Storytelling is an intrinsic part of our collective culture and the way we communicate. In times gone by, we used the spoken word to tell stories. While books, and later cinema and TV, eventually became the dominant way of accessing stories, streaming platforms have completely upended the media landscape in recent times.
“Storytelling is still the hardest thing,” says Professor Ellen Seiter, the Director of the Academy of Film (AF). “It is the crucial component whether you’re making a three-minute short film or a feature-length film or TV episode. So I think we need to put more emphasis on storytelling skills within film education.”
As the new Director of AF, a role she took on in July this year, Professor Seiter is not only keen to put the focus back on the ancient art of storytelling, but she also hopes to open up film education and help students imagine larger possibilities in an age where streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime dominate the media landscape.
“So many students just want to be directors, and they want to do film, and not TV or anything else. Part of our job is to change those things specifically, to make them understand that there are a lot of things you can do within film that isn’t directing. To make them realise that in the world of today, you have to be ready to do film or TV or even social media, as they need to be comfortable with a wide variety of different media formats,” she says.
Hong Kong stories
Following 20 years at the University of Southern California, Professor Seiter moved to Hong Kong in early 2022 before taking over the reins of AF in July. Arriving during the fifth wave of the pandemic was quite an introduction to living in the territory, but over the past year, she has started to explore the city as well as its rich cinematic history and offerings.
“Recently I’ve been watching Johnnie To’s films and I’ve become friends with him since I got here,” she says. “I really love his movies and the ways that he uses these gangster stories to make larger points about Hong Kong and Hong Kong society. He’s also an honorary consultant of AF, and we’re screening his latest film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong, during our orientation.”
Professor Seiter originally started out studying music and mathematics, but an innovative film class had a big influence on her during her undergraduate studies, and it eventually led to a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in film as well as a doctorate exploring melodrama and the work of the German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“While I started university with a sensible major, during the first semester, I took a film class with Manny Farber, the influential American writer and film critic, and he did all kinds of interesting things, such as projecting a film in reverse or upside down. He also resurrected a lot of B films from the 40s and 50s,” says Professor Seiter. “I ended up getting very interested in Fassbinder and Bertolucci, the Italian director. I also became fascinated with filmmaking and I was the only woman in my MFA class.”
Instead of pursuing the directorial route, Professor Seiter started teaching production in between her MFA and doctorate, and this then led to a research career exploring a wide range of topics. While her gender and audience research has been a constant throughout most of her career, her work also has an interdisciplinary nature, and she has studied everything from neuroscience and how children watch TV to anime, viewing patterns and media copyright law. Indeed, Professor Seiter jokes that the wide range of subjects reflects her restless personality.
“I think it’s very important to study the industry and know what’s happening in the industry, and not just write it off as ‘Oh, they’re commercial’, and so that has led me in a lot of different directions. But I’ve been teaching for 40 years, so it’s nice to do different things throughout your career and just keep it interesting and fresh,” she adds.
While Hong Kong and AF obviously differ from her native California, with many of her former students on the faculty at HKBU, the place has a familiar, even familial, feel.
“I first came to HKBU in 2015 for a two-week visit following an invitation from Professor John Erni, the former Fung Hon Chu Endowed Chair of Humanics at HKBU and a previous master’s student of mine, and I was very impressed with the students and graduate students. I wound up being on a couple of PhD committees remotely and I did some small theoretical seminars with them, and I was really intrigued by their very interesting projects,” she says.
As for the future of AF, Professor Seiter says there needs to be more dialogue between different disciplines, and this also ties in with the aims of the recently established School of the Creative Arts.
“We’re now part of the School of Creative Arts, and we’re focused on trying to make a contribution to art-tech and the Greater Bay Area project. Like all film academies or schools, there needs to be more dialogue between the production faculty and the film studies faculty. This is always a challenge, but I have some ideas on how we can encourage more dialogue between people, and I’ve been thinking about some potential projects they could do together. We also want to encourage the students to think of film studies courses as not something totally separate from their careers in production.”
Part of the plan also involves the new foundation course “Audiences and Platforms: Social, Psychological and Ethical Issues”, as it will fulfil goals in terms of helping the students think about platforms and issues around binge watching – topics that are even more crucial since the pandemic given the change in our viewing habits.
“TV and film used to be more social, as it was a communal experience and it wasn’t one person logged in. We also used to talk about the same shows the next day after an episode, it was a shared topic, but now there are so many shows available on streaming platforms. We may watch the same things, but we don’t all watch a particular episode of a show on a Sunday night.”
As a result, Professor Seiter says that this course will get students to start thinking about how these platforms have affected their lives, and also what happens to you physically and psychologically when you binge-watch.
“I think these issues are much more crucial since the pandemic. It’s a question of reflecting on individual experience – how media can shape things as essential as how much sleep you get. It’s also about looking at the bigger picture of algorithms, as they influence who wins in a world of streaming platforms in terms of what you get to watch and who gets to produce films and TV for these platforms.”
But despite these challenges and the ever-changing nature of film and TV, Professor Seiter and colleagues from AF will continue to prepare students for the world that awaits them upon graduation and equip them with the skills and knowledge to thrive in the competitive world of TV and film.