Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Film + Teaching + Vanier College

In the early 1970's I was involved in the creation and development of a Cinema Laboratory (called Cinema Room) at Vanier College in Montreal. This laboratory formulated a new pedagogical approach to the teaching of film and film production in the college system. I stress the term pedagogy because in most instances the teaching of film production had been most emphatically on the side of 'technical' instruction with a resulting lack of emphasis on theory.

The program at Vanier stressed the interrelated nature of theory and practice, the impossibility in fact, of ever divorcing one from the other. Thus, if a student wanted to learn how to use a movie camera they also had to learn a variety of theories about camera usage in different films and in different periods. It was as important for them to develop intellectual tools for the critical analysis of films as it was to make them.

The origins of the Cinema Program at Vanier were in the English Department from which most of the original professors were hired. This was not an unconventional place to find the study of film. In fact much of what we now understand as Cultural Studies got its start in English departments throughout North America.

The program taught courses in areas as diverse as production, history, animation, the intersections of television and film, semiotics, documentary cinema, Hollywood cinema, ethnographic film, Quebec cinema, Canadian Cinema, experimental film and women's cinema. This diversity did not exist in most of the other colleges which taught cinema at the time in the early 1970's.

During this period the program was just establishing itself and there weren't many other cinema departments in existence, particularly in Canada. This was in part due to the rather familiar positioning of the cinema as a ‘low’ art — one not deserving of discipline status at the college or university level. The struggle to legitimize the study of the cinema was part of the early history of the program at Vanier. A Creative Arts Department was put in place and this allowed cinema to develop and grow as a discipline in ways that would not have been possible in another curriculum configuration.

Two major pedagogical tendencies developed in the department. One was the tendency to approach the cinema as a text and to study its characteristics in the same way as a novel or other forms of literature. The other was to teach the cinema as if it were an extension of the Fine Arts and to teach production within a Fine Art tradition. It took many years for the discipline to more properly establish its own production-oriented and critical identity and to develop the critical strategies of analysis which now seem conventional in the field. At the root of the production courses was a fundamental question: How much do the students know about the cinema in general and how can this knowledge be applied to the creative process?

This is where the idea of a Cinema Laboratory came in. The faculty and I wanted to open up a space for the students where they could spend time both with us and each other, discussing the cinema, living, breathing, talking about and producing films. The classroom part of the lab was a large room without chairs where the students could comfortably relax, watch films and discuss them. At the same time the room could be converted into a workshop with drop-leaf tables serving as editing benches. Behind the main room were smaller rooms for sound editing and private viewing.

This holistic notion of an environment devoted to the cinema encouraged experimentation. If the students proposed a film that merely imitated the conventional forms of the Hollywood Cinema they were asked to explain why? Moreover, if the cinematic conventions that they wanted to use were being incorporated into their films without due concern for how those conventions might effect if not transform their ideas, they were asked to go back to the drawing board. If the students insisted on writing a script when none was perhaps necessary they were asked why? And if their reasons were not clearly situated in an awareness of the role of scripts in the development of the history of the cinema, they were asked to do some more reading both in the history and theory of the film.

This effort, to make theory and history and practice inseparable resulted in films which were far more experimental than most others from equivalent programs. The students at Vanier tended to question narrative conventions and to self-reflexively foreground the apparatus they were dealing with. The term we used was "play," a kind of playful approach to creativity which opened up more questions than it answered and in this way, the model which was used also challenged some fundamental educational principles in the process.

I would not want to overemphasize the production side of the program suffice to say that in attempting to link theory and practice Vanier's approach also linked questions of pedagogy with questions of content. The result was that the non-production courses tended to open up more debates around creativity and the creative process. The primary question always was, what are we teaching and why? This gave the students the chance to participate in the creation of the body of knowledge which they were studying and to engage the professorial staff in fundamental arguments about the future of the discipline. Thus, the emphasis on process over product extended into the heart of the courses in a way which to this day remains the legacy of Vanier's contribution to the field of Cinema Studies and in particular in the way in which it is taught.