UBC film alumni rally to roots for program

It was clearly more than a good cup of joe that saved the UBC film-production program. One pivotal night last year, at a Kitsilano coffee shop, program chair Sharon McGowan, with the department of theatre, film, and creative writing’s acting head, Jerry Wasserman, and dean of arts Nancy Gallini, met with UBC film-production alumni determined to save the suspended program from the chopping block.

Admissions had been frozen in 2007. A program review had been launched because of curriculum and funding concerns. “Sharon had set up a meeting with these kids who were setting up this alumni association,” Wasserman explained to the Straight by phone. “Essentially, when we walked out of that meeting, the dean turned to me and said, ”˜I can’t kill this program.’ They were astonishing, they were quite wonderful.”

Those individuals—including Amy Belling, Sidney Chiu, and Jessica Cheung—formed the UBC Film Production Alumni Association (www.ubcfilmalumni.org/).

The group publicized their cause by holding a press conference in May 2007, and enlisted the help of famous alumni such as directors Sturla Gunnarsson (Beowulf & Grendel), Mina Shum (Double Happiness), Lynne Stopkewich (Kissed), and Bruce Sweeney (Last Wedding).

FPAA vice president Sidney Chiu said on the line that the association was a collective idea based on his understanding of the fraternity systems at UBC. “I don’t know if the association would have ever actually existed,” he added, “if it didn’t come out of that crisis mode when we needed to mobilize and do something.”

To everyone’s surprise and pleasure, Gallini announced at an FPAA event at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival that the program would reopen this year. Newly restructured, it will launch in September.

Wasserman said McGowan “worked her ass off to save the program”, and added that Gallini deserves credit for her integrity. “She [Gallini] would have gotten Brownie points from her bosses for shutting this program down. She would have saved them money. It was a small program, there was lots of rationale she could’ve used”¦. It would’ve been a good career move for her to do that.”

Instead, the BFA program has expanded from two to three years, and two classes of 15 students have grown to three with 20 students each. There will also be increased opportunities to take courses in other schools and disciplines, such as creative-writing.

“When the dean suspended the program,” Wasserman said, “she drew up a list of requirements that she insisted on, and changes that had to be made if it were to be resuscitated. And one of the key ones was that we make much more of an effort to collaborate across disciplines and across institutions.”

Wasserman said it was a “real breakthrough” to establish a formal relationship with Emily Carr University of Art and Design so students can benefit from instruction at either school.

Also new is an artist-in-residence position. “One of the reasons the program was shut down in the first place was that it was clearly understaffed. There were only two faculty teaching film production—everyone else was part-time sessional. The dean said, ”˜You need to hire another person, but I don’t have the money to give you,’ ” Wasserman explained.

“One of the real breakthroughs was I was able to convince the theatre program to take some of its money and give it to film production to create this new film-production faculty position. We just advertised this month for that position. That person won’t be in place until 2009-2010. So in the interim, the idea was that we would hire an artist-in-residence.”

For the summer term, American director Bobby Roth (Prison Break) was brought in, and this fall writer-director-actor Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors, Antitrust) will take over the position. B.C director Anne Wheeler (Better Than Chocolate) will also be teaching. Chiu said that the FPAA initiated a tri-mentorship program in which students are teamed up with industry professionals.

As to why the program inspires so much passion, Chiu focused on shared experiences. “There was such a camaraderie and supportive spirit among the students and the faculty who really wanted you to push yourself to the limit and make the best film you can.”

Wasserman said that in his 36 years at UBC, this is the first time he’s seen this kind of passion. “It was quite a stirring experience for me. I had just taken over as acting head of the department and didn’t really realize what I had walked into, and to see so many people rally around this very fragile, very frail program, and argue that it was worth saving was very inspiring to me.”