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A Course Less Ordinary

Filmstar Ishaa Koppikar filming Raakh (meaning Ashes) in the University's Botanic Garden.

A Course Less Ordinary

It’s bold, it’s imaginative, it’s new thinking – no, not the latest multiplex blockbuster, but the study of film at the University of Leicester which is reaching out to a whole new generation of people wishing to engage critically with cinema. (Original article appeared in LE1 summer 2007)

Study film at the University of Leicester and you will never watch a movie in the same way again.

For Leicester is in the vanguard of a new generation of film scholarship – as far removed from the early approaches to the discipline as the flea-pit is from the multiplex.

In the ever evolving world of cinema, Leicester offers courses that not only keep in step with change, but provide students with an understanding of the context of change – one learns to see movies in a different way altogether.

This perspective on cinema stems from the distinctive way Film Studies is taught at Leicester – as a multidisciplinary approach or – put another way – with a talented array of academics, whose subject areas are as diverse as the films they lecture on, but who are brought together by their common interest – movies.

The new generation cinema studies at Leicester is bold and innovative in terms of striking out in new directions, embracing cinema from different countries, including Bollywood, Mexican and Middle Eastern films – and is confident enough to include popular cinema alongside silent and art house films.

Film is at the heart of the course, into which History of Art is also dynamically integrated. Students are able to draw upon the teaching and research expertise of the Department of History of Art and Film, but also of the Department of Modern Languages, the Centre for American Studies and the Department of Media and Communication. Film academics within the University have diverse interests: film history, film and language, cultural economies and film, political identification in films, film and gender, film genres, narratology, film and music, British cinema, and globalisation and film.

Film Studies at Leicester is taught mainly within the Department of the History of Art and Film – although its presence is across the University in two faculties – and the study of the subject provides a thorough grounding in the analysis of art and films, both historical and contemporary. Students are trained to interrogate, negotiate and make their living ‘within’ a world of images. They have the opportunity to study in depth a range of subjects from medieval art and architecture and Renaissance painting to Hollywood cinema and contemporary conceptual art.

James Chapman, Professor of Film Studies, says: “Film itself in multidisciplinary – it is related to photography, to art history, literature, sociology, critical theory, cultural studies and more. The intellectual context in which the study of the discipline has occurred draws on literature, social history, media and communications.

Dr Anna Claydon, from the Department of Media and Communication, added: “Film Studies is one of the most interdisciplinary subjects that students can study. A Film Studies graduate needs to have learnt something about history, artistic composition, law, politics, gender, semiotics, ideology, cultural studies, technology (and how it was invented and is used), narrative analysis, globalisation and national identities and many other aspects.

“I believe that our students, those who study within different departments and study film at varying levels, do gain an insight into these aspects of film analysis and emerge with a complex understanding of how film works as a system of communication, as a manifestation of human inventiveness and as an art: because we have film specialists across different departments, as opposed to within one department, it accents that interdisciplinarity and it makes it more explicit.

“It would be dangerous to study film in a context that was not interdisciplinary because we would not be training people who could think across a wide spectrum of disciplines. People who end up doing film are very good thinkers about most humanities subjects. Being taught by colleagues across different departments – that contact with different ways of doing things – is a much more realistic perspective on what real life is like.”

Leicester’s take on Film Studies places it at the progressive edge of the discipline where films are seen as the fulfilment of more than a creative process.

Professor Chapman explains: “What I try to persuade the film student to think about is what they see on screen in the end product. It is the residue, if you like, of a whole range of industrial, cultural, aesthetic, political, censorial and commercial decisions that have been made during the production process and have shaped the final text.

Dr Claydon agrees: “When you talk about cinema, one of the key things is opening people’s eyes beyond the films they enjoy to see, to see the subtleties of all the kinds of terminologies, and that cinema is not just the manifestation of what you see on the screen – it is the experience itself, both ephemeral and tangible-contradictory elements at different levels.”

Allied with this commitment to develop the critical faculties of the student is a determination among the Leicester academics to take Film Studies in new directions: establishing it as one of the foremost departments of its kinds in the country where new thinking from different disciplines informs the teaching and understanding of the subject.

“I tell prospective students that the degree course balances ‘traditional’ film studies with new approaches and concerns. ‘Old’ film studies might be seen as a predominantly aesthetic approach, film as art, film history as the history of films, privileging a few ‘classics’ (Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, Bicycle Thieves etc).

“We cover this too – predominantly in Year 1 as grounding for students. After all, there are certain movies that a film student really ought to see. Why, for example, is Citizen Kane so often called the ‘best film ever made’? To answer this we need to consider both the film itself and the various critical perspectives that have been adopted towards it. And we include films by the great directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir – to study film without looking at figures such as these would be rather like studying English literature and leaving out Shakespeare and Dickens.

“But we also balance this with new approaches and films that reflect intellectual interests in the discipline as it stands. At Leicester, there’s a particular emphasis on film in context historical, cultural, industrial etc) recognising that films are not autonomous texts but are part of wider institutional and cultural discourses.

“We also embrace the popular, we don’t look down on it, and we see it as very important in terms of its social significance and it is still very ideological and needs to be analysed.

“We take a student’s knowledge and interest in film and try to get them to analyse cinema on an academic level. So a lot of people might say – ‘film, it’s just entertainment, it’s escapism pure and simple.’ We say yes it is, but escapism is rarely pure and it’s never simple.

“The culture of understanding what a piece of entertainment is revolves around ideas of pleasure –how do films generate pleasure- in what sort of way and for what type of assumed spectator are differences in gender, social class, age, ethnicity. The way people respond to film engages with questions of the place of film in a wider role e.g. as an instrument of propaganda and persuasion or as an issue led medium.

“In essence we move students away from looking at films as just a piece of flimsy entertainment fiction and to look at the wider context.

“If it is denigrated for being sexist, reactionary or racist we analyse the mechanisms and processes that make it so- we ask the question: why? We also ask why it continues to be popular and reach a wide audience

“The new generation film academic at Leicester engages with films as a fan, as someone who likes the medium along with looking at it intellectually as well as critically.

“There is no longer a sense of slumming it in studying films.”

It is true to say that many of the pejorative connotations associated with the study of film – or media studies – have been lost given the critical skills developed by students and their employability.

“Twenty years ago Film Studies were seen as soft subjects and not widely offered,” said Professor Chapman. “We have seen them becoming more academically respectable, more students taking them at A-level and more universities offering them at degree levels.

“Importantly, and this is crucial, the subject is seen as providing students with a whole range of employable skills because it offers a balance of subject specific knowledge and a range of skills and competencies that you acquire from studying film. In a world where we are all told to multi task and be masters of various trades, an interdisciplinary subject like film offers a wide range of skill competencies: even for those who want to go and work in the medium of films itself.”

Dr Claydon added: “Media Studies comes under criticism often from the media itself which is ironic because they do not understand the intellectually challenging nature of Film Studies and Media Studies. There is something preventing people from seeing it as a rigorous and intellectually challenging subject.

“In terms of our programme at Leicester we have such a high rate of employability – six months after graduation – 86%, plus a further 10% going into higher education study – so there is evidence of the discipline leading people into good solid jobs. This is something that is having real impact on the image and prestige of studying film.”

The spectrum of academic backgrounds and influences that are brought to bear upon the studying of film at Leicester is one of the key reasons, therefore, that it has been able to carve a distinctive niche.

Leicester is distinctive in that it addresses the euro-centrism or anglocentrism associated with many Film Studies courses and offers as a core module studying world cinema.

Dr Claydon says: “The act of learning about world cinemas is important for both Home/EU students and any international students present. We forget how Anglo-Americancentric we seem to those from other cultures and part of being a student is about having our expectations challenged and our realities checked by new, more cosmopolitan views of the world and its socio-cultural artefacts: film is the most dynamic available.”

END

Original article appeared in LE1 summer 2007 and can be read here

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