By Edit Jakab
Ohio University’s Film Division has been traditionally proud of having a wide-reaching array of international students. Out of the 102 countries which were represented by their national flags at the new President’s inauguration in mid-October, graduate students from sixteen nations study filmmaking and film studies at Ohio University. The MFA in Film and MA in Film Studies programs alone count first-year students who come from the Far East through Southeast Asia to Europe. Even the boundless steppes of Central Asia are represented by a young Kyrgyz filmmaker in the multi-ethnic first-year class. The graduate degree programs of the Film Division of OU are among the select rare programs in the country that offer generous funding packages to the accepted students. In return, students are expected to participate in the work of the department, thereby giving back a little but most importantly, becoming part of the system and acquiring knowledge of the field. It is equally one of the rare programs that welcomes and accepts people of various academic backgrounds, experiences and age. For decades, Ohio University has made an impact on international film and television industries and on the faculty rosters in foreign universities as the majority of these students will return to work in their countries after attaining their degrees. Some who are fortunate enough to stay in the U.S. are enriching American multiculturalism.
Kanat Omurbekov (Kyrgyzstan):
I didn’t know what university I wanted to go to. I had known about New York Film Academy and UCLA only. I was working as a filmmaker, and applied for the Fulbright Program. The IIE (Institute of International Education), an organization under the Fulbright Program, had four options for me so I sent my portfolio to four universities. Finally I was told that I was accepted to OU, and that it would be fully funded.
First impressions of OU?
I had a few preparatory weeks in Kansas; those were good times. Coming to Athens seems as if I came to some kind of a British city. Although I have never been to England, I imagine the buildings to be similar there, and I am fascinated by the brickroads. In my country we have only asphalt and dirt roads. I find the campus huge and admire its very beautiful buildings. I really like it. I have been here only a few weeks. The education system is different from that of Kyrgyzstan. Here the teachers don’t force students what to study. Students are more independent. This is an entirely new experience for me.
In Kyrgyzstan, I graduated from a technical university; I studied technology in leather products. I worked in a factory for a while but didn’t like the environment. I read in a local newspaper about a course on cinematography and editing so I applied. I had experience in singing, mostly pop in restaurants, karaoke style.
Can you sing a bit for me? - I forgot most of it.
It was a three month course, after which I worked at the Kyrgyz TV. It was boring. I was just working for money, but it lacked any kind of artistic approach. So I left. I worked as a cameraman for a few productions, when I took the master class of a well-known Kyrgyz director, Ernest Abdyjaparov. Afterwards, I started making short films in collaboration with other filmmakers.
Graham Holford (United Kingdom):
The university has a good reputation. It is exactly what I wanted; in the boot camp year, we receive a very firm technical base. We are doing the 16mm film part of the course; hence, we will have a stronger understanding of photography and sound, light, and depth of field, and alike. And because of the intensity of the first year, our transition to the second and third year will be more fluid, and I thought that was the perfect type of course for me and other filmmakers who were not sure of the technical or creative side of the profession. I also came here because I wanted to come to America; I wanted to try a different country. But ultimately, this program best fitted my means and my ambitions. How does it compare with British schools? I was a student of film studies before, never of filmmaking. But I can tell you that some schools in the UK are very industry-oriented so you get told a lot of things that simply aren’t true, and if they are true, they tend to change in a couple of years, whereas OU doesn’t do that; thus far, it encourages you to pursue what you want to go for.
Teaching has been really strong, I feel; when you are doing something technical it grounds you and gives you the logic so that when you have a problem you can work it out yourself. In terms of the creative side, it has been very good because they gently push you, but you are being pushed, and you get to think about your craft a lot more.
It’s kind of got that college thing, a little like Austin, a sort of a bubble onto itself, surrounded by a different culture, but on a smaller scale, so I kind of enjoy that part of it. But it’s much smaller, more insular, and less well-known so it’s more intimate. You can’t be rude to people because you have got to live with them.
So, do you have to restrain yourself? – No, not thus far.
Anything negative? The only thing that I can think of that’s negative is that it is quite far from a major city; I wanted to continue my boxing training, but I can’t here. That’s the only disappointment that I’ve had so far. It’s not offered at OU; I would have to go out half an hour from the city, but that’s a personal, very specific thing.
As an Englishman, how do you feel here in the Midwest?
Well, Midwesterners tend to be very polite, and so you have to get used to that because we are not polite in the same way.
How is it different? – It is much more engaged; you have to talk to people much more.
Is British politeness more reserved? – Yes, it is more formal, more reserved. And strangers here tend to be a lot more open and friendly to you, which is a little off-putting when you come from a region where people just don’t do that.
But you have also lived in South Korea. – Again, they are very polite, but in a completely different fashion. They are very formal and very giving and very kind, but you have got to follow their way. They will tell you that you have got to eat in a certain way, for example. Similarly to the Midwest, they are protestant, very hard working and virtuous people. Every country and every culture has its own ethics; here people are very confident, very gregarious, and that’s off-putting if you are not used to people being kind of upfront. I find that they have a fantastic sense of humor, especially the farmers at the market. – I haven’t encountered that yet. – You will have to go to the farmers’ market. – I’ll do that. It’s very pretty outside of the city, and you get a taste of what the local culture is like. For a European, the Midwest is more like the South; it’s very rural, it’s very white, very god-fearing. It’s also great for running because you have plenty of places to go.
What are your plans after three years? Where do you see yourself after graduating?
I would like to continue making good work, which will entail being able to raise funding and doing good narrative and documentary work, and on top of that, I would like to continue teaching, wherever the opportunity is presented, either in the UK or here in the US.
Hannah Espia (Philippines):
I am a Fulbright scholar from the Philippines. They apply for schools for us. I got news that I got accepted to OU this April, and it had a nice tuition waiver. I had to decide quickly because there was a deadline, but I hadn’t known about OU before. I made a
feature film that was entered for the Philippines for the Oscars so I have been to the US before. I also have family in Seattle and in LA. The Film program is really intense. I had my BA in Film in the Philippines. The approach is much more hands-on here. For example, we recently learned how to load a film camera. In the Philippines we didn’t have enough film cameras for everybody to try it so we basically had to watch our professors load it. But it is different when you can actually touch it and play around with it. Even for me, an experienced filmmaker, I only know the concept of it, and it is good to relearn the basics because I have been in the industry for five years and I picked up some “bad habits.”
What do you mean by bad habits?
I am used to working with two cameras so I got a bit spoiled with great DOPs. I was relying on someone else to do everything for me. I had my own DOPs, and they did everything for me. I was basically only directing, but didn’t participate in other aspects of the production. It is nice to have knowledge of the details.
So by bad habits you mean that you didn’t take part in the production too much?
Maybe it’s not bad habits. I have been sloppy. I appreciate going back to the basics and relearning the concepts. And actually doing it, not just relying on the team. Now I also know how to load a camera in case anything goes wrong. I appreciate that the professors are approachable. You can ask them anything. Working in TV, when you are a director on a big set, it is embarrassing to ask stupid questions. Here I can learn from my own mistakes. It is a nice environment. People are supportive here.
Where do you see yourself after you receive your degree?
After I get my degree here, I want to teach in my alma mater, at the University of the Philippines Film Institute; as a requirement of the Fulbright, I have to do a service to my country for two years. After that I might also try to get a job in Slovakia, because that is where my husband and I want to settle down. Athens is nice; it is good to be close to nature, and the air is fresh.
Something that you don’t like?
I miss the big city. I am a city girl. I miss being somewhere where the art scene is happening. Here it is very contained. In the theater there are only one or two performances. It is also hard to get around without a car. There are no trains. You drive for a couple of hours and you are still in the fields.
Steven Lee (Republic of Korea):
I studied film in Cleveland, and I wanted to further my studies because I don’t think I learned enough. I found out that OU has the best film program in the State of Ohio, and they gave me all the tuition and scholarship so I decided to come here. I went to
Cleveland with my family when I was quite young, after primary school. The campus has a very different feel; I went to Ohio State and Cleveland State. Athens is very classical; it is old-fashioned but not bad old-fashioned, more like vintage, so it’s a different vibe. Cleveland is more modern; it’s the city. I really like the teaching so far. The Cleveland State program, for example, didn’t have so much structure. While we are all getting really stressed out here, this structured program is going to leave us with more benefits than negative experience in the end so I really like it. But it seems that the kids literally party every night; it’s good to see students enjoying themselves but I wonder if it’s too much at times.
I don’t have a set plan, but I am most comfortable when I work with the camera, but I also feel that I have stories of my own that I want to tell as a director, and then again, I feel like I want to study editing more, so I don’t really have a plan yet, but I can also see myself as a teacher.
Anil Srivastha (India):
I am from Chennai, South India. I chose OU first of all because I really appreciate that it is a three-year program as opposed to most of the other MFA programs that last two years only. Here I will have a whole year for my thesis project as opposed to a
semester. The other reason I came here was that this program focuses more on quality than quantity. Most other universities require many films to be made each semester, which seems counterproductive since we need to learn at the same time. So I am glad that during the first year, even if it is only a boot camp, we only have three films to make, starting from the fundamentals.
To me it seems like a lot. – It does seem like a lot with the workload we have for each class, but at the end of the day, it is a nice progression: we start with a no sound film, then with a little dialogue film, and finally a doc. I feel like this really covers the spectrum of making a movie.
Do you like that we have to shoot on real film? –
Absolutely, because that is where aesthetic comes from. The actual aesthetic of real cinema originates from analogue film; when it comes to lighting and framing and blocking a scene, it stems from the basics of film. I sincerely can say that this program is pushing me to learn; if I had decided to learn filmmaking by myself, I would not have learned so much on my own. That push is what I needed and I am getting it here so it is a really positive thing. I only have an introductory background in filmmaking; I haven’t worked with professional actors. I only directed friends and made two short films last year. I did get into New York Film Academy in Los Angeles, but to be honest, I wasn’t very impressed by the way they approached the syllabus, and they did not give a fellowship, either. You are a skilled animation artist, aren’t you? – I come from a CG [Computer Graphics; computer-based animation] background rather than a traditional animation background so I mainly worked with Premiere Pro. My undergraduate major was animation.
How does it compare with the Indian education system?
In India, there are very limited resources to learn filmmaking. They only have two institutions, one in North India and the other in my city, Chennai. But the problem I had with these places is that they are kind of biased in the way they teach film in that they don’t let you explore very much, and they have a fixed mindset about how film should be. They have a set of rules to follow, and I find that too rigid. My vision for my animation career is that I want to use it for making videos. I am actually a freelancer for making animated corporate videos.
So you don’t sleep. – That’s right. I don’t sleep. I review my school work and then I switch to making my video every day after school. At this point, I get projects based on my work on my website, and yes, it’s quite profitable. In terms of film, I am interested in screenwriting and directing narrative cinema. My favorite genres are drama and thrillers.
What are your future projects?
I want to work on two to three indie projects as a filmmaker in the States, and then I want to go back to India. I want to settle there because to me, as a creative person, the roots of inspiration come from my society. I was brought up there, that is the place I know so all my ideas and stories come from India, and not from here. Even if I spend ten or fifteen more years here, I might not really connect with this culture. That’s the reason for me to go back. My primary goal is to make films. I might want to teach here and there, but not as a full time teacher.
How about the town?
I love Athens. Coming from a city, I feel like it’s a huge relief: I get the quiet I need, and it is really constructive for what I am doing here. But I also like the dynamic nature of this town, which is made up mainly of students. You don’t see many locals. I do because I frequent the farmers’ market; it is good to interact with the locals. – Yes, it is.
Zhe Chen (China):
I studied at SUNY in Buffalo; I received a BA in Film Studies there. One of my professors suggested that I apply to Ohio University since they have a very good film studies program here.
The first time I came to Athens was for a campus tour in May. I like the town, the view, the hills; it is a natural area. I personally like to be in a town that is accessible to more cities. Here, the only bigger city is Columbus, which is not a very big city.
The teaching method?
Professors are very helpful at OU, and the students are nice. I like the teaching method. I really appreciate how, for example, Dr. Eliaz explains everything very well. It is a higher level education, more difficult than at the BA level. In China, they prefer that the students learn on their own; there are too many people there to receive individual attention. Here, on the other hand, the teaching is in more detail.
Did you not want to study in your country?
I did not want to go back to study in China. I do better in America. There are not many good programs in film studies in China, and I like OU very much.
I would really like to teach after I get my MA, hopefully in America. I want to go to the West, for example, California.
The writer of this article, Edit Jakab (Hungary/Canada/USA): I applied to the MFA program of Ohio University, and to this program alone, because one of my filmmaker friends, who had been a visiting professor here, highly recommended it to me. She said that this was a rather open-spirited program, where they welcome people from any academic background, people with different experiences and of various age. I came here from the discipline of Theoretical and Slavic linguistics, with a joint Ph.D. from Princeton University, but also with a few other degrees in language and literature behind me. As a cultural correspondent of a major Hungarian newspaper, I have been reporting on film and jazz for over a decade now. Where I last come from, Montreal, hosts a number of international film and jazz festivals so I had ample occasions to material. I am glad that I can continue doing this line of work here during the Athens film festival. The structure of the program with the first “Boot camp” year (and now I understand why the name) appealed to me because I came here ith a meager film experience and thought that this first preparatory year would bring me up to date, so to speak, in the field. I find the program very intense; at the same time, I appreciate that I am being pushed. This is exactly what I needed to acquire the basis of filmmaking and make progress step by step. I find it equally valuable that the theory is being taught first, and it is immediately reinforced by practice: We write our own screenplays, after which we shoot our films as a team, and finally edit them individually. I especially appreciate that we receive a real, 16mm, film experience, which appeals to my aesthetics. Having lived in big cities most of my life, I appreciate the smallness of the town; similarly to Princeton, one can fully concentrate on studying here. What I miss is the vicinity of a mega-city: from Princeton it was a 50 minute commuter train ride to New York City; here, this luxury is absent giving way to c mplete concentration on school work. That said, the confines of the place did hit me during my first weekend off; I simply longed for being in an urban environment hanging out with like-minded people in style and spirit. What I love about Athens is the bike path leading to the farmers’ market, where, if I find the time, I go twice a week. Beside the fresh local albeit expensive produce, it is refreshing to be able to talk to the locals there. I have also discovered that Athens has a superb music scene: the regular Tuesday jazz nights at Tony’s Tavern or the Devil’s Kettle Brewing happy hour during which an acoustic jazz bass and a reed instrument duo entertains the music lover. Casa Nueva hosts a swing band every other Monday and all sorts of other bands on the weekends, not to talk about Donkey Coffee where beside the very fine organic fair-trade coffee or herb teas, one can also indulge in fabulous spoken word or open mic events. I find that the young crowd that I study with is great preparation for teaching them after I receive my MFA. I plan to teach Film in the States or somewhere in Central Europe, perhaps Berlin or Budapest. But my ultimate g al is to make beautiful art, narrative fiction and experimental films for the remaining 75 years of my life.