Film Study at SJC Santa Fe

This past summer Josh Avni (A’17, EC18) led a film study group for his fellow classmates.  The syllabus he put together covered eight excellent filmmakers: Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, Chantal Akerman, Edward Yang, and Abbas Kiarostami. Here, he expands on the purpose of the group, the selection of movies, and the experience of his study group.

  1. How did your film study group come to be?

I was a student of the college’s inaugural Film Institute, during which I was lucky enough to spend eight weeks with eight directors, studying two to three movies per week alongside formative texts on film. Despite the quality of the program, I then spent several years watching the Film Institute experiment with its structure and eventually settle in as a section of Summer Classics. I wanted to reinvigorate the spirit of film discussion that Misters Carl, McDonald, and Venkatesh had brought to that initial year and I wanted to run it as a free alternative to Summer Classics. It was important to me that every member of the community have the ability to witness and discuss great art alongside others with similar enthusiasm.

  1. Why did you choose the movies on your syllabus?

A significant focus of mine was to diversify the films we studied more by region than by type. I assumed (correctly, I think) that while directors are influenced by their antecedents across national lines, the precise nature of their cultural and intellectual inheritances would inspire works of distinct character. While filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky were certainties from the beginning, others like Satyajit Ray and Edward Yang were chosen later to emphasize the breadth of the film world and bring to light certain great works that might not be familiar to our students. With each director, I hoped to include films that are widely acclaimed and adored alongside those that are more obtuse or experimental. This is how we came to have The Seventh Seal alongside Persona and Stalker alongside Mirror.

  1. What were the most unexpected delights of the movies you watched and conversations you had this summer?

I was primarily struck by the sensitivity that certain members of our group had for the films we watched. Those students  joined our group with great curiosity in spite of a modest film background. It was an extraordinary pleasure to watch them come to a greater awareness of the power and potential of cinema. Among the best conversations I had with my fellow students were those I had outside of class, often involving someone expressing to me the ways a particular film affected or overwhelmed them. My hope is that these students will now go forward with that sense of how they can commune with film and expect more from the works they encounter.

  1. What are the differences between discussing movies and discussing books?

The differences in how each medium is presented necessitate certain differences in how we read either one. While a book exists as a sort of artifact, in which its physical properties contain the work itself, film in its proper form is presented to us by one apparatus or another. It’s a medium of time, and consequently questions of rhythm are of as much importance as those of narrative or character. Similarly, film presents space to us without the sort of mediation that results from reading text. We can trust that the images we see have some reality to them, and reconciling these images with dialogue or action is an important part of the interpretive process. These elements of determined time and direct image provide tools for reading and discussing film that aren’t present when we engage with a book. It has been the most difficult task of my studies to come to an understanding of these tools and how to use them.


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