in newly viewed context. Artistic research is a method whose objective is pushing the envelope of the film language as well as reflecting on things intensively, which is an integral part of film practice. Artistic research is a challenge for filmmakers reminding them that they should not forget about research into the topic and about the importance of distance and self-criticism when it comes to their own agenda and methods.
These ideas give rise to an obvious question, which the speakers at the conference did not shun: what makes artistic research projects differ from ‘standard’ creative work? Most of the films and projects presented were shown in the film context of global festivals or as part of film or art institutions such as galleries and art centres. What makes artistic research stand out? According to some speakers, this definition is purely institutional; artistic research projects are usually created as part of doctoral studies at film or art schools, or under grants in universities, which gives authors certain limitations and specific privileges. Jyoti Mistry, artistic research theorist focusing on cinema, puts this in political and economic context – thanks to universities, it is possible to pursue projects that would otherwise have no chance to exist, and such works should contribute towards a critical reflection of not only the film medium but also the western film industry, which is inextricably tied to capitalism. According to Mistry, artistic research should be considered primarily as a tool of possible decolonisation of the film expression.
The ties between artistic research and film education institutions were another powerful theme of the conference, organised and moderated by the teachers from the Film University Babelsberg. They showed in practice how film school teachers can think about what they consider important and how they combine hands-on teaching (some of the moderators were film editing teachers) with deeper reflections on film and the current thinking about artistic research. I believe that this is an utterly crucial point, which is inspiring for our context, as it shows that artistic research is a natural part of film as such – and not just an experimental tendency tied to marginal forms of audiovisual art (experimental film, moving image, etc.). This way of thinking was also advocated by inviting Claire Denis, a filmmaker who did not present her films as artistic research projects, yet she also did not oppose such contextualisation and emphasised the idea that film cannot exist without research.
The conference also brought insights into what artistic research can look like in practice through many presentations of specific works and their authors. It appears that only in-depth immersion in artistic examples allows for better understanding of the artistic research approach and methodology. This revealed, for example, that frequently used project methods include re-enactment, whether of historical events, memories or thought constructs, various forms of cooperation (between a filmmaker and their film subjects, between the subjects, and also with viewers, institutions and the world around), performances in various meanings of the word, observation, and deconstruction of established methods. Artistic research in general accentuates the process as one of the principal methods of expression, unlike a traditional approach to film that builds on the final products; there is a lot of talk about the ‘performing documentary’ concept – i.e., films that dynamically interact with reality. The examples presented at the conference showed that this emphasis on the process and artistic research approach to the film medium in general does not have to be a ‘poor job’. In fact, the works are often highly intricate and supported by arguments, because the actual reflection on the topic and on the process, film technology and film language, is an integral part of the work. Artistic research projects offer a different experience, yet one with the same value as traditional films – after all, artistic research projects are successful in ‘traditional’ festivals: many of the presented films were screened at major festivals such as the Berlinale, IFF Rotterdam, etc. Also, artistic research projects are not defined by a specific genre; by contrast, they are defined by variety in terms of genres and form in general. The presented projects included stylized documentaries by Ella Raidel that use acting elements, video art by Rachel Rose, a diary essay by Laura von Niederhäusern, a performative document by Lola Arias who combines theatre, gallery installations and documentary film in her work, and a moving image by Filipa César.
Artistic research offers authors, film teachers and theorists a new setting that expands the research, creative, theoretical and interpretation options. It is not a coincidence that the conference was organised by teachers of what is principally a traditional film school, or that international experts in artistic research often come from the world of practical filmmaking – and not just from experimental and conceptual art circles. According to the conference, thinking about film progressively automatically means creating artistic research. So, artistic research is not an artificial thing created for the bureaucratic purposes of universities and art education – by contrast, it is a natural part of film education and filmmaking. Filmmaker Arturo Delgado Pereira said that a documentary, and, in fact, any film is ‘happening in the world, not about the world’ – and this is actually a great summary of artistic research: it does not just focus on what films are about, but also on how they are, how they happen, and it also reflects on the fact that they happen in a certain context, in reality.
What can we as filmmakers wish for and imagine during a time that feels like it has not been yet, that it is still in preparation? During a state of war in progress, of an endless development of our lifetime projects, frozen in pre-production?
Despite the ongoing pandemic, FAMU students go on international internships. We bring you another look at their trips; these ‘reports from somewhere’ are something that, in these times, can give us a broader picture of the different circumstances that filmmakers and film students face. The images can develop into inspiration for approaching instruction more actively (both for students and teachers) as well as for finding new opportunities in an unknown environment.
Anna Petruželová, 3rd year student of Documentary Film, describes her first day in Tallinn, Estonia. “I have to be quarantined for ten days now: I can go for walks as far as I want to go and I can go shopping, but I cannot go to school or arrange anything official with authorities. Before leaving, I took an online crash course in Estonian. I walk the town and read house signs: kalamaja – fish house; I can smell that too. (…) There are so many cars and everything is grey. I wanted to take a walk to the sea beach, but they built a hotel there and I can’t go there, so I will go to a different beach tomorrow.”
Marie Špičáková, 3rd year student of Production, describes the specificities of distance learning at the Kristiania University College in Oslo, Norway where she studies International Business Communication: “Given the official measures, our classes are organised online via Zoom and are shared for both Norwegians and us Erasmus students, which I rate very positively. (…) Resources and links are all available together in one repository along with links to Zoom, deadlines and requirements for assignments and papers – what and when you have to submit. Having everything in a single location is incredibly user-friendly. It’s like having everything in KOS at FAMU – the control room, the white paper, the repository for uploading essays, a schedule with links to all Zoom meetings…”
Marie also praises Norwegian students’ activity in classes and the emphasis on discussion as part of instruction: “You don’t really see students who didn’t read anything or prepare for a class. The classes are built on the assumption that you are prepared, and so they are laced with discussions between students – they often divide us into groups of 4-5 people in a meeting and we are supposed to discuss the topic/article/film. It’s great to see that Norwegian students are used to discuss things a lot; they are interested in different views of the problem. I see this as very enriching and liberating.”
Distance instruction and the complete ‘withdrawal’ into an online mode of operation, which the pandemic has taught us, does not just have to be a source of frustration or a sense of exhaustion. As Zuzana-Markéta Macková and Anika Homolová noted in their previous Erasmus texts, the online space also brings new opportunities – cultural institutions and festivals got accustomed to presenting their output online, in effect making it more easily accessible and manageable in terms of scheduling: lectures and festival screenings can be included in one’s daily schedule more easily. Distance instruction is a challenge for teachers in the sense of overcoming the current boundaries of all sorts – the limits of the online environment, attention and the prejudice that art education cannot be delivered in a ‘contactless’ way. The seemingly simple brief – to find new forms of distance instruction and/or make a better use of the existing ones – seems to be a very difficult task to solve under the current circumstances, since one simply has little or no strength left amidst the burden of coping with the pandemic world and delivering on professional and other duties.
As Marie Špičáková writes, this does not have to involve bit steps – often, it suffices if you place more emphasis on the principal communication concept: discussion. “Following each class, teachers ask us what we found interesting and what we would skip, and then they structure the next lesson based on our feedback. I find this system good also in the sense that you don’t just stare at someone’s shared screen all the time – this makes classes livelier and more attractive.”
What can we as filmmakers, students and teachers of an art school wish for at this time? First and foremost, we can wish that genuine, profound and organic discussion is always present in our lives.
FAMU STUDENTS AND ERASMUS DURING THE CORONAVIRUS TIMES
I am opening another in a series of new opportunities. It is not doors to the world that I have just opened – it is windows on a screen, new documents and software that is kept open. To fulfil my goals and the expectations of the external reality, I persevere in opening. I have to connect and interconnect. To satiate the thirst for life. An endless number of tabs keeps piling up, as does a feeling of uncertainty stemming from the constant absence, which defines virtual presence. Absent-minded, surrounded by the ghosts of postponing and hoping, which the stretching of the world brings. The feeling of a permanent job (or is it holidays?) continues. Fully occupied with time, we meet in the cut-outs of our existences to mutually push the limits of our conscience, concentration and intimacy. Overly frequent exposition of one’s personality in a black mirror can bring one thing only – a deep yet purely superficial submersion in our multiple lives that take place in many places in parallel, and yet nowhere. What wreckage will emerge during such a search –attention tired by mass online meetings, or the ruins of courage we did not use during Zoom meetings?
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And yet, this still takes me to the doors to the world. The doors are the students who put their certainties at stake in order to try and see what being a filmmaker in its purity is like in a foreign country during the pandemic. They answered a few of my questions regarding their Erasmus stays that they are currently on, and the rest of us, seated at computer screens, can expand the sums of the results that will be displayed to us once we no longer know what to ask about (because we have searched for and found everything).
How is your Erasmus stay going? How did the institution hosting your stay tackle the covid crisis?
Zuzana-Markéta Macková (Department of Photography; currently Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Ghent – KASK, Gent, Belgium): Most subjects were online, and each teacher used a different medium for communication – mostly Zoom, MS Teams, Jitsi and BigBlueButton. KASK offered us space for studying and creating, and they also offered to pay our psychotherapy bills, which I see as a very helpful and kind move towards students. On arrival, I had to take two PCR tests and was quarantined for ten days.
Anika Homolová (Department of Production; currently Taskovski Films, Harrow, UK): I work full-time as an intern at Taskovski Films. I work in the sales section and am in charge of selling our documentaries primarily to Asia and Eastern Europe. I also participate to an extent in selecting new films for acquisition. My stay has been great; I am gaining a lot of new experience and ideas for my diploma thesis about sales agents. With the pandemic, Taskovski has moved even more online, as has the rest of the film market.
Jakub Trš (Department of Sound Design; currently Ecole nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière, Paris, France): My guest school is tackling the crisis to the extent that you can plan teaching in the context of measures that change every two weeks. In practice, it meant a non-standard structure of instruction, the amount of which oscillated between two extremities, with weeks of being busy followed by weeks of more or less forgetting that I am a student. I tried to use such times for visiting cultural institutions, which are abundant in Paris, as often as I could; I found these vacant periods when others could feel depressed to be unexpectedly inspiring. When I could not go anywhere or see anyone, the nature of my field of study is such that I can almost always be entertained even when I’m alone, so adapting to restrictions was not frustrating to me – in fact, it allowed me to get to do many things that I kept putting off for a long time.
Wenbin Liu (Department of Photography; currently HFBK, Hamburg, Germany):
Everything is fine here. HFBK is still open, but we have to obey many rules for fighting Covid. We got chip cards that record our arrivals in and departures from the building. The numbers of persons in any workshop and room are limited. We have to wear masks, keep our distances and wash hands. Classes happen online more.
Haukur Hallsson (Cinema and Digital Media; currently Skýlið Studio, Reykjavík, Iceland):
My Erasmus stay has been interesting but strange in past weeks. The production company I work with has reacted to the pandemic like other workplaces according to the current rules. And the rules constantly change. The workplace has been divided up, we definitely have fewer meetings, we spend more time on Zoom and we have worked more from home for a period. Since the pre-production stages don’t require as many people working together at the same place, I have been lucky compared to many others in the past weeks.
How much was your stay hit by the covid crisis?
Anika Homolová: I think we all learned this year that working online could be very efficient, and it has likely not affected Taskovski too much. Still, the restrictions affect my stay a lot. I was looking forward to going to festivals and film fairs, meeting new people and enjoying a bit of that festival glitter. Sadly, all of those events take place online, which is obviously less entertaining.
Wenbin Liu: I cannot go to social events. Workshop places are limited, so I cannot join all the activities. Also, I cannot travel to other cities of Germany.
Haukur Hallsson: The crisis obviously made some limits to social life mostly. But I would say that the work has been affected less than I assumed beforehand. But there is more uncertainty about plans and shooting schedules etc.
How are you personally coping with the situation?
Zuzana-Markéta Macková: It is tiresome and some of the rules don’t make sense to me – for instance, if you come to Belgium for less than 48 hours, you can move freely, you don’t have to test or be quarantined; however, if you plan on staying longer, you have to be quarantined from day one. I observed all the required rules; it was just quite tiresome and stressful.
Anika Homolová: I oscillate between extreme psycho-hygiene – yoga, healthy food, walking, going to bed early and abstaining from alcohol – and its polar opposite: drinking wine and watching TV shows on a sofa. It’s hard to say which helps more.
Jakub Trš: To me, a stay abroad is about plunging a different culture and experiencing a load of new ideas, as well as about gaining perspective and time to reflect on my own direction. Some believe this is a loss; for me, this is a time serving for integration and (in confrontation with a foreign style of teaching) contextualisation of everything that I have absorbed over the last five years.
Wenbin Liu: I tried drawing, even though I am a photographer.
Haukur Hallsson: Personally, I deal fine with the restrictions. When things move slower you get more time to think about your own work.
In turn, did covid bring anything to your stay that you rate positively?
Zuzana-Markéta Macková: I think that many cultural institutions embraced the format of online presentations, so I could take part in multiple lectures at a time.
Anika Homolová: For example, we can take part in multiple festivals when they are all online.
Wenbin Liu: No.
Haukur Hallsson: I think I won’t see that until afterwards to be honest. Maybe I drink a bit less..