This case study focuses on the FilmEU Annual Challenge – a practice-based challenge for film and media production students, which aims to combine critical thinking about societal issues with the development of solid competences in media and filmmaking. It explores the implementation of the first year of the project, which focused on the topic “Gender, Sexuality, Freedom, and Censorship.”
This case study focuses on a practice-based challenge for film and media production students, which aims to combine critical thinking about societal issues with the development of solid competences in media and filmmaking.
This challenge emerged in the context of FilmEU – a universities’ consortium that brings together four institutions with strong expertise in Film and Media Arts education: Lusófona University (Lisbon), IADT (Dublin), LUCA (Brussels), and BFM (Tallinn). All institutions come from diverse cultural backgrounds, making their different approaches and cultures one of the core strengths of FilmEU.
The FilmEU Annual Challenge unites students and teachers from the four institutions working together around a common cause, implementing the pedagogical strategies developed for FilmEU (see section: PEDAGOGICAL METHODOLOGY).
Aimed at 2nd Year BA cinema students, this is a year-long practice-based challenge, with a strong theoretical reflection component, that culminates in the production of a media project – in the first year of this challenge, the outcome was a pilot episode for a mini series.
The challenge is oriented around a topic that has social impact, that is significant for the students involved, and that is broad enough in scope to allow for engagement by a great diversity of students who come from cultures in various stages of social transformation. The topic is selected annually and collaboratively explored across the consortium. For 2021/2022, the first year of the FilmEU Annual Challenge, the selected topic was “Gender, Sexuality, Freedom, and Censorship.” Future topics may explore, for example, issues of disability, migration, or others.
The topic “Gender, Sexuality, Freedom, and Censorship” brings with it a long history of cinematic representation. The representation of sexuality and gender in film has been marked by constant advances and pushbacks, depending on local or global shifts towards conservatism or progressivism, and ever-changing moral codes. Early cinema and silent film allowed for many representations of sexually fearless images, as exemplified in the work of film and stage actress Theda Bara. However, the implementation of the Motion Picture Production code, also known as Hays code in 1934 – with its self-censorship and restrictions on profanity, suggestive nudity, and sexual persuasions – lead to a shift towards more conservative representations of gender and sexuality that impacted not only film production in the US, but internationally, across the western world. This co-existed with the moral restrictions and establishment of systems of censorship on film production and distribution that pervaded Europe at the time, where several countries were under dictatorships that lasted until the 1970s and sometimes beyond. Since then, there has been a gradual opening to different representations, albeit governed by at-times contested content classifications that restrict audiences’ access according to age groups. The contemporary media ecosystem, with the rise of streaming platforms (e.g. Netflix or HBO), has also helped to diversify the panorama of media distribution, with films and shows that openly explore issues of gender and sexuality – like Sex Education or Young Royals – finding growing viewership amongst international younger audiences. However, these advances in diversifying representations of sexualities and genders cannot be viewed as definitive – as the rise of far-right politics and of anti-gender rhetoric across Europe shows. Furthermore, the ability to create, distribute, or even consume such diverse representations of gender varies depending on national context.
The topic “Gender, Sexuality, Freedom, and Censorship” allows students to think about their role and the role of their media productions in creating and steering debate in such a central social issue. It encourages students to think about the impact of media and how audiences may perceive other people, in this case, those with a wide range of sexual and gender identities. However, engaging with this topic also pushes students to consider the barriers they can encounter from institutional actors, for example challenges in receiving funding or establishing distribution for films engaging with topics considered risky or taboo. This awareness is vital for their future engagements with the film industries. In this way, the FilmEU Annual Challenge aims to enable students to gain not only theoretical and technical skills, but also to learn how to play a constructive role in society.
The FilmEU Annual Challenge puts in practice the innovative methodological and pedagogical approach developed for FilmEU. FilmEU puts forward the Samsara pedagogical framework – a challenge-based pedagogical framework dedicated to film and media arts higher education. This is a holistic and iterative model, open to continuous evolution.
The Samsara framework builds on different learning theories, including Constructivism, Social Constructivism, and Constructionism. As such, it defends that knowledge is constructed through direct experiences, through interaction and collaboration with others, and through the creation of meaningful productions. It proposes a student-centred learning approach, treating students as co-creators in their own education.
The Samsara framework also embraces different pedagogical methodologies, such as Artistic Research, Challenge Based Learning, Design Thinking, Technology Enhanced Learning, and Universal Design for Learning – thus undertaking practice and theory together, privileging creative outputs as a form of knowledge production, and centring the exploration of real and pressing problems in society. In this way, Samsara has at its core principles of diversity and inclusion, equality and equity, mobility, and substantiality.
Putting this framework into practice, the FilmEU Annual Challenge is a project-based and team-based programme, in which teachers employ supervised learning methods and project-tailored tutoring. In addition to promoting the acquisition of theoretical, critical, and practical skills, the programme also aims to bridge film education with film and creative industries – simulating real-world production and development conditions, and inviting external guests from the industry to give masterclasses and present case-studies, thus enabling possible future collaborations.
The teaching methods aim to be flexible and adaptable to the concrete needs of students, seeking to be inclusive for all different kinds of students, accounting for differences in background, language, cinematic skills, individual gaps, personal views or preferences. The teachers also take an active role in detecting and intervening any forms of bullying or discrimination. The teacher must give support to weaker students, or students that tend to hide themselves. The golden rule is: Nobody is left behind.
The programme was designed to give students autonomy to exercise both their creative skills and their team competencies. Students are divided into self-organising teams, which integrate people with different levels of technical and creative skillfulness. Throughout the year, students are incentivised to explore and take positions they have not experimented with before, allowing students to engage with a range of media production roles – from writing, directing, producing, cinematography, technical positions like gaffer, production design, props, hair & make-up, editor, sound design, etc.
The challenge also aims to promote critical reflexivity. In their role as moderators, teachers are expected to conduct educational activities to incentivise students’ reflections, posing questions such as: What do I care about? What does this topic mean to me? What do I know about it? How do I know? This process of reflection is extended to the written material students must create, with written dossiers to contextualise their own work and its influences, as well as individual reports where students reflect on their engagement with the topic, their own expectations, acquired competences and future outlook.
The FilmEU Annual Challenge is a programme directed at 2nd Year BA cinema students. The aim is to produce a film and media project that critically engages with a societally relevant topic. This is a transversal project between four European institutions: Lusófona, IADT, LUCA, and BFM.
The challenge offers a highly collaborative way of teaching and learning about film. The projects are designed through an iterative process. The ideas and student teams circulate between all institutions. They receive inputs from students and teachers from different countries, with each institution contributing with their own style, approach, and strengths. In this way, the challenge aims to facilitate an exchange of ideas between people across these European countries.
In the first year of the challenge, 2021-2022, the final output of the programme was the production of one pilot episode for a mini series – students could decide its format: fictional, documentary or hybrid. This included the production of a 7/10 minutes pilot, the writing of the screenplays for the pilot , the creation of the series’ bible (its creative universe), transmedia outputs for Instagram, YouTube, etc., and the creation of production and promotion dossiers. The challenge is open to the development of other media formats in subsequent years, beyond mini series.
While institutions provide some basic rules and guidelines to ensure the feasibility of the project (e.g. time limitations, production calendars, etc), the format of the challenge aims to provide students with flexibility and openness to guide their own creative process.
In the first edition of the challenge, 2021–2022, the project had the duration of one academic year.
During the first semester students explored the topic of the challenge through group and individual activities, such as guided discussions and workshops provided by all institutions. They engaged with creative exercises and research to identify parts of the challenge that they found interesting and wanted to address with their work. Students suggested several projects, in an ideation and writing process. These were pitched at the end of the semester. From these pitches, one project per institution was selected for production. This process aimed to mimic the development phase of film and television production.
The second semester started with an intensive team building week, physically bringing together the 28 students from the four different institutions. During this week students from each institution pitched the project selected for their institution. Following this, they engaged with pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution phases of a single pilot episode from the series. Throughout this semester, the students circulated between the four institutions, with different stages of the production taking place in different institutions, taking advantage of their specialised knowledge. Students were incentivised to experiment with different roles in the project production.
The production of the project was complemented by a series of teaching modules, including Ideation, Writing, Teambuilding, Pre-production, Shooting, Image Post-production, Sound Post-production, Distribution, and Transmedia; as well as optional modules on Pre-Visualisation / Storyboarding, Production Design, VFX, Multicam, Guerrilla Filmmaking, Budgeting, Market Analysis, and Trailer Editing.
The international and cross-cultural mobility of this programme is one of its distinctive aspects, allowing students to gain varied technical and personal competences, to be supervised by teachers from different institutions, and to learn from the individual strengths of each institution. During the first semester, teachers involved in the programme did virtual mobilities between the different institutions, sharing their knowledge with colleagues and students. In the second semester, the student teams divided their time between further developing each project in its “home country” and circulating through all international institutions for filming, image and sound editing. The first mobility lasted 7 days (team building week), the second one lasted 11 days (pre-production and prediction). During this period students were supervised by local staff, with remote support from the sending institution. In total, the FilmEU Annual Challenge enabled 86 mobility moments for both teachers and students.
In addition to in-person mobilities, the programme takes advantage of various digital tools to enable a hybrid teaching environment – for example the video and audio post-production was done completely remote with the editor working in one HEI and the director and the showrunner sitting in two other HEIs. At the end of the programme, students publicly presented their work during the FilmEU Summer School, at IADT, in June 2022.
These activities and the timing will be adapted for future editions of the FilmEU Annual Challenge in response to the specific needs.
With the first year of the FilmEU Annual Challenge drawing to a close, feedback from students and teachers is currently in the process of being collected, compiled, and analysed. This is central to the holistic and iterative pedagogical model adopted by FilmEU, as it will allow for future iterations of the challenge to be improved.
However, this case study can offer some preliminary reflections on the development and reception of the challenge, based on informal insights of those involved in organising and operationalising the challenge.
After one year of collaborative work, each of the groups of students from the four institutions produced one pilot episode of a mini-series, accompanied by a series of transmedia components (e.g. making-ofs, social media content, etc). This media content was inspired by the topic “Gender, Sexuality, Freedom, and Censorship.” This topic was engaged from diverse perspectives, with some works focusing specifically on LGBTQ+ issues, while others engaged with broader topics related to sexuality. Some of the produced episodes approached these issues in quite subtle ways. This can be seen, for example, in the episode produced by the international team based at LUCA, which focuses on the family dynamics of a young Flemish artist and their run-ins with different legal institutions. The gender non-conforming presentation of the main character, Noah - their use of skirts, eye make-up, their musings on gendered expectations - were framed as just another aspect of their life. Other productions focused more directly on queer experiences, namely addressing trans experiences from different standpoints. The episode produced by the team based at BFM offered a poetic and interpretative representation of the struggle to accept one’s own identity, in a visual play with reflections and incorporating contemporary dancing. On the other hand, the work produced by the team based at IADT explored issues of gender presentation and trans experiences by centering on everyday life and family contexts, exploring the tensions, the micro-aggressions, and the awkwardness that can emerge in family dinners with conservative parents, as well the nuances of disclosing (or not) one’s queer identity. Other works took intersectional views that explored how gender and sexuality could be interrelated with other facets of one’s identity. As an example, the episode produced by a Portuguese showrunner with an international team in Lusófona University presented a story of a middle-aged woman who abandons her “traditional” life as a housewife and her heterosexual relationship with her husband, to pursue a queer relationship. This reflects an attentiveness to how issues of gender and sexuality can differ across generational lines.
While the topic of gender, sexuality, and censorship can be a sensitive topic, facing resistances in different national and political contexts, these resistances or hesitancies were not overtly felt amongst the students who took part in the FilmEU Annual Challenge. The topic was seen as significant for the students involved, relevant to their own lives, and as such conversations and reflections on these issues emerged in quite an organic way. The students were able to relate the topic to their own personal experiences and to their current stage in life. As such, students were open to think about how to position themselves in society in relation to these issues.
The challenge brought together seven students from each of the four institutions, from four different European countries. This allowed for a diversity of national and cultural perspectives. However, reflecting the general composition of the student bodies in these institutions, the students participating in the challenge were mostly white. As such, there is still space to seek to ensure a wider diversity of participants in future iterations of the challenge. The students were selected for participating based on an evaluation of their objectives, motivation, personal connection to the topic, and through interviews – paying attention to their ability to express themselves in English. Yet, even though gender balance was not an explicit criterion for the selection of participants, the final pool of students were quite balanced in terms of gender. Similarly, some students also chose to disclose their queer identities with the group.
The FilmEU Annual Challenge thus provided students a unique opportunity to engage with a diverse group of peers. It provided an opportunity for students to experience personally what it is like to learn and work in international settings and with an international team, to work with people from different cultures, with different experiences, and different perspectives. This provided an important internalisation component to their education. The FilmEU pedagogical model understands knowledge as constructed through direct experiences and in collaboration with others. In this way, this experience allowed students to learn at different levels, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Students learned about the topic of gender, sexuality, and censorship not only through their research and through practical media production, but also (and perhaps mainly) through their contact and social interactions with fellow students with different experiences and perspectives.
Reflecting on the implementation and development of the FilmEU Annual Challenge, some of the issues that emerged were inherent to the process of collective group work and to cinema and media production – as students had to learn how to manage different personalities, different egos, and different cultural perspectives. Some struggles also emerged from the use of English as a common working language, as for most students this was not their native tongue – only 20% of participating students were native English speakers. This led to some difficulties in communication and in the expression of nuanced and complex ideas related to the topic and to personal lived experiences.
However, the major challenge lay in the bureaucratic and administrative issues of coordinating work, student mobilities, and teacher mobilities across four different higher education institutions, and four different national and legislative contexts. Different institutions had different requirements, rules, guidelines – this highlighted the necessity for establishing very systematic and well-documented work procedures. Further challenges emerged from the need to coordinate different academic calendars – with different starting points for the semester, different holiday periods, different national holidays, different time zones, etc. This reduces the time available to develop the projects, and requires extensive, complex, and time-consuming pre-planning, in order to ensure convergence and harmonisation between institutions. In this line, future iterations of the challenge also need to continue the efforts to harmonise teacher supervision models across different institutions, as, at this point, different teachers and institutions had different views on how students should be accompanied and supervised.
Yet, despite these challenges, the FilmEU Annual Challenge enables a unique experience to engage with socially relevant issues through film and media production, allowing students and teachers to learn through engagement with the diversity of cultures within Europe, opening a space of learning through the exchange of personal experiences.
FilmEU Pedagogical Handbook. https://www.filmeu.eu/images/files/D-2.2-Handbook-Pedagogical-Strategies-and-Guidelines.pdf
FilmEU Report on Pedagogical Best-practices in the Alliance. https://www.filmeu.eu/images/files/Report-on-Pedagogical-Best-practices-in-the-Alliance.pdf
Photo by Marc Newberry/Unsplash.