Canadian Film School Survey 2012: Report from Ontario and Manitoba

19 mins read

University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba

The University of Manitoba’s film programme offers students a chance to analyze and criticize texts with interdisciplinary inclusion of English and Theatre studies. Students can focus on theory or apply for a rigorous production programme. Working on productions with Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin has taught George Toles how to overcome obstacles in professional filmmaking. “There is always a solution to something that seems daunting,” he says. Whether the issue is an actress suffering in the late stages of dementia or a sprawling course designed to teach students the ‘madness’ of the film industry, Toles’ own trial-and-error experiences on-set have allowed him to pass his practical ingenuity onto his students.

At the University of Manitoba, film is offered as a part of the interdisciplinary English, Film and Theatre programme. Students are required to take introductory film courses alongside a class in film theory, but beyond this students are free to focus on any area they wish.

In addition to its scholarly courses, which offer students a vessel to learn about film history, aesthetic analysis and cultural theory, the University of Manitoba offers a unique and innovative course that prepares students for practical filmmaking outside of school.

Professor Toles calls this course “Third-Year Madness.” “This is a course that I do not think any other school in Canada and few in North America have,” he says. In this two-term course, students are selected by a rigorous interview process and are charged with adapting a pre-existing source into a collectively written screenplay. Post-production work is accomplished by a dedicated few students who show initiative and employ creative problem-solving skills.

“Students who are most fiercely committed to this course have claimed, and I believe them, that if you are really open and eager, the learning potential for almost every area of filmmaking is [accessible in it and is] almost limitless.”

Ryerson University
Toronto, Canada

Ryerson University uses academic scholarship as a launching pad for creative work in practical filmmaking. Located in the busy Yonge-Dundas area of downtown Toronto, Ryerson’s School of Image Arts offers a Master in Fine Arts Documentary Media programme that affords students the means to incorporate film, photography and new media into a hybrid documentary.

The School of Image Arts at Ryerson University is highly regarded for its strengths in practical filmmaking. With an undergraduate programme in Film Studies and a graduate- level Documentary Media programme, the school offers hands-on courses that range from a focus on writing and directing to editing and production design.

According to Blake Fitzpatrick, “what makes Ryerson such an interesting place to study and to teach is its unique history of blending theory and practice.” The key to a successful education in film lies in a student’s ability to make something tangible from a certain creative impulse.

Fitzpatrick is the graduate programme director for Ryerson’s Documentary Media programme, the first of its kind to offer a Master in Fine Arts degree in Canada.

Fitzpatrick says the programme prides itself on having its students create innovative documentary-based work.

This ability to take theoretical debates and apply them in a practical, real-world setting is a skill that Fitzpatrick tries to teach his pupils in his most groundbreaking courses.

In one such course, Fitzpatrick and his students “look at recent theoretical debates and critical writing on documentary media as it opens questions concerning documentary truth and meaning, ethics, and the emergence of new media forms.”

Ryerson’s programme is not just the sum of its productive parts. Navigating through complicated critical ideas, learning the theory while working on film projects, is no easy task, but Fitzpatrick claims that his special courses offer an ideal learning model.

In regards to this very intense education he remarks, “[This model] helps students to learn the technical aspects of the [documentary] process quickly but, just as importantly, it helps them to learn to work together and to experience the value of collaboration as a way of making work.”

Innis College, University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario

For over 30 years, the University of Toronto has offered a diverse academic Cinema Studies programme that focuses on film histories and theory. Undergraduates work toward a BA degree, and a master’s programme is available. With inventive and challenging new courses coming to fruition each year, attending classes on the university’s scenic St. George campus is never short of rewarding surprises.

The University of Toronto (U of T) offers an academic, critically oriented approach to film studies. With an emphasis on a combination of social and political theory with film analysis and historical contexts, U of T’s Cinema Studies programme encourages the examination of cinema as a critical discourse.

The university offers courses that range from a focus on contemporary screen and image theory to explorations of avant-garde film movements. Students are encouraged and, in some instances, required to take courses aimed at film history and theory alongside courses that emphasize Canadian national cinema. Offering degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels, requirements are flexible in that students can decide which areas interest them.

Kass Banning, a professor and one-time undergraduate coordinator for the Cinema Studies programme, extends her enthusiasm for documentary filmmaking and Canadian cinema to the curriculum. “As a theory child of the ’80s, my passion for documentary evolved from the promise bequeathed to documentary practice that arose from key critical debates of the era.”

The interest in Canadian and documentary cinema at U of T has increased over the last ten years. Banning credits her experience teaching courses focused on national and world cinemas for opening not only her students’ eyes but her own to new and inventive interpretations of cinema in cultural issues.

Banning’s fondness for both national cinema and exploring new paradigms led her to create a challenging yet rewarding fourth-year-course.

According to Banning, “in 2010 I applied for a University of Toronto Curriculum Renewal Initiative Grant to develop a course entitled Local Film Cultures: Toronto, Sites and Scenes that would offer an integrative and experiential fourth-year research seminar. Through activity-based inquiry, resulting in the dissemination of findings through an online archive, students would develop research skills while accruing cinema-specific local data directed towards formulating microhistories of Toronto’s unique film cultures.”

The goal of the course was to engage students in comprehensive research to forge new ground in understanding Toronto’s cinematic history. The course demanded and, in its second year, still demands dedication from its students. That dedication, however, paid off in the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating narratives that spark new ideas and reveal new histories.

“Indeed,” Banning says, “it has been rewarding to observe students catching ‘archive fever,’ and taking pride in their newfound abilities to document the histories of Toronto’s unique film cultures.”

York University
Toronto, Ontario

Located in Toronto, York University offered the first film programme in Canada. Started in 1969 by James Beveridge, York offers a BA in Cinema Studies, a BFA in Production, and the only undergraduate Screenwriting degree in the country.

Brenda Longfellow cut her teeth as a social activist before she even knew she was interested in film. “I was working at an antipoverty organization in Ottawa, the Ottawa Tenants Council,” she says. A mandate issued by the CRTC in the early 1980s placed Rogers in the position to give the Council access to film equipment and an editing studio.

“Those experiences got me completely turned on to cinema as a medium that could combine a social vocation with extreme pleasure and fun,” she says.

Longfellow, who began teaching at York in 1990, emphasizes its film programme’s dedication to social consciousness in academic and practical streams of study. According to Longfellow, “the close and rigorous integration of [practice and theoretical/critical studies] is central to the culture of critical thinking and civic engagement that we endeavour to foster.”

Where certain schools focus primarily on scholarly or practical pursuits, Longfellow says that York is unique in its equal treatment of the two. Students take theoretical and practical film courses, and can decide what they want to focus on in their later years. Students can pursue a BFA in Production, a BA in Cinema/Media Studies, or they can apply for the only undergraduate degree in Screenwriting available in Canada.

One of the best aspects of York, Longfellow says, is the quality of its faculty, which includes filmmakers John Greyson and Ali Kazimi. Cinematographer Mark Irwin has also taught at York.

Still rooted to her view of cinema as a medium that combines social vocation with extreme pleasure, Longfellow has proposed an innovative course that will see documentary filmmaking taken to unprecedented areas of study. The course will combine practice and theory directed at interactive online documentaries.

“This is going to be a real challenge and enormously exciting,” she says, “as the field of interactive documentaries is relatively new with few established guideposts. I’ll be teaching as I’m learning, which is always my favourite thing to do.”

Queen’s University
Kingston, Ontario

Queen’s University offers courses through the Department of Film and Media, where production is central to a principally arts-based programme, and also in a specialized Stage and Screen Studies programme. Located in Kingston, Ont., two converted Victorian homes have held classes for over 30 years.

For Queen’s professor Clarke Mackey, Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964) was the film that inspired him to learn about the medium. That drama proved that one can learn about a time and place based on what is seen on the screen.

A little while later, Canadian film scholar Peter Harcourt established the film programme at Queen’s. “The idea of full integration of theory and practice is still the heart of what Queen’s Film and Media does,” Mackey says. This integration between the means of expression and the know-how to create it is something Mackey considers pivotal to the Canadian film industry.

Queen’s offers a balance between two creative streams. “What our graduates tell us is that, while their production courses were important preparation for their careers, it was really the studies courses that have been the most valuable for them in their creative work.”

When asked how this programme differs from schools that focus on production or theory exclusively, Mackey notes a rift between streams that is rectified at Queen’s. “I wanted to teach at Queen’s because, as an industry professional, I worked with several Queen’s graduates. They seemed to be really well educated, with broad intellectual knowledge of the medium. At other institutions I often sensed a tension between the ‘intellectuals’ and the ‘doers.’”

Unique to Queen’s is its Stage and Screen Studies programme, which enables students to explore both film and theatre. Of parparticular note is a fourth-year course called “Contemporary Cultural Performance in Practice.” Co-founded by Mackey with the departments of Art, Drama, and Music, students work to create multimedia performance works. This course is important to furthering contemporary conceptions of cinema because, as Mackey notes, “one of the main features of post-modern life is the collapsing of traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines.” It looks as though full integration of theory and practice is closer than ever at Queen’s.

Carleton University
Ottawa, Ontario

Carleton University has the distinction and advantage of being located in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. With a programme that favours the study film history, theory, and research into the national spectrum, students can apply for internship placements and, at the graduate level, conduct intensive research into a chosen field of cinema.

With a strong focus on film history and criticism, Carleton’s Film Studies programme differs from other schools in its lack of practical filmmaking. With courses firmly rooted in academia, professor Tom McSorley and his colleagues want to broaden the scope of what film means in social, cultural and political contexts.

“Teaching of this kind of critical thinking and media literacy, especially in the digital age, will prepare students for a number of possible opportunities,” he says. Fostering a disciplined approach to film analysis, Carleton is paving the way to careers in festival programming, criticism and even screenwriting.

“Carleton is chiefly an academic programme, with no production component,” McSorley says. “It does offer, however, a practicum placement programme for fourth-year Honours students.”

This placement programme, a kind of advanced internship, places students for a single semester in local institutions that deal with “moving image heritage, either in heritage or in exhibition, or curatorial practices.”

McSorley’s expertise lies in Canadian film programming. He landed his teaching position at Carleton based on his years of film programming and critical writing at the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa.

Though he loves teaching Canadian cinema to second year students (a passion he was turned onto by the influential Peter Harcourt), McSorley’s heart is going into a new course that is still in the planning stages. “My most innovative course,” he states, “is coming in 2013. I will teach a fourth year seminar course in film programming, applying my expertise to an academic environment.”

Carleton offers both undergraduate and a master’s programme in Film Studies. Unique to the university is its proximity to important national institutions in Ottawa. Students embarking on research projects have access to resources only found in the nation’s capital.

The university was also pivotal in the formation of the Film Studies Association of Canada. According to McSorley, “teaching Canadian cinema to Canadian students is essential.”

His only issue with Carleton’s comprehensive programme is its reluctance to make Canadian cinema courses mandatory. However, McSorley also says that the opportunity to teach Canadian film is a remarkable experience.

“Thankfully, dozens of film students enroll every year for the Canadian cinema course. Their interest in the cinematic articulation of this country is encouraging.”

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