*****I should stress that this is my experience and things I have witnessed after my first year at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. My opinion might vastly differentiate from someone else****
In August of 2018, I was preparing to start over on a journey that I began on just 2 years prior. I had moved halfway across the country to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to attend my 3rd school in the same amount of years. It’s almost become a cliché in a sense to say “I don’t go to a normal school”. Which isn’t that far away from the truth. UNCSA is, above all else, an arts school. The curricular is far different than any previous university I had attended. Described as a “conservatory”, UNCSA focuses on the arts and your specific field with DLAs and GNDs thrown in at random in order to make the students not feel as different or out of touch like our friends from High School who are currently attending “normal” colleges/universities. I was promised a top institution with state of the arts classes, professors who know what they are talking about, a dream finally coming true.
I think I should set my expectations lower.
At this point, I have come to terms that anywhere I go will not be perfect. “Perfection” is just a concept I have conceived within my psyche about what it means to have a top tier education. Soon enough, I learned about the payments that schools give to be ranked as a top film school once I saw the latest rankings in the Hollywood Reporter.
UNCSA was left out.
The troubles started right off the bat when I was present for the new student orientation meeting with the entire faculty in the Ace Main Theater on campus. There, they told us horror stories and it is up to us to be on as many sets as possible while simultaneously telling us not to burn out. It was almost like a subliminal message that was being sent out, or reverse psychology by the faculty. To me, it felt like they were trying to tell US what is best for US to succeed when 99% of us have never met these people standing in front of us at that moment. All of this combined with the vigorous amount of school work worried me, it worried me about my well being and my mental well being. But don’t fret because the last thing said before we were dismissed was “but hey take care of your mental health”. We currently live in a time when depression rates are skyrocketing and the best this faculty can do to ensure our mental well being is to quickly rush in one sentence, advising us to make sure we are ok? Granted, the health services held a meeting with us about was is provided on campus as far as mental help but for the immediate faculty who are suppose to shape our well being just not caring seemed like a stab in the back.
One last thing before I move on from mental health: I was having a discussion with a student about portfolio review and how they deal with mental health, and this is an exact quote I got — “I told them it was anxiety, but they basically said a longer version of ‘get over it,’” Can you imagine telling a student to just get over their mental illness? Because of that, I don’t feel comfortable discussing my mental illnesses with the faculty. Just my therapist, on campus counseling, my family and Emilie.
One such phrasing that I wrote down that really stuck with me negatively was uttered by a directing professor and it went along the lines of “equipment does not matter; if you give Speilberg an iPhone and you an ALEXA and you had a weekend worth of shooting, who comes out with the better quality movie?” First, that is just fundamentally wrong. Second, the answer is the man who has been making movies for 40+ years regardless of the equipment. This was built into a larger metaphor about it’s not the equipment, it’s the story. I again, fundamentally disagreed with that. Story matter above all else, but if my family is paying thousands of dollars for me to be told to just use my iPhone, then why am I here? As a filmmaker, I want my films to have a specific look and an iPhone or smart phone will never cut it. It is a poor man’s dream.
There was a day in class where we were screening our 2nd project of the year in directing (again, shot on an iPhone) and after mine was shown, I voiced my displeasure with these projects, stating they are not helping us further ourselves as filmmakers and are just fillers for our grades. As a response, I did not get any. We just moved onto the next person like it was nothing.
By the start of next semester, we were screening our Fall Scenes and at the end of it all, we were discussing the end of the previous semester’s evaluations. When I go to a school dubbed “one of the best in the country”, I do expect the best. When I do not, I feel like the students should have a voice with how things will change. So when the time came for me to critique, I did. And so did many others. However, we were told that all of our criticisms were valid, but that we were all wrong. Then the excuses started to flood in. No accountability, no “we’re sorry, we will change”, nothing. A team is only as good as your weakest link, and just because people admit that it’s not “their problem”, does not resolve these issues.
This brings me to yet another large problem I have with the school: communication. Filmmaking heavily relies on communicating with your team and the faculty needs to vastly improve in that category. It’s not just getting a response in class, but even by email or a meeting. I don’t know how many times I emailed different faculty members with questions and meeting dates and I never got a response, even with a follow up. Take this for example: I had a midterm meeting this past semester to discuss my performance in class, my grades and how our final will look. Mistakes happen, and I was scheduled in the same slot as another first year who had already had their midterm meeting. We both stood in the office, debating about who she’ll see first. Once she entered, we told her about the ordeal and rather picking the student who meeting required about his grade, she went with the other student who just wanted to have a weekly meeting. To me, it hurt. It showed as if I wasn’t valued or my grades did not matter. I attempted to bring that up in the process of my meeting and it was shot down out of the sky. This is a great intro into my next point: criticism.
We are suppose to sit there and take out. Be pummeled, comboed, chewed up and spit out. Don’t defend our work. As a student filmmaker at UNCSA, we are below everyone else. We are nothing, we are unique but not good. The faculty believe they are this all high mighty power that knows everything. Yes, they have been through the system before and know more but to tell us that we cannot defend our work to an extent is inherently dumb. During my portfolio review, I knew what was wrong with my spring scene, I felt like I did not need to hear it repeated to me. There were a few things about my Spring Scene I loved and one such professor tried tearing it apart. I sat there, across from him, digging my nails into my skin, frustrated. Once he was done, I painted on a soft smile and explained why I did what I did and how it enhanced the story. Never once breaking eye contact, for once, I felt like I had the power over my superiors. It’s such a dumb thing to feel proud of but I was damn happy I stood up for myself and my art.
Like any college campus, there is one such problem with UNCSA that sticks out like a sore thumb: diversity. I am in no way surprised at the lack of diversity we have on this campus. After all, this is a school located in the South. Instead of having faculty members who are POC, we have old white people who think because they grew up in 1970s Hollywood, they have it all figured out. We even have this one faculty member who produced a movie called Set it Off, where he, no joke, says solved racism and all majority black movies that followed are inferior to it. This same proffesor has a blog where he reviews movies and I particularly love these quotes from his review of Dear White People:
- “Nothing I had heard or read prepared me for what I saw: a poorly written, directed and acted travesty that did no credit to its ostensible subject, exposing a racist-themed fraternity party and the events that lead up to it”
- “Writer-director Justin Simien, making his debut feature after three short films, blows this golden opportunity with a simplistic, cliched and God forbid, stereotype-driven approach to storytelling. The tropes are about the same as the ones that existed in ANIMAL HOUSE (1978): a racist college president, an Uncle Tom black dean, a rich white kids fraternity, another for geeks, and in this ridiculous update, a black “house” fearful of losing its essential place in black campus life now that students are being channeled into random houses”
My favorite part of this review is at the beginning when he praises HIMSELF with the quote being “I produced an iconic black action drama, SET IT OFF (1996) starring Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett, and another mostly-black film with Denzel Washington, THE MIGHTY QUINN (1989). I am a longtime fan of Blaxploitation Cinema, a sometimes-genuine explosion of black culture and politics from the 1970s, and I have long taught a class on the history of black cinema, “Black and White: Race and Image in American Film.”
That’s almost like saying “I’m not racist because I have a black friend”.
The lack of diversity on the campus does not end there. Take this with a grain of salt, but I do not believe UNCSA provided a single guest artist of color to screen a movie of theirs. Every person they had was a white male or barely any female filmmakers. This school wishes to empower their female students yet they’re failing them by not having them see females show them how high their ceilings can be. During our intensive arts, every guest speaker we had was white who acted as if they were progressive for the “young hip people” we are.
The lack of diversity truly showed their colors during the same intensive arts when we had a diversity training. The gist of the training consisted of the typical “be nice to others and courteous of their choices with their life” and so on. Our training was held after the entire faculty had training and from what we heard from the people running the training, said that some faculty members did not show and or complained about the training as a whole.
Are you kidding me. A school that has had a diversity problem for its entirety and faculty were choosing not to show up and complain??? Out of the faculty members, we have almost little to none immediate faculty members who teach class and or understand the needs/desires/hardships/realities that the POC face at UNCSA. It is pathetic and too many people turn a blind eye to that.
The school lacks a complete and fundamental understanding of diversity. I feel for those students that do not feel comfortable in an almost all white institution. And I failed them.
I regret my silence, my lack of attempts to help the voiceless. I regret not attending the artist of color meetings or speaking up when I felt like a teacher was out of line or how we BARELY watched any films made by directors of color. It was pitiful of me to not do anything but down right pathetic of UNCSA School of Filmmaking to even put itself in that situation.
This past year, I was a pawn, a pawn to the chess game that was being played by the faculty. Each move is premeditated. We are told to shut up and film, do this “OUR WAY”. I am scared to even be myself as an artist or even wanting to be a Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher. Who cares if I want to write Terminator 2? I vow to myself that over the course of these next 3 years, I am sticking to my guns and doing what I know is right to make myself better. Of course I will seek help and critiques but only from those I wish to hear from. If the UCNSA faculty is trying to change up my films too much, I will leave the meeting and not return. It is my vision, not mine+the faculties.
I just want a great education