A little over a month ago, film student Hayat Aljowaily, GS ’20, was preparing to screen her short film at the University Life Film Showcase, an event exhibiting eight short films from student filmmakers. But as COVID-19 cases began to rise in New York, the showcase was canceled, and shortly after, Columbia announced the cancellation of in-person classes.
With this sudden transition to online courses, many departments had to recalibrate their programs as professors shuffled syllabi and adjusted lecture formats. The film department has been no exception, as students and professors have expressed concerns over accessibility to films, quality of in-class discussions, and reduced access to film software and equipment.
Film student Syeda Anjum, BC ’21, remarked that despite having creative impulses, she cannot execute her ideas as she does not have her own camera.
“I actually had a short film underway, and we were set for production. I really relied on equipment from Barnard IMATS and obviously, with the coronavirus situation, it would be incredibly unsafe to do that,” Anjum said. “I really want to make content, and I’ve been stuck at home writing, but I don’t have access to equipment.”
Students usually rely on IMATS to borrow industry-standard resources, ranging from HD camcorders to projector screens. The School of the Arts’ Nash Building in Columbia’s Manhattanville campus also provides resources for film students, such as equipment and editing software. Away from campus, though, student filmmakers are resorting to everyday technology to produce their projects.
“Quite honestly, my iPhone has become everything,” Aljowaily said. “It’s my alternative since I don’t own much else. I don’t even have a camera on a normal basis.”
After the move off campus, Aljowaily was unable to complete a final project for her class, Video as Inquiry, which was going to be a documentary about the owner of Falafel On Broadway, a restaurant near 125th Street. Scrapping her original plan, she and some other students conceived a new project.
“Originally, the project was to just do any kind of work that is video as inquiry. Then a lot of people were interested in doing something that’s related to the situation we’re in,” Aljowaily said. “We decided to make it a web series, and so far we have six or seven groups involved.”
According to Aljowaily, each group’s web series is a reflection of different students’ experiences in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. One series features a student reflecting on her time with her family; another follows a group of several students who are quarantined together in Massachusetts; yet another is based on the traditions that graduating seniors missed out on this year. For her part, Aljowaily chose to portray her abrupt exit from New York.
While the adjustment to online courses has been difficult, students are not the only ones finding creative workarounds. Maura Spiegel, a senior lecturer of English and comparative literature, expressed her frustration with screening films in her classes over Zoom. She found that she could not share video clips and discuss them at the same time. Instead of giving up, she got ready for her close-up.
“I found myself acting out a film in class,” Spiegel said. “It was pretty crazy, but at least we all could laugh about it.”
Professor Loren-Paul Caplin, who teaches a two-semester course on screenwriting, noted his relatively smooth experience transitioning his seminar to an online format for a class that doesn’t include many film screenings or hands-on productions.
“I would say that if there were any classes that were tailor-made on certain levels for online Zoom classes, it would be a limited number of people in a screenwriting class,” Caplin said.
While professors’ efforts to adapt their courses to an online format have made instruction more accessible, the availability of films still remains a problem. Professors and students have collaborated to make these essential components of film courses accessible.
“Everyone started to look for links for all the films we needed to watch, and we shared them with each other,” Aljowaily said.
The mandatory move to pass/fail grading brought another challenge—engaging students with material through online learning as students adjust to their new virtual classrooms and deal with their own personal circumstances. Spiegel found that a personalized approach is key to helping students in her Barnard senior seminar on film feel invested in the work that they are doing.
“The way that I’ve been handling this is to meet with [students] individually and really show them how interested I am in them and what they’re doing,” Spiegel said. “I just try to make them feel that investment and that I care deeply about the quality of what they’re producing.”
As people across the world stream movies and television shows, perhaps more than ever, it may seem that film is a medium that lends itself particularly well to social distancing. Still, Caplin and Spiegel both remarked that they miss the in-person energy of a classroom. Of course, film has also long been a tool for connecting people across the world, and Zoom film classes remain true to that spirit.
“There’s almost a weird sense of friendship. You take it for granted that you see people in your classes every week and now you don’t,” Aljowaily said. “It’s interesting in the way that it makes classmate relationships stronger.”