- Knowing oneself is the hardest part
- Where it went really bad
- Understanding creativity to teach it better
- Conclusion: make the “hidden curriculum” visible
Twenty years ago, I was in film school. I wasn’t sure what to do with my life, audiovisual media sounded cool, my parents had the money, and I could study it within a half-hour commute.
Before the end of the second year, I quit and decided to move 500 miles west. I didn’t even bother showing up to the film festival and didn’t even see the film for which I received a “best photography” award. Despite achieving good grades, I hated it and I struggled to fit in.
It took years for me to understand what went wrong – my conclusion then was that I wasn’t a creative person, and I moved to a much more technical school, which worked better for me – but now I’m starting to reflect upon it in a more critical way.
Knowing oneself is the hardest part
Before going to film school, I did do some research. I went to orientation fairs. I went to open days. I can’t say I didn’t know what I would learn, and how the environment would be.
But still, I didn’t fit in. And that’s not because I didn’t know enough about the school, but because I didn’t know enough about myself. I didn’t realize that my introversion and lack of social skills would get in the way of expressing my creativity. I didn’t realize that I would lack the confidence to judge films and to make creative decisions.
Where it went really bad
Now I’d like to tell the story of a couple of specific projects that went really wrong. If it hadn’t happened that way, maybe I would have tagged along through the course and even possibly enjoyed it a bit, rather than wanting to leave 500 miles away.
The climax of each year at film school is making a film, as a team. This starts with a selection process for teams to know what film they will work on: students pitch a film idea (in year 1, just the idea, in year 2 a full scenario), teachers select the best ideas, and whoever had their idea selected gets to direct their own film.
And it turns out I was “lucky” because my film idea got selected. Two years in a row. And I did a terrible job at directing.
The first year, after I was selected, I just froze. I had no idea how to proceed forward, I didn’t know how to make good creative decisions, I didn’t know how to get the team to help me. The rest of the team just awaited my decisions and was unhappy with my lack of leadership. In the end, we did make a film, but it was pretty boring.
The second year, after I was selected, students all but rioted. They didn’t want to be associated with the lousy filmmaker I was, so they challenged the selection process, and they got teachers to change the selection process in a way that I wouldn’t be selected.
In a way, I was relieved because I wouldn’t have had to work with students that were unhappy with my role - and I got to be in a nice team - but at the same time it felt like a brutal rejection.
Giving blame where it’s due
Now that I am an educator myself, I finally have a pretty good idea of who to blame for this situation.
I don’t blame myself. Even though I was a terrible film director and a worse project manager, these aren’t really skills that I had learned at the time, and I feel like I haven’t received the necessary support within school.
I don’t blame my peers. Of course I would have loved them to support me more, but in the first year they merely took on the role that the project had assigned to them, and in the second year they were right that it was better for another student to get a shot at directing.
I don’t blame my teachers. Although again, some of them were less supportive than I hoped, they too followed their role. They each taught their subject as written on course descriptions.
I DO blame the institution. Not just that film school in particular (I won’t name it, it’s not even listed on my LinkedIn), but any institution that supports the myth of the lone creative genius and that teaches creative topics without teaching how to manage creativity.
Understanding creativity to teach it better
In retrospect, I now think one of the main reasons I didn’t fit in was a (shared) misconception on what creativity is.
I started thinking I was creative because I had a good idea, and the school validated me by picking this idea.
I ended up thinking I was not creative because I couldn’t make a good film, and the school validated it by asking “how can a good student make such rubbish?”
That’s because no-one told me about the true nature of creativity.
Creativity is a process for making connections
The first thing is that much of the teaching I had received was in “silos”: there was a course about the “language of film”, where I learned the difference between close-ups and long shots, there was another course where I learned to use a camera, and another course where I learned how to write a production budget.
But the skill of combining everything into a creative product isn’t something that I had been taught, and I struggled to learn on the job.
When it came to translating my script into a storyboard, I just waited, hopeful that “inspiration” would strike, and it didn’t.
Sometimes it would have been a matter of knowing what questions to ask: What atmosphere do I want my film to have? What are the key elements of the pitch that I really want to keep? What transformation do I want my characters to go through?
These are all things where I could have connected the dots between my knowledge of narratology, colour grading, etc. and the actual pitch that I’ve written.
But doing these things is a dynamic process for which I had no roadmap.
Creativity is a social activity
Film schools, even more than the actual film industry, suffer from the myth of the Director as the ultimate artist responsible for everything creative in the film.
Even though film school taught that this was not so much the case in the “Golden Age” when studio names were more important than directors (to the point that Gone with the Wind had three of them), the figure of the all-powerful director is never otherwise questioned.
Even though we’d all seen neverending credits scroll by at the end of films, and we knew that no one actually writes a script alone, we never got into a collaborative dynamic.
And since I was the director, I was expected to take a leadership role and to make this dynamic happen.
I had absolutely no leadership skills, but there were compounding factors:
- First, obviously, role expectations that created a hierarchy that I never wanted.
- Several students were in a position where they saw their own pitch rejected, and therefore were not working on a project they were interested in.
- And finally, none of the courses taught us about project management, leadership and collaboration.
These are things I am still learning now I’m twice as old, and I wished I had more explicit support for these skills.
Conclusion: make the “hidden curriculum” visible
Most of the knowledge and skills I was missing to flourish in film school belonged to what is often called the “hidden curriculum”.
The “hidden curriculum” is all the things that you need to either know before or to learn while at school, but you’re never told explicitly that they are pre-requisites or objectives. The “hidden curriculum” explains why you think you tick all the boxes (again, I had good grades almost everywhere) but still fail at things.
Most things in the hidden curriculum tend to linked to social expectations, such as making sense of unclear instructions, knowing how to defend your opinion or finding your role in a group.
Another example of how I struggled in film school, was that I couldn’t have an opinion on what a good film was. I could talk about the filming techniques or about the scenario, but, like with the artistic vision on my own film. I struggled to have a coherent distinctive vision on films in general. Film school never teaches you “this is how to have an artistic vision”. You’re left to figure it out by yourself. It’s part of the “hidden curriculum”
This hidden curriculum can create or deepen inequalities, because people from a different social or cultural background, as well as neurodiverse people, are less likely to be aware of this kind of expectations.
I am lucky now that I am teaching in a place that considers professional attitude and leadership as skills on the same level as academic or technical ones. I am not sure that I would have done better as a project leader if I had studied in a similar. But at least, instead of being left to deal with my failure alone, I would have been given an opportunity to reflect upon it which would have helped me learn.