A Love Letter to the Berkeley Film Studies Experience
An Extremely Unlikely Choice
Be fearless, challenge your assumptions and follow your dreams. Be a true #cinebear.
It was at the end of 2012; I had founded a small production company in LA, had worked on 65+ film projects either as a director, cinematographer or producer. My career was slowly getting somewhere at the age of 23, and the last thing I wanted to do was to go back to school. I solidly expected to enter the work force and then travel the world – more school than Community College was definitively not in my life-time-plan. Since I’m a foreigner, my visa status is always peculiar, and my arrangement at the time was coming to an end faster than I could manage to rise in the ranks; a work visa application proved to be too risky of a choice.
So I had to go back to school if I wanted to stay in the US and keep building what I’d started. It was an unlikely detour for me, but I had prepared for it “just in case”: I had applied and been accepted to the film production programs at CalState Long Beach and USC, and had submitted an application to UC Berkeley more as a joke than anything else – I wanted to put the rejection letter in a frame on the wall. When I got an acceptance letter from Berkeley, I had an unexpected new option in the mix – a highly undesirable one. I wanted to be a filmmaker, not a film student, not a theory-academia type guy. What’s that good for.
I went to check out my favorite possibility, the USC production program. In a single screening event, I experienced a strange lack of criticism among the students, and it turned me off to such a degree that USC was no longer an option. I needed constructive criticism around me – one of my central artistic principles since I was 14 years old.
Exactly that sense of critical thought was what ended up triggering the extremely unlikely choice of UC Berkeley’s film studies program. Despite having to move away from LA, away from my connections an friendships and career possibilities, despite not getting a production program but some theory-history mix lined up – I just had to follow my gut. And my gut pointed north, and that’s where I ended up going.
I left LA with a bittersweet feeling – I had little to no idea what would await me at Berkeley. I just knew the considerable career possibilities that I left behind to chase some sort of idealistic goal, and that loss was nothing I expected to take on voluntarily.
Little Gear, Little Production – What’s the Point Here?
One of the first things I did when I got to Berkeley was to try and figure out how this whole machine worked, and why. I learned about politics in the UC system that barred Berkeley from accessing funds for production programs and funneled the money straight to UCLA as a production flagship of the UC powerhouse; Berkeley was the breeding ground for budding film scholars.
How many of my student colleagues wanted to become scholars or teachers though? Maybe 10%, or less. That didn’t feel right.
Then, through the lack of funds, there was minimal equipment and only very few production classes. I knew that I had enough production experience to go out into the production world after finishing Cal and just be able to keep working, but that wasn’t true for many of my colleagues: They had little to no skills when it came to production, yet a majority of my fellow students wanted to work in the film industry. I had the privilege of having a strong production background and was able to fill my theoretical void at Berkeley to feel more complete and competent. Many students coming to Berkeley have little to no production experience, so graduating with a scholarly perspective but no real-world experience in production leaves them hindered in executing the dreams they deserve to make into a reality. We as a Berkeley community have a collective responsibility to help our fellow students achieve that balance between theory and practice. In my second semester I had such a strong urge to change things around for the better of production that I started the Cinematography DeCal, a student-run cinematography class which still exists and gets handed down from student facilitator to student facilitator.
Surprisingly, people still invited me to shoots in LA, and my connections to the film industry didn’t disconnect. My fears didn’t come true. Actually, not at all – and now that I’m done with Berkeley, I have to say that it was the best choice at the time. The things I learned changed my perspective on life itself, changed my world view to a massive degree. Going to UC Berkeley ended up being of the best choices I made in my life.
This article is a love letter, not because I want to dwell on fuzzy feelings, but because I want to pass on the truly profound experience I had – to my fellow students, to faculty members, to future students and filmmakers that consider going to Berkeley. This is also a love letter that reflects on the good and the bad – because self-guided improvement and constructive criticism is what made me fall in love with Berkeley in the first place.
I am writing this article as a very personal perspective. I’m biased – I loved studying film at Berkeley, and I don’t want to hold back my passion for the sake of politics.
Self-Empowerment in the Student Body and Faculty Support
When you go study film production at USC or UCLA, so I imagine, there is a massive machinery in place to support your efforts of becoming a filmmaker. When you study film at Berkeley, there is a big power in the scholarship aspect of film, but a lot of hurt feelings, institutional pressure and outright ignorance in higher ranks of the administrative structures when it comes to production. Single individuals in the department – like Jeffrey Skoller, Mira Kopell, Mark Berger or Kristen Whissel – stuck out as building their own approaches and systems of support. That passion-driven support resulted in things like the DML (shared filmmaking equipment among different departments), demanding production classes with little means but high stakes, and an ever-so-slow pivot of the department itself to be more inclusive of production.
If we can’t get better gear, we don’t mind. We need belief, and we’ll work on getting the rest.
I saw a way for myself to contribute my skillset and experience, but most of all, my fighting spirit. I saw so much potential in my fellow students and the program itself; the intellectual surrounding and the deep passion and care for film faculty and students alike shared. So I made the Cinematography DeCal and preached rebellion or collaboration with the department depending on the climate that faculty members and the department got across to us. In the two years that I was there, I saw drastic changes, and I attribute a lot of these changes to the self-empowerment of students.
Let’s be honest here: The film studies students at Berkeley are an amazing crowd that I am truly honored to having been a part of. These are people of amazing intellectual capacities, a forward-thinking orientation towards the world, people of great dedication and work ethic. But these are also people that are very vulnerable, people with a lack of production experience, people with very incomplete career perspectives. I think that what the film students at Berkeley need from the faculty is support and trust.
When I arrived at Berkeley, the department website said something along the lines of “this is not a production program. If you want to learn film production, go to schools like UCLA and USC”. I learned later that that was a reaction to getting tons of calls from people around the world who thought Berkeley was a production program. Fine – but that is completely blind of the people who already study here, who have come to care for Berkeley, and who don’t want to leave. Who don’t want to hear a “go on to film school and get a master’s” as an excuse. You don’t need a $100K+ master’s in production to be a filmmaker. It’s completely understandable that the UC system doesn’t provide Berkeley with the production funding that would be desirable, and we have to work with what’s there for the time being.
There is no shame in that.
What we students need is to feel that our faculty believes in us. That our teachers acknowledge that many of us want to work in the film industry, and provide us with their good will if nothing else. It can have huge ripple effects: You can’t believe the sense of hope and new spirit me and others felt when we found out that the wording on the new film studies department website was changed to say: “The Program’s emphasis rested on the study of film theory, film analysis, and film history; an introduction to film production (“The Language of Film”) was added in 1993, followed by a course on screenwriting. In the meantime, as the digital revolution lowered the cost of film production, the border between film studies and film production became more fluid.”
If we can’t get better gear, we don’t mind. We need belief, and we’ll work on getting the rest.
That’s what we need to be empowered – to simply feel that our faculty members are our allies in our struggle to make it in a harsh film production world.
As a student, you cannot sit back and wait for the faculty members to change, for the department to change, and lament about the state of affairs in the meantime – that is not what it means to be a Cal film student, that’s not what it means to be a true #cinebear. The film industry is one that lives on entrepreneurial spirit, insanity, dedication, persistence and proactive approaches. Being proactive and building support systems while facing a lack of spoon-fed production opportunities – that’s what it means to be a true film student at Berkeley that wants to have a career in film production. We can’t wait for the Berkeley film world around us to change – we need to shape it in the way that we want it to be.
Awakening the Hidden Potential of Our Program
If you ask me, UC Berkeley’s film studies department is a sleeping giant. Under the right circumstances, with the right mindsets present in the faculty, the right permanent vision embedded in the department and the right self-empowered belief in the student body, Berkeley could be the epicenter of a small film production revolution. Not in terms of technology, but in terms of content and awareness; in terms of changing the film industry in its approach to gender, to representation, to content choices, business models, to its role in society.
The system is fragile and highly interconnected – whatever faculty members believe to be true will project onto the students’ self-worth and the department’s vision. The products of student self-empowerment will leave a temporary impression on the faculty members and some structures within the department – most of all though, it will give specific individuals within the department negotiation leverage. If we as students create amazing films, amazing programs and communities with a measurable value, we empower the belief of faculty in us.
Bridging the Gap of Misunderstanding Between Faculty and Students
There is an unspoken flaw in design of the Berkeley film department, namely the one of job prospects; not all of the hundred of students that graduate with a BA in film want to become film scholars or critics. And certainly, they couldn’t – there is simply not enough work out there for a horde of scholars. The majority of actual work opportunities in the film domain exists in the actual production of films, may that be on an administrative level or on set. Without proper experience in film production, nobody can be confident to give you massive responsibilities in film projects; you’ll most likely start out as a PA or assistant, or have to go get a Master’s at one of the production schools. This is a short-sighted, condescending viewpoint: Those at Berkeley that really put their hands in the fire and made film projects of their own, many of them are perfectly ready for positions with responsibility in the film industry. Berkeley is not a trade school, but most of us eventually want to engage in the capitalist mode of production, and it’s these four years at college where you can safely experiment and build not only a mental foundation but actually raise your own legitimacy as a member of the film industry.
This design flaw – preparing students for scholarly careers despite few students actually wanting to go that route – is also one of the department’s biggest strengths: We become academics with critical minds that are then sent out into the world to challenge the industries we eventually work in. We should always assume that we don’t get one dimension of the “big picture” as much as our faculty members do, but it is safe to say that the faculty lacks perspective of what it is like to be a budding filmmaker and studying at Berkeley. We need to bridge that gap of misunderstanding, and help others to help ourselves.
UC Berkeley’s film department is a living panarchy, which we students pass through shortly – we need to realize that it’s the faculty that is going to stick around and implement long-term changes. We co-rule the department through our actions, even if we have little institutionalized rights to do so. We are not organized as a student body that co-designs the program on an institutional level – but we could be if we chose to do so. Student representation is negligible in our department; the ASUC is too big of a body to take specific care of representing our wishes. Because of the interconnected nature of the systems, we as students have to do our best at working the system, interfacing with faculty outside of the classroom, get interested in the institutional challenges that the department faces in any possible production support. And by collaborating, we can increase our representation in decisionmaking situations of the film department.
Such a Big Task – How One Student Can Make a Difference
I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t believe its basic premise – that UC Berkeley’s film studies department has massive potential for students and the world of production alike – wasn’t feasible. I think it is absolutely feasible – all we need is the right mindset across all levels. And we as students can be the most radical, the most passionate, the most fearless.
And because we CAN, because we have the privilege to be fearless with our actions, we have HAVE TO be.
Meet your limits, and then break beyond them.
As a single student, you can do your initial task and then acknowledge it’s not enough: Take classes that you are passionate about. That is the foundation to it all. I hated the Avant-Garde film class in the beginning and then was inspired by it and Prof. Skoller’s challenges beyond my own recognition by the end. I dreaded reading film theory and now I’m a sucker for theorists and their challenging essays. But this is only the beginning, this is only what the department can do for you. Don’t ask what the department can do for you – ask what you can do for your community of fellow students and faculty members.
As a single student, you should either join existing extracurricular student efforts or create new communities that fight for underrepresented interests within the film department. Join organizations like DKA to find the social support from fellow filmmakers that you will need, the friendships that will empower you in the dark hours. Join organizations like BFF or CalTV or Giant or BCEC to get yourself involved in the professional world, in the production environment, to talk about production and make projects happen. Join Cal organizations like Students of the World or Creative Women’s Collective to pursue a purpose in your filmmaking; to change paradigms and to challenge current standards.
As a single student, you can walk into any office hour of any professor and have a chat about the things that matter. Hear what they have to say; I fell on my face so many times by misjudging what the intention of people was, and basing many of my actions on false assumptions. Don’t repeat my mistakes – have a conversation. Care about the faculty interests like you expect them to care about yours: The secret to unleashing the sleeping dragon in the Berkeley film department is by building a symbiosis between scholarship and production. The department is an amazing resource for theory, history and analysis, but that only takes a budding filmmaker so far: Learn how you can help the department so it helps you. The department has limitations, but these are just as dynamic and changeable as the orientation of the department itself. They will take years to change, but only constant efforts will propel that change to actually happen.
As a single student, you can create film projects, small or big. In either case, be ambitious – understand that the culture at Berkeley doesn’t yet completely understand how production work differs from other student work, that people need to learn to be very reliable, work ahead of time and be professional when it comes to production. Each and every UC Berkeley student can make their own films. Go take Mira’s 185 and 187 production classes, and see what it means to go above and beyond your own capabilities. Meet your limits, and then break beyond them.
As a single student, you can dedicate one or two entire semesters to writing an honor’s thesis. I know that writing mine – “Cinema of Change: The Persuasive Impact of Narrative Motion Picture Entertainment on Society and Individual” changed my life forever, and will be the single most defining common thread to my future work as a filmmaker. By writing a thesis, you not only become an expert in a topic and can argue with authority, but you might discover treasures that none or few have discovered before you. By writing a thesis, you can push your own knowledge through the roof, and might make a small step for humankind.
As a single student, you have the power to change everything by being confident about your own production potential and the potential of your fellow young filmmakers. Trust in yourself, trust in others. There’s nothing more powerful than the constructs we build in our head, and the beliefs we incorporate. The Film Studies experience at UC Berkeley changed me as a person, most drastically. I’ve never before had so many of my assumptions challenged, and have never before felt such a deep connection to what I want to do, out of analytical understanding of my art form, the world around me and myself. I’ve learned so much about my own privileges, about the flaws of my thinking. Going to Berkeley and studying film there was one of the best decisions I made in my entire life.
I strongly believe that the film department at Berkeley can be as useful and inspiring to you as it was to me.
You just have to believe it, and then follow that belief with proactive, daring efforts. Be fearless, challenge your assumptions and follow your dreams. Be a true #cinebear.