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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Challenges of teaching in filmschools: A case study by Tanmay Agarwal (part 1/16)

SRFTI campus in late winter glory
The complete work reads better than a thriller with action, drama, suspense, laughter, tears, disruptions, suicide threats, eulogies, hosannas, epiphanies, catharsis, tragedy, comedy, close calls, near misses and a triumphant ending. But let me start with:



I had an opportunity to conduct a workshop at Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata (SRFTI) for the second year students of Film Direction course. The workshop was on lens and lighting.
A new approach to second year course was adopted. Shooting a dialogue sequence was a demonstration by faculty till now. It was opened up for the students, to shoot on an individual basis.
Each student was to develop a short film script, out of which they would get to shoot and edit a scene or two. After the scripts were developed with the aid of faculty a series of workshops on camera, sound and editing were planned one after another. The students would shoot, edit and do the sound-post as part of the respective workshops. The idea was two fold.
One to give a refresher course in individual areas and two to raise the bar.
I was given a brief to teach lens and lighting. Besides if I could get them to work together, the previous few years proving disastrous with frequent fights between crew members.

The time frame was five days of workshop and ten days of mentoring ten projects as they are shot.

The following account is my version of the proceedings. It is in the form a chronicle. It offers insights into my thinking process. It is useful for teachers in general and teachers of cinema specifically. Students of cinema can find answer to many of their questions but the teachers and administrators in charge of film education will find a mirror to the situations they face everyday.
It is not meant to offend anyone. If it hurts the feelings of any of the people concerned, I apologize in advance.

It is peppered with references to the blogs of the events by the ten students who were part of the workshop.

There are some films and extracts online that are referred to. I am using the blogs and other reference material for academic purposes only.
A complete read through will be enriching to anyone who is interested as it offers multiple perspectives of the same events, making a multilayer discourse. It brings out the challenges in teaching students flush with youth in a liberal environment.



My gratitude to the faculty supervisor Subhadro Chowdhary, Associate Professor, department of Direction, SRFTI, who invited me for the workshop and stood like a rock through the thick and thin of an action packed saga.
A note of thanks to Prof. Amaresh Chakraborty, Head of department of Direction, SRFTI, for standing the ground. Whereas Shubhadro is an old friend and could be leaned upon, Amaresh really impressed me with his understanding of the situation and his follow through.
I will also like to thank Prof. Nilotpal Majumdar, Dean SRFTI, for his forbearance and wisdom.
I appreciate the faculty and staff that supported my efforts and others that at least stayed neutral. I will not name them like I will not name the others who did not support me. Just so they know, I am thankful to all of them.
I was disappointed with some of my peers from the faculty at SRFTI, who disrupted the workshop, without discussing their misgivings with me. Thankfully they did not prevail. I hope they along with the students from the batch assigned to the workshop who created the disruptions would introspect and come to terms with the events as they unfolded. To all of them I wish peace and happiness.

Tanmay Agarwal

Day 1
29 Jan 2015

Workshops to film students is a break from routine. At best a couple of them take it seriously, to the rest they are picnics. The students hold the the guest in regard, for he comes from the professional world, while the regular faculty is considered failures opting for cosy academic life. Since the guest taking the workshop is an external person, he could be taken for granted. The students shy from upsetting the regular faculty to avoid long term damage to their academic results. Saying which it should be kept in mind that the regular faculty is also treated shabbily albeit more discretely. It is a common refrain of visiting faculty to filmschools at least in India that the students consider themselves more knowledgable than the teachers, master of their domain and in charge of the institution. This feeling is fostered by weak administration and sadly weak teachers. There are exceptions to the rule both amongst students and faculty, like any other place.

Ah! Another workshop. “Lighting” and “Lensing”!! Bas yeh seekh jayenge toh bhencho* ban hi jayenge, Philim makers!! (translation: Soon as we learn lighting and lensing, by cuss-word, we will turn in to filmmakers)
Mainak Guha


As is a custom with me, I opened up by asking the students why were they there. As is customary most had no clue. The best some could come up with was for their love of cinema.
When I proposed that I was there to enjoy myself and would they like to do so, it sounded strange to them.

In my experience state run filmschools offer an environment that fosters extreme indiscipline and lackadaisical attitudes.
So I proposed some terms of engagement. This sets some self adopted ground rules that ensures attendance and attention. These are completely voluntary, yet inviolable. So the students are given ample opportunity to weigh them. Usually as in this case some students get it but most just tag along.

The terms of engagement are simple and importantly presented in this order:
1. Depositing cell phones at the beginning of a session.
2. Coming to sessions in time.
3. Waiting for the last one to catch up.
4. Blog the days events.

5. Be collectively responsible for 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Now this bunch had been together for more than a year and had developed their own prejudices about each other. Further each one believed that they were responsible while others were not. They were very reluctant and confused with such conditions that are otherwise taken for granted.

The challenge was to break this thought process that placed them above the group, since film making is a collective exercise. They had to see it as such and then take the responsibility of seeing the group function as one.

Now came all of our responses. "How can that be?", "Individuals have to take their own responsibility."…Sir replied with another question. "So, is film making an individual work or a team work?" And believe me, it hit so hard…we are all our "brother's keeper"s. I don't know in pursuit of what, I chose to forget this vital truth of life.
Soumee Biswas

Now that we agree that each one of us is pursuing happiness, we have to set out on this journey together. Together!!! Sir, Mr. Tanmay Agarwal, did you say together!!??
Sir, you had no idea how terribly we have failed to be together time and again. Some of us, especially me, at times find it so hard…As I break off a slender branch and get rid of the leaves I remember my grandfather's anecdote. The thinner the cane, the more the pain.
Hindol Deb

Then, we were asked for the punitive measures if somebody breaks this rule (the hind side of which is to learn how to work collectively and make collective decisions, take responsibility not only for oneself but also for the group of people one is a part of). Then, his punitive measures was mistaken as punishment and then as a joke.
Kirti Singh

After much hemming and hawing on their part, I proposed if they could come up with a penalty for not observing the ground rules. They were quite unimaginative, so I proposed if they would care for a caning. Severe as it sounded, they humored me. So off they went giggling to collect sticks to their taste. Once done they were asked to test them. A couple of them caned their palms tentatively. It was obvious to them that it was not serious. It was not.
I asked them to stack the sticks and take a picture to represent what the stick meant to them, fear, anxiety etc. On examining the result they just looked like sticks. So they got it that though they understood that an object can be shot as a metaphor but they were not skilled to do so.

See video:

Terms OF Engagement

Caning was never a solution to their problems so I proposed that the whole group loses the day if they fail to comply by the terms of engagement. They all agreed, partly out of relief, partly out of chutzpah.

Post lunch when we collected I asked them to switch off the phones and stack them together. Since they were not able to shoot an object to represent something else, I asked if they could shoot it to represent what it is. That is a stack of cell phones with nothing else. They went about the task but the results were still indifferent. The stack would look variously as a tall building, hard disks, PDAs etc. along with the surroundings, but never unmistakably like a stack of cellphones and just that. So far so good. They understood that after a year at film school they could not shoot a straight representational image, nor a metaphorical one.
I called the straight representation an apple for an apple and the metaphorical representation as apple for pears.

Then I asked them to shoot an object just so that the image looks beautiful. The object being any of the foot bridges around the campus, something that they have seen over and over. On viewing the results, it seemed that no one had really captured anything beautiful.

They were all images of the bridge. Except that they were sterile. In fact the one that they thought was good looking was one out of a lot of out of focus images taken by a fellow who was technically not so confident of himself.

This was instructive for it emerged that technical proficiency was not a necessity to beautiful images. The photographer also won the respect of the group, so far denied to him. However the inevitable conclusion was, forget the overt or covert meaning in an image, they were incapable of shooting it aesthetically. However to some students, this method of self discovery was too oblique. They wanted some spoon feeding.

With regard to camera, I didn’t learn anything new…the bridge, was there prominently in both the frames, but I failed to lend a character or “heart” to any of them.
Sreecheta Das

The difference in my approach was to keep their expected tutelage hidden behind real world issues. I kept technicalities at bay and talked of life and work connecting camera to it at a philosophical level. It was confounding to them as I wanted but compelling, again as I wanted.

The students were mostly grim about the fact that none of them remembered what focal length was. To my mind there were other pressing issues. But it confirmed my assumption that I had to start from the beginning.

I left them with couple of questions to answer.
1. Does the eye have variable focal length?
2. If so, how does the eye focus after a lens replacement surgery?

So that is where they stood at the end of day one. A little confused, a little haggard. Some charmed, but most suspicious. It got even more suspicious the next day. Lookout for that post.


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