Reflections on a research career in film-making – part 1

20 Oct 12

I completed my PhD earlier this year and, since then, have been giving a lot of thought to what I should do now.  My doctorate involved the production of a feature-length drama and the writing of a 40,000 word exegesis.  A big project but, as various people have reminded me, finishing a PhD is the start of a process, not the end of one.  For better or worse, I’m now regarded by the academic community as a qualified researcher in my discipline.  There is a concern, I think, that the discipline of screen production risks being marginalised within the higher education sector if it is seen as being no more than a teaching field.  However, that means it needs to develop as a research discipline, and that means there needs to be a viable post-doctoral path for filmmakers who wish to develop their creative practice and have it considered as research.  It’s not clear to me whether such a path exists at the moment.

The clear message from my university is to produce research outcomes, win external funding, join research groups, supervise and publish.  All this suggests I need to define myself as a researcher.  This message isn’t anything I’ve got a problem with.  Even though I have a professional background as a filmmaker, I am and want to continue to be an academic.  It’s the nature of academic work to teach and research.  However, there are practical, logistical and institutional challenges in reconciling the traditional definition of research with the activities of filmmaking.   My objective is therefore to come up with a strategy that meets the university’s needs for research outputs with my needs as a creative practitioner. Put simply, how can I successfully make films that count as research?

To make things clear, at this stage of my career, I don’t want to regard myself as purely a filmmaker, making films in the industry the way I have in the past.  For one thing, if it’s hard to make films in universities, it doesn’t seem to be much easier outside them.  Whenever I get frustrated about life as an academic, I talk to colleagues trying to get a film project financed.   The time commitment required to get any professional production through the scripting, development and financing process, as well as the uncertainty of the outcome, seem to be totally incompatible with the requirements of being a full-time academic.  Nor, at this stage, do I want to be a researcher who doesn’t make films.  I could write about films or do audience research.  There are opportunities to take all of these paths and, because they’re established paths, in a number of respects it would be easier for me.

If the option of making a film external to the university sector is not a realistic one, what are my choices within it?  I think the immediate answer is ‘a lot better now than five years ago’.  Now that the ERA initiative (Excellence in Research for Australia) by the Australian Research Council recognizes creative works, and their standing as research is evaluated through peer review, a screen work considered as a research output should have as much merit as a text-based output – should have, in theory.  In practice, because ‘creative works as research’ is still a new development in Australia, it is unsurprising their recognition compared to more established forms of research is still being worked out.  Not being excluded from the process is not the same as being meaningfully included.  It is also worth noting that not all films count under the ERA.  To count, a film has to be able to be conceived as research, expressed through a 400 word research statement.  It has to have been completed within the required period and be selected as part of the top 30% of research outputs in the relevant FOR (Field of Research), evaluated for its research quality against outputs from areas like cinema studies and digital media.  At this stage, the people making these decisions may not always or often be screen practitioners, so there’s a job to do in gaining recognition for the screen production component of the field.

Despite these challenges, it seems to me that making a screen work that meets ERA requirements is the way to go, certainly in getting institutional support for devoting some of my workload to making films.  If this is my strategy, my inclination is to make it a meaningful one.  The impression I’ve got from the ERA process so far is that the research statement is viewed unfavorably by some practitioners, or at least uncomfortably.  In many cases, the process of articulating the research in the creative work does not come easily, or seem to be a natural part of the process.

However, my own feeling is that the ERA is actually a major opportunity for filmmaker academics to claim ownership of the territory that’s been opened up for us, define this space as our particular space, and the space I’m talking about is one that doesn’t wholly identify with either the values and practices of the established academy or the professional industry but involves making screen works that legitimately and convincingly can be expressed as research.  It seems to me that our development as a research community makes most sense by saying we make films but they are different films to those made in the industry.  They may be similar in many respects and there may be lots of overlaps but they are made under different circumstances, have different objectives, and often have different audiences (an issue I’ll come back to later).  What I’m talking about could also be described as me having a creative practice that involves conceiving of myself as a practitioner/academic, a familiar term but one that I have to try and make sense of in relation to my own creative ideas and research interests.

So saying I need to make a film that counts as an ERA creative work is a step forward.  Saying I conceive of myself as a practitioner/academic is also helpful, but what kind of films reflect that role?  In my prior practice, most of my focus has been on drama.  Even with my interests in micro-budget and improvised approaches, the logistical demands of making something like a traditional screen drama seem very daunting.  I’ve felt I need to move in a different direction if I want to make works that comfortably sit in the space I’ve been describing and really make them, rather than just think and talk about it.

To be continued …

This post is based on a paper I gave to the 2012 ASPERA (Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association) Conference in Brisbane in July

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