Focus on Education

Focus on Education 2013-14: Report from Ontario & Manitoba

Cinema Studies Institute Rocks U of T

Innis Town Hall at the University of Toronto / photo courtesy of University of Toronto


A lot can change in the span of a decade. During this time film studies at the University of Toronto has progressed from a college-controlled programme into an independent institute with fully integrated undergraduate, graduate and doctoral curricula. As enrollment in its undergraduate and master’s programmes increases, the Cinema Studies Institute (or CSI) is strengthening its status as a premier film institution.

This year finds Cinema Studies at U of T expanding to become an “EDU-A”-designated departmental unit. According to the Office of the Vice-Provost, EDUs (Extra-Departmental Units) are departments organized around burgeoning areas of research in various disciplines. The EDU-A designation, however, affords the programme the ability to appoint teaching staff and implement more intensive areas of study into its curriculum. In its protocols for EDUs, the University of Toronto identifies an EDU-A as different from a department “in that departments generally offer a full range of undergraduate and graduate programmes and research.”

Though the programme still operates out of Innis College, one of seven major colleges that make up the university’s Faculty of Arts & Science, it now holds power and authority that extend beyond those afforded to college programmes. “It initially made sense for Cinema Studies to be a college-run programme,” CSI director Charlie Keil explains. “It was logical for us to associate with Innis College because they are the ones who run and fund the facilities that Cinema Studies depends upon.” However, the major issue affecting this position lies in its restrictive scope and limited departmental agency. “Essentially, we did not have the ability to hire our own staff.” Cinema Studies courses still operate out of Innis College, but the programme’s expansion means the college no longer holds as much administrative power over them.

What was once a dependent relationship on a larger governing body now rests at arm’s length. The CSI thus retains both the freedom to offer explorations into unique aspects of film studies, and the resources to keep its curriculum streamlined and running efficiently. And with courses the institute can officially call its own, the CSI is able to efficiently implement a comprehensive system to confer undergraduate and graduate degrees in cinema studies, including a new PhD programme.

Innis College on University of Toronto’s St. George campus / photo by Nicholas Gergesha

The CSI offers students a critical look into the sociopolitical and historical contexts of a wide range of films and film movements. Students interested in majoring, minoring or specializing in the programme must achieve good academic standing in a first-year Intro to Film course. “It’s a charge teaching that course,” Keil admits. “You have to pump yourself up and be a showman to sell it because it is a big group, but there are so many possibilities to mold an enthusiastic student’s experience and shape the way they see the programme.”

Cinema Studies’ most radical change occurred in the early 2000s, before Keil’s directorship. The programme, which was then guided under the auspices of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, introduced what is now the centre of its current curriculum. With the introduction of its Film History and Film Theory courses, the extra-departmental unit laid the blueprint for its best-known (and constantly evolving) courses. Known since 2010 as the two-part Film Cultures course and redesigned in 2013 to eliminate unnecessary overlap, it takes students along a historical timeline to learn about key contextual events and the theory important to understanding them. “Classical film theory has been imported into our history course’s model, allowing for a fully integrated and chronologically split timeline,” Keil explains. This allows for a progressive model of learning, where content is absorbed gradually and logically without creating confusion through density. This model also helps to explain how the gradual changes that are now commonplace in Cinema Studies have introduced a notion of progression into the expansion of its programme.

This past September, the Cinema Studies Institute introduced a new PhD programme in Cinema Studies. With an emphasis on engagement with primary research materials, students enrolled in the four-year programme are equipped with extensive historiographical and theoretical knowledge. Core courses such as History and Historiography of Cinematic Media and Pressures on the Cinematic study how film has changed as a referential medium, while cross-listed electives push students to incorporate research from other U of T graduate units. Participants are given the freedom and independence required to progress from a rudimentary understanding of film concepts to a wholly original dissertation that they design themselves.

Though it is rooted in academic study and theoretical analysis of films, there are also a number of specialized courses offered to students in later years of the undergraduate programme. Third-year courses such as Bart Testa’s Avant-Garde and Experimental Film class offer students the means to extend their knowledge beyond the core history and theory classes. There are also many more limited seminars with practicum components offered to fourth-year students. The most radical of these courses are either employing big names in Canadian cinema to teach master classes or employing students in internship positions before they reach grad school. Two notable examples in 2013, made possible through the progressive efforts of the Cinema Studies Institute, are courses entitled Séances and Experiential Learning, taught by filmmaker Guy Maddin and Professor Kass Banning respectively.

“The ultimate aim of [Séances] is to perform a vivisection on film,” Maddin writes in his course description. With reference to a number of “eccentric” texts, the director claims “students will be expected to write their own short film treatments.” In a similarly practical move, Banning’s course provides students with a creative co-op experience. A handful of students are chosen, based on interviews and academic standing, and introduced into a workplace environment. From small magazines (including POV) to the Toronto International Film Festival, the fourth-year course combines primary experience with secondary research to provide students with an innovative learning environment. Made possible through the gradual and cumulative expansion of the CSI’s programme, these courses and their curricula are examples of the many ways that Cinema Studies at U of T is growing as a premier academic film programme.

“All of these changes were part of a game plan,” Keil admits. “We envisioned this. We have always wanted them to happen, but they do not just happen. Universities are big institutions with many rules and procedures, and you have to follow all of them. The proposal of a programme expansion involves meeting provincial requirements and standards, so there is a lot of legwork and paper pushing. It was a lot of work, but it was work worth doing. We like the results.”

More Ontario and Manitoba Film Programmes

University of Manitoba | Winnipeg, Man.

As last year’s production students put the finishing touches on their feature-length project, Professor George Toles is excited for the future of film studies in Manitoba. “Our programme is expanding with the introduction of an Acting for the Camera course,” he explains. “We will provide many more master classes, and we are progressively upgrading our feature laboratory with equipment and new computers.” Film Studies at the University of Manitoba offers streams for both practical and theoretical disciplines of study, and features an intensive Script to Screen course where committed students spend more than a year writing, filming, and producing a feature length movie. Its distinguished three-to-four-year undergraduate programme offers students the chance to collaborate with professionals, making it a realistic preparatory environment for entry into professional filmmaking.

Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts / courtesy Ryerson University

Ryerson University | Toronto, Ont.

Last year when I spoke with Ryerson’s Blake Fitzpatrick, he prided himself on the Documentary Media programme’s ability to make theoretical arguments something tangible and usable in a real-world setting. Fitzpatrick detailed an intensive programme where students simultaneously learn key theory and apply it to practical filmmaking projects.

This year Fitzpatrick is excited about the real-world afforded to students of that same master’s programme. “We connect beyond the classroom by putting on a festival called DOC NOW ,” he tells me. “The graduating class plans, fundraises, markets and curates the event to display an interdisciplinary assortment of works and draw attention to their projects.” Prospective graduate students can apply for the two-year Documentary Media MFA programme or they can tackle mixed media projects in the Media Production MA programme.

Students filming a production at York University / Courtesy York University

York University | Toronto, Ont.

Home to one of the oldest film programmes in Canada, York University’s integrated production and theory courses offer students the flexibility to stake their own path in cinema studies. Brenda Longfellow taught an innovative documentary course over the last year that worked to combine doc discourse with interactive multimedia technologies. “We are offering that course again this year, and we produce a collaborative doc on York’s website at the end of the school year,” she says. “This is part of our gradual expansion into more mixed media, which is a direction many cross-listed programmes’ students can take.”

This gradual move complements York’s well-known undergraduate and graduate programmes. Both offer streams that focus on either academic theory and analysis (honours BA , MA or PhD in Cinema/Media Studies) or practical filmmaking (BFA s and MFA s in Screenwriting or Production). New courses like Longfellow’s interactive doc class and Ali Kazimi’s seminar on 3-D filmmaking build on a tradition of quality inherent in the almost 50-year-old department.

Instructor Clarke Mackey working with a student in Queen’s University’s Film and Media programme / courtesy Clarke Mackey

Queen’s University | Kingston, Ont.

Next year, the film department at Queen’s University is receiving a massive upgrade. “In the summer of 2014 we are moving to a brand-new, custom-built building by the lake,” says instructor Clarke Mackey. “There will be a new production studio and a big digital media lab. It is essentially a large area for students to work with different kinds of software, and it also functions as a full teaching environment.”

Queen’s University’s Film and Media programme consists of interdisciplinary courses for students to attain a general or honours BA degree. With courses like Mackey’s Narrative Theory and Practice, students can combine their knowledge with intensive practical components to create media to showcase at the end of the year. Production and theory intermingle at Queen’s to prepare students for careers in media.

Carleton University | Ottawa, Ont.

The film studies programme at Carleton University favours academic study over practical filmmaking. Located in the nation’s capital, Carleton has the advantage of offering its undergraduate and master’s students a wide range of research and co-op opportunities.

Last year, Professor Tom McSorley talked excitedly about his “most innovative course” arriving in 2013. This year’s Archives and Curatorial Practices course benefits from McSorley’s past experience as a film programmer with the Canadian Film Institute. Offered in fourth year, the specialized course offers interested students an immersive way to cap off their undergraduate residency. With honours and general BA s, which are offered alongside a research-driven MA programme that offers internship opportunities, Carleton University is an established academic institution with unique practical elements that are difficult to find elsewhere.

More 2013-14 Education Reports:
British Columbia & Alberta: Invasion of the VFX People!
Quebec & Atlantic Canada: Concordia’s Path to Cannes

Nicholas Gergesha is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. In addition to writing for magazines like POV, he also performs visual research and works with the City of Toronto.

View all articles by Nicholas Gergesha »