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Class Acts: Ontario & Manitoba

Central Canada is known for its fine film studies institutes. John Semley surveys some of the best.

York University cinematography master class with Paul Sarossy

I should probably disclose something right off the bat. Strictly speaking, I never went to film school. Though I did graduate in 2009 with a Master of Arts in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, I spent my undergraduate years at McGill University, studying English literature, cultural studies and history. The cultural studies arm of McGill’s English department offered some film courses, sure. But when I sat down in my first grad-level cinema seminars, I was much better equipped at grinding My Beautiful Laundrette through the gears of Frankfurt School Marxian thought than I was differentiating between a long- and medium-long shot.

But plenty of the other students in my cohort knew all of this. They also talked about things like “soft focus” and “chiaroscuro lighting,” which I had mostly learned about in my own personal reading of film texts by Arnheim, Bordwell, Bazin and other heavies. Because most of them went to proper film schools. And proper films schools teach that kind of stuff.

There is a handful of proper film schools in Ontario and Manitoba and, given the proximity to the industry and many other mitigating factors, it should come as no surprise that many of the better ones are found in Toronto. Still, there are plenty of options for prospective students looking to study cinema who don’t want to pay a premium to live in the Big Smoke.

University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.

With three decades of offering film studies programmes under its belt, the University of Western Ontario (Western) is a viable option for prospective students looking to focus more on the “studies” side of cinema. The department offers minors, majors, specialist, and honours specialist degrees in the art and history of film.

Film studies at Western distinguishes itself primarily through its focus on concepts of national and global cinemas and the inherent flow between the two. After taking a full-year Introduction to Film Studies course, which debriefs undergrads on the finer points of the medium’s aesthetics and formal history, students can choose from a smorgasbord dealing with the flows of national cinema. Apart from standbys such as the French New Wave and Soviet Montage, there are course offerings in Latin American Cinema, Contemporary German Cinema, Canadian Cinema, as well as more wide-ranging topics such as World Cinema and Movements in European Film.

But it’s not all national cinemas. Western also has courses zeroing in on aesthetics, film theory, upper level seminars on Slavoj Zizek, and representations of gender and sexuality.

Students in their fourth year of an honours specialist degrees, holding a high-“B” average, also have the opportunity to undertake an undergraduate thesis project, giving them the chance to focus on a specific topic in film studies and prepare a long paper fit for a writing sample for MA or PhD programmes. Speaking of master’s degrees, Western offers one as well, intended to further hone critical thinking as well as prepping students for PhD studies or careers in programming, journalism, curatorial work, and other related fields.

York University, Toronto, Ont.

Located at the university’s Keele campus in the (very) north of Toronto, York’s film department offers one of Canada’s finest programmes. Housed in the largest film and theatre teaching complex of its kind in Canada, York prides itself in a diverse and eminently qualified faculty, including filmmaker and activist John Greyson, cinematographer and director Ali Kazimi, experimental filmmaker Philip Hoffman, critic and historian Scott Forsyth, professor emeritus Peter Morris (who has made invaluable contributions to the study of Canadian cinema) and many, many others. The university also prides itself on nimbly balancing practical training in film and video production with an in-depth academic programme.

York offers an array of undergraduate programmes, including honours, major and minor BAs (for those focusing more on the academic side: theory, history and criticism), as well as BFA degrees for students concentrating more on studio work (production and screenwriting). At the graduate level, York also offers MA and PhD programmes in Cinema and Media Studies, as well as MFAs in production and screenwriting and a three-year combined MBA/MFA in Film, offered in conjunction with York’s Schulich School of Business, which is ideal for extra-keen students looking to pursue careers in arts administration.

With courses ranging from Old Hollywood and Québécois cinema, workshops in screenwriting and cinematography, and à la mode offerings like The Vampire in Cinema, York’s undergraduate film programme ranks amongst the most diverse and comprehensive you’ll find in a Canadian university.

Ryerson University, Toronto, Ont.

Located just a stone’s throw from Toronto’s major arteries, Yonge and Dundas streets, Ryerson is plenty close to the heart of Toronto’s booming film culture. Its interdisciplinary film programme, part of the School of Image Arts (itself part of the Faculty of Communication and Design), also provides a solid balance of academic theory and hands-on practice.

In their first years, students take core lectures in Film Technology, the Business of Film, and Film History & Criticism. They may do laboratory work in Film Production, Writing for Film, and other practical facets of film craft. The programme also offers plenty of opportunity to take interdisciplinary electives ranging across departments, such as The Nature of Narrative (cross-listed with the English department) or Visual Information Processing (cross-listed with the psychology department). Ryerson also offers state-of-the-art production facilities, including a sound stage, editing facilities, screening rooms, an in-house film processing lab and more.

But the gem in Ryerson’s crown is its senior project, which allows students to synthesize their studies in theory and production in a final undertaking with a faculty instructor or advisor. Though students have the option to pursue a project peripherally related to film production, most opt to make short films. The Ryerson University Film Festival (RUFF) serves as an annual showcase for these projects; some go on to unspool at film festivals across the world. As proof of the success of Ryerson grads, the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival included features and shorts from six Ryerson alumni, including veterans like Bruce McDonald (Trigger) and relative newcomers like Kazik Radwanski (Green Crayons).

With a solid reputation for education in both theory and practice, as well as a location smack in the heart of the bustling Toronto film scene, Ryerson has moved into the upper echelon of cinema studies programmes.

University of Toronto, Toronto, Ont.

First things first: if you’re looking to study film production, U of T may not be your best bet. The Cinema Studies Institute offers no practical courses in film production, and apart from possibly snagging a work-study job as an in-house techie and projectionist, you’re not likely to engage with the practical side of filmmaking during your four years in the hallowed, hypermodern halls of Innis College.

That said, the U of T does offer comprehensive undergraduate-specialist, major and minor programmes in Cinema Studies. For many prospective film (or “cinema”) undergrads, a strict focus on theory, history and criticism is just fine. After all, not many people major in English Lit because they want to churn out a novel by the time they graduate. What’s more, the U of T Cinema Studies programme is one of the finest in the country. Dating back more than 30 years, a degree from the Cinema Studies Institute carries with it not just the prestige of the University of Toronto (consistently ranked among the top post-secondary institutions in Canada), but a long, rich history of film theory and analysis.

Students at the U of T take foundational courses introducing them to the major ideas (theoretical, practical and socio-political) at play in the study of cinema before focusing on certain genres (Action/Spectacle, The Horror Film), national cinemas (Soviet Cultural History, American Filmmaking in the Studio Era), as well as upper-level seminars for advanced students, which may range from topics as diverse as film historiography to the so-called “End of Cinema.” While challenging—the U of T hasn’t earned its reputation for handing out A-plus grades willy-nilly—the Cinema Studies Institute works to synthesize theoretical and practical approaches to the study of cinema, ensuring that its graduates leave equipped with the tools to be not just sophisticated viewers, but writers and thinkers as well.

Apart from an illustrious, well-published faculty (professors Kay Armatage, Bart Testa, Kass Banning and recent addition James Cahill, to name a few), the U of T Cinema Studies Institute has also made a habit of bringing in distinguished screenwriters-in-residence to teach a special topics class. In 2010, the screenwriting course will be spearheaded by the double team of writer/directors Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing) and Semi Chellas (head writer of CTV’s The Eleventh Hour).

Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.

The website for Queen’s Film and Media programme includes a pretty detailed, and often funny, Q&A with a (presumably fictitious) prospective undergrad. (“Sorry, but I’m not really into old movies,” the would-be student says, forgetting to ask an actual question.) But the website also offers a wealth of information for students curious about their rather excellent undergraduate programme.

The Q&A section especially focuses on how a film and media studies degree from Queen’s will develop not just knowledge of film history and theory, but of sociology, communications and Canadian issues as well. Like so many film programmes vying to stay relevant in a climate where the job market seems to be constantly winnowing, Queen’s stresses that film studies has emerged as the hallmark of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Offering minor, major, honours, and a special field concentration degree in Stage and Screen studies that is cross-listed with the university’s Department of Drama, Queen’s offers well-rounded programmes tailored for students’ interests.

In general, the programmes look at everything from film and video art to advertising and mass communications, with a focus on the historical and social contexts which shape them. In their first year, students take an introductory course, Film, Culture, and Communication, which, beyond its focus on film history and theory, also looks at how film and media culture impact the individual and society. The course also asks students to complete both essay and narrative storyboarding assignments, developing both critical and practical skills in the field. And apart from its well-stocked film and video facilities (which boast 16mm, Bolex, and HDV cameras), Queen’s is also home to an archive housing the complete works of Canadian filmmaker Allan King.

University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Man.

University of Manitoba’s film programme is plenty worthwhile, offering a solid balance of academic and practical work, as well as a renowned faculty, including former Film Studies Association of Canada president Brenda Austin-Smith, prolific Canadian cinema scholar and cultural historian George Melnyk (author of One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema) and Distinguished Filmmaker in Residence (and pride of Winnipeg) Guy Maddin.

Film Studies students can pursue a minor, three-year major, four-year advanced major or four-year honours, or they can study film as part of a joint double honours programme. Like many film studies programmes, the University of Manitoba regards the study of cinema to a be a central building block of a modern liberal arts education, one that fosters strong modes of theoretical and historiographical thinking.

Timna Ben-Ari, who graduated with distinction from the programme in 2009 and now works in television and theatre production, told me that the film studies education she received at the U of M opened her eyes to all kinds of artistic and career possibilities. “At first I took just a single film course for fun before I realized that there were career choices within film that appealed to me,” she says. “I then took a more serious look at film studies and received what I felt to be an excellent education that opened my eyes to all the aspects that go into creating a film. In understanding film, from film theory to the more technical aspects, such as cinematography, the art form became all the more beautiful and took over my interests wholly.”

And while Ben-Ari’s focus was primarily theoretical, the university offers practical courses in filmmaking (basic and advanced), screenwriting, producing, and acting for the camera. There are also opportunities for advanced students to take an intensive production course that often results in feature-length films, distinguishing the programme’s practical component from other schools in which students generally work toward producing a short. And while internships and practicums aren’t a prerequisite for graduation, the university works to facilitate industry placements should students desire it.

John Semley’s writings on film have been published by Cinema Scope, CBC.ca, The Globe and Mail, Cineaste, Exclaim!, and CineAction. He lives and works in Toronto.

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