Student film still. Violence against women crosses genres in student work.

Student film still. One of dozens of student films posted to YouTube with “stalker” in the title.

Student film still. Voyeuristic shots of female victims are prominent in student films such as this film titled “Stalker.”

"Peeping Tom" shot setups are common.

Students often emulate the classic films that established trends in voyeurism and binaristic portrayals of women as objects and men as subjects (Hitchcock’s Psycho).

Student film still. Another deeply voyeuristic shot of the helpless female victim.

A pleasure in looking at the terrorized expression of fear on women’s faces pervades both mainstream films and student work. (John Carpenter’s Halloween)

Student film still. The frightened young woman as object of stalking.

Love interest becomes sexualized victim as a motivating plot point in Spiderman.

Student film still. Many student films, like their mainstream feature counterparts, favor the voyeuristic male point of view.

Hypersexualized victimization as a selling point in this early poster for Hostel 2.

Student film sequence (1): The brutal murder of the unnamed female is constructed as a “logical” extension of the male’s unrequited love.

Student film sequence (2): The construction of the captivity and murder escalate visually and aurally, further fetishizing the act and the violence.

Student film sequence (3): The violence originated with the fetishized male gaze incorporating technology into the script as well as in the production of the work. Here the male gaze functioned as a means of objectifying, stalking, and eventually murdering the female.

Student film still: The female, helpless and broken, reaches for our help — a help we, the audience, derives pleasure in withholding.

The tension between sexual attraction and violence drives the plot of the Twilight teen franchise.


Fusing form and content

The nature of production classes, particularly at the introductory level, requires a significant amount of time dedicated to technology and technique. Add to that the anxiety of cost-recovery ratios and administrators who want enrollments to increase per section, and suddenly time dedicated to each individual project becomes impossible to manage.

Our respective departments maintain a high level of creative freedom for our students, despite the fact that each semester a number of student works are purely derivative, racist, homophobic and/or misogynistic. Creative freedom allows students space and time to find their voices as filmmakers. Whether students like it or not, the best way to do this is through the symbiotic relation of film theory and technique. Citron and Seiter sounded a similar sentiment:

“the teacher must reject any approach to film teaching which separates form from content.”

Pedagogical practice that stresses the need for theoretical foundations and critical analysis in the production classroom develops students’ abilities to produce work at a technically competent level while maintaining a firm command over the meaning they strive to communicate to their viewers. Structured courses with strategic assignments can provide opportunities to quell mimicry, while also building a framework for discussion when students present films that perpetuate stereotypical representations and regurgitated scenes of violence.

First, instructors should never teach a technique or piece of equipment without also engaging the class in an analysis of the meaning communicated or implied by the technique in question. For example, when introducing lights, exposure and lighting ratios, the instructor can draw upon aesthetics of privilege and access (e.g., Hollywood, guerrilla documentary, experimental modes, first-person D.I.Y. practices), variations in genre (e.g., film noir, romantic comedy, etc.), and even discuss differences between lighting men and women in classical Hollywood cinematic practice. This approach reminds students that technology is a tool. The classroom process mitigates the inclination to view cinematic apparatuses as fetishistic (and neutral) objects in and of themselves. These lectures and demonstrations should be followed by structured assignments that ask students to put the concepts into practice in the field.

An additional strategy to consider having production students do is keeping a theory/practice journal. This incorporates informal writing about their field experiences, as the teacher prompts students to specify relations between theory and practice. This kind of writing initiates an opportunity for students to reflect on the forms of cinematic expression present in their work and the meaning communicated or attempted. Furthermore, if mimicry, sexism and misogyny crop up, students must directly address their intentions in writing, which provides a point of entry for the instructor’s suggestions and guidance.

Second, the instructor must promote and practice filmmaking as experience. John Dewey applied this concept to art in his book, Art as Experience, suggesting that the aesthetic quality of emotion is what gives unity and completeness to an experience (43). By extension, cultivating and utilizing personal experiences and basing scripts on our known emotions are key to achieving unity and authenticity in our creative work. Conversely, producing recycled narratives and representations often results in superficial emotion and hollow characters. To deter our students from this trap, we introduce creative writing assignments that call upon memories, portraiture and personal experiences. Such imaginative script exercises are particularly helpful in freshman or introductory level courses. Production assignments can then be derived from the students’ writing.

The object is for students to draw upon their known emotions and experiences, not that of others. While not all students like such exercises, these assignments validate and reinforce that students do in fact have real life experience to draw upon. This validation is extremely important for young artists learning to discover and develop their personal voice and style separate from outside media influences. The students will, of course, learn the tools of the trade, but ultimately they find that what’s most important when making original cinematic work is their personal perspective. Rather than simply mimicking what’s come before, students can go even further with these exercises, finding opportunities to grapple with their own thoughts on issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, and how their ideas on these topics have been shaped by media influences. Creation from experience becomes a process for exploring the origins of students’ ideas about certain groups and their representation on film.

Third, the moment a student steps into the production classroom, the instructor must actively establish an open environment dedicated to discussion and critique of student work. This means making time for the teacher and the class to view and critique student projects, rough cuts and exercises. This means having a discussion with students about respect, and framing classroom conversations to explore differences. It means prioritizing film form in critiques to demonstrate the power that cinematic technique has in constructing representations, rather than attacking the representations themselves. Scholar and Professor Patricia R. Zimmerman writes,

“If a film crosses into a racist representation, students can draw on the formal parts of the critique to explain how and why rather than to simply assert. Ironically this inversion of form over content actually can spark much more complex discussion about the politics of representation” (270).

Placing emphasis on film form fosters an objective, concrete discussion of the work at hand. This strategy quells content-driven opinions, which can quickly deteriorate into personal attacks. Furthermore, having students present entries from their theory/practice journals functions to begin or supplement class critiques focused on form. This strategy is particularly effective in a collectively shy or reserved class that struggles with conversations about controversial representations.

Lastly, the teacher need to make careful decisions about representation in the choice of works to screen as class examples. The works shown feed into students’ nascent ideas about what constitutes viable imagery and storytelling strategies. In discussing cinematography, for example, the instructor should consider not just the technique demonstrated in a particular film, but the content. Point-of-view shots in Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, or Saving Private Ryan might serve as powerful exemplars of form, but they run the risk of instilling in students the notion that strong technique goes hand-in-hand with violent content. Instead, integrating a comprehensive spectrum of genres, techniques, and modes in showcasing the possibilities of cinematic expression not only generates discussion about the construction of audiovisual meaning but also can inspire students to incorporate into their own work elements of vision and voice they hadn’t previously encountered.

On that point, Zimmerman continues, “To pre-empt the fascination with Hollywood, we screen a wide range of experimental, documentary, and narrative film to provide different role models and artistic strategies” (272) and that in doing so, “[w]hen white male students addicted to classical narratives featuring macho fight scenes became class rebels, we knew that our pluralizing of film screenings and extension of the range of debates in critiques had been effective” (275). This tactic provides another means for undoing Hollywood as the (only) model for cinematic production, with all its attendant representational issues, and transforms the classroom itself into a more pluralized venue of expression.

Strategies of response

“A deranged person kidnaps a young girl, kills her, and chops her into pieces. The killer stuffs the parts into the carcasses of dead animals and throws them in a river.” — Student film synopsis, 2007

In asking students to consider relations between form and content, we need to develop pedagogical interventions that permeate course design, interventions that invite an expanded range of cinematic representations. While we can provide positive models and an inclusive space for discussion, we must also develop strategies for successfully addressing violent depictions when they do emerge in student work. In determining how to construct an “in the moment” response, the following criteria should be considered:

  1. The well-being of the student producing the work.
  2. The well-being of other students within the classroom.
  3. The subject position of the faculty member.
  4. The impact of a response on short and long-term learning outcomes.

Our courses often mark a student’s initial foray into creative work. First-time production students assume considerable risk in projecting new works onto the screen. In an effort to challenge the work’s content, we do not want to shut the student down in relation to the course or the creative process. We must remember that replication is at play and unpacking these representations taps into the very systems into which our students have been interpolated. Challenging our students challenges the very works, artists, and systems they revere.

Dr. Homa Hoodfar disputes an “implicit assumption in much current critical pedagogy literature that students are necessarily willing agents who welcome unconventional classroom interactions and a critical approach to the social structure” (Hoodfar, 309). Students look to us to stand in as the expert, and they are most comfortable learning within the expert model. The expert model invites less risk on the part of the faculty member and on the part of the student. If we seek to foster student-centered learning and simultaneously challenge the very models students seek to perpetuate, our pedagogy represents a radical change in learning styles for many of our students. Hoodfar goes on to say that

“to learn to question material, particularly that written by famous and well-established academics, is unsettling for many undergraduate students, whose schooling has been oriented to texts and teachers as the repositories of knowledge” (Hoodfar, 309).

The same is true for students studying those they consider to be the masters of film.

When we challenge the acts of violence our students choose to depict, we engage our students on fraught terrain—a terrain comprised of their inaugural creative risk infused with the discourse of their masters. Many of these masters informed the student’s desire to enter the production classroom. So when students expect their work to be met with delight but receive criticism instead, they may resist classroom critique. More often than not, their peers in the classroom share this resistance. Both maker and audience cling to the depiction of violence as a viable and even pleasurable source of narrative and visual content. Establishing a clear framework for critique at the outset of the course provides a necessary means for interrogating the production of meaning.

When the teacher provides a clear format for critique, she establishes a way to mediate between the individual student’s intellectual and creative and her concern for not perpetuating violence either inside or outside the classroom. Cultivating student engagement and ownership over the critique spreads the responsibility for the production of meaning among producer, audience and faculty member. To foster this responsibility, the production teacher must first model for the class how to provide a critique of stylistic approach, production values, and narrative construction within the context of how these elements create meaning. Then, the instructor can allow for the initial responses to the student’s work to be student-driven. Ask the maker to hear how the class interprets the work.

Placing ownership of the material upon the collective student body generates the risk that the first responses might not address the depictions of violence. If so, the articulated strengths of the student’s first movie effort provides the maker a more solid foundation for absorbing future critiques. If students directly address the violent depictions, the instructor can generate a seamless entry into a conversation linking theory and practice. In our collective teaching experiences, we have seldom witnessed a student initiate a discussion about the violent assaults that permeate student films. As faculty, we most often serve as the guides into conversations over what is at stake in creating and perpetuating such depictions.

While we often discuss “faculty” as a single entity, the instructor’s subject position impacts the shape of our interventions into this discourse. We do not enter the classroom as unmarked bodies. Our identities push students to consider discussions of violence against women as ideologically motivated when facilitated by female faculty. Subject positions suggest unique sets of strategies for addressing violent assaults on women—strategies bound by advantages and disadvantages.

“Teachers are not abstract; they are women or men of particular races, classes, ages, abilities, and so on. The teacher will be seen and heard by students not as an abstraction, but as a particular person with a defined history and relationship to the world” (Weiler, 454).

Students often ascribe getting feedback on content from female and underrepresented faculty to those faculty members’ personal sensitivities and concerns rather than to scholarly foundations. Male faculty, on the other hand, particularly in a male-dominated field, are afforded legitimacy when challenging depictions of violence. As Faculty Development and Diversity Specialist, Dr. JoAnn Moody notes,

“majority males are granted not only more authority and acceptance, but also more leeway to make mistakes in the classroom” (Moody, 29).

When students extend trust to the authoritative (male) source of critique, the issue becomes clarity of communication, not a questioning of motives. Do I, the student, understand what my male faculty member is telling me? When students question the underlying premise of critique along with the authority of female and other underrepresented faculty, challenging cinematic works becomes far more fraught. Male faculty are “entitled to intellectual authority and deference inside and outside of the classroom” in a way that women are still struggling to achieve. (Moody, 29). This authority allows male faculty to more immediately and forcefully challenge depictions of violence. They must.

Students need to see and understand the implications of perpetuating cinematic violence against women as a shared concern among our faculty. When male faculty refuse to prioritize these interventions, they place the burden of responsibility upon female faculty, compounding the difficulty the female faculty member experiences in making the intervention. The “reticent” or “accepting” male faculty member reinforces, for students, the idea that critiquing depictions of violence against women is the sole concern of “overly sensitive” or ideologically driven women. Male faculty’s failure to address sexism in a theoretically sophisticated way undermines the critical conversations with students that we profess to encourage. Without this shared articulation, faculty communicate to our students, male and female, that this conversation and concern are purely optional. As a faculty community, we all must address these depictions on a much wider scale, as part of a sustained conversation amongst all of us.

Reading our students and the climate of the classroom, we can determine when and how to best raise the concerns arising in student works. Among women faculty, we must acknowledge that multiple subject positions contribute to one’s chosen strategies.

“What works for a white female teacher may not work for a black female teacher, regardless of a shared commitment to be critical” (Hoodfar, 304).

Given her subject position, the instructor must consider the most effective strategy for intervening in the production of violence against women. While male faculty can and should address depictions as soon as they come up, female faculty members might consider one of three options.

First, segue from the initial student critiques into a discussion that returns students to the site of violence within the work. Given the primary characteristics driving cinematic representations of violence against women in student films, begin by asking questions about the development of the female character or the narrative motivation behind the violence. These questions allow the instructor to transition into conversations directly linking film theory and practice.

Second, set aside 10-15 minutes at the end of class to return to themes not covered during the initial critique. This strategy provides an effective means for addressing content in an introductory course, as it creates a bit of distance between project and maker. The newly created space presents an opportunity to discuss depictions of violence against women as a larger concern—to situate it within a broader context— with the individual project as the catalyst, but not the end of the conversation. If depictions occur in more than one student film, the repeated themes provide a site for questioning the causes of the repetition. Faculty are poised to ask students why they think these themes are present in more than one work? Is it simply coincidence? An act of production or, simultaneously, reproduction? What do students perpetuate when reproducing depictions of violence? As female faculty, we find that students respond to a regular discussion at the end of class as more reflective, removing the discussion from being read as reactive.

Third, at the outset of the semester, establish a rhythm for returning to themes generated in student works on the day following a rough cut or final cut critique. This not only provides distance between maker and work, but also provides the faculty member an opportunity to return with clips and readings for enhancing class discussion. Integrating the ritual of returning to themes further diminishes the perception of reaction by enforcing a link between form and content that can begin to permeate the student’s creative process.

While many instructors adopt a practice of banning particular content from student films at the outset, we find that simply prohibiting storytelling elements such as depictions of violence shuts down a critique of both production and reception. Bans ensure that our future producers remain as uncritical in their production of such depictions as our current makers; we fail to intervene in the larger cycle of media productions.

For example, instructors who utilize a ban as a means of reducing violence in student films often have rape at the top of their lists of banned depictions. Two primary concerns compel us to restrain from the use of such a ban: First, sexual assault occurs in our society at an alarming rate. Many of our students have been or will be impacted by sexual assault. Severing the cinema as a site for negotiating and challenging these stories means that we remove the possibility of our students understanding the very elements contributing to sexual assault. While a ban prevents our students from acts of hollow replication, it simultaneously excludes the rich and valuable personal stories they have to share. Second, replicated stories provide an entry into conversations about the cinematic content that students digest.

Here is an example of the value of not banning content but teaching about it. In a recent course, two students produced works that included a violent rape of a woman. In one, a mass-produced and generic narrative plays out of a scorned male seeking revenge via the body of the female. In the other, a carefully constructed rape scene stands as a means to expose the vulnerability of lesbians in the U.S. military. The threat of exposure for the lesbian soldier, under the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) provides the leverage for the male soldiers to “safely” perform the assault. While the violence remains exceedingly difficult to watch, the narrative and visual construction point back to the relation between vulnerability and exploitation in the military.

Had a ban been in place, neither the conversation regarding gratuitous depictions in student films and mainstream cinema, nor the conversation about the negative implications for individuals living under DADT would have taken place in such an active connection to the students’ own work and lives. Establishing a forum and format for discussion invites students to actively engage and challenge their own work as well as the work of others. They come to understand the issues they perpetuate when producing such imagery, and they discuss with others ways to break away from conventional representations.

Concern for the student who produced the work cannot override concern for other members of the class. What message do we send as teachers when we deem the violent assault or murder of women not worth addressing? Additionally, how can we empower our

“less privileged students if [we], in the position of teacher with all the right credentials, fail to face up to the challenges of classroom interactions, let alone society at large? How can [we] be expected to contribute to the development of critical pedagogy if the price [we] pay is the denial of our own identities?” (Hoodfar, 314).

We must adopt practices that invite our students into these questions, practices that invite the critical and the creative potential of all of our students, and ideally we would adopt these practices as a whole, across the department. 

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