"Don't, that’s all I have to say.”
“Don’t do it!!!!!!!"
These were the onslaught of group chat replies to one of my friends’ inquiries about whether he should apply to a graduate film program.
I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media in 2018. In this article, I'll share my film school journey and reflect on its impact.
So what is an MFA? A Master of Fine Arts is a graduate degree consisting of coursework that typically has an emphasis on performance or production. Learning or research is more applied as opposed to theoretical, where a thesis project will be a completed work of art, such as a film or script. An MFA is the terminal degree, or highest degree one can receive for film production. It also gives you the ability to teach at the university level.
As opposed to other Master or PHD programs, the MFA encourages artist to practice their craft under the guidance of working artists, producing theses that are works of art instead of stacks of papers.
In my undergraduate studies I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism in Advertising. It wasn’t until going into my third year of school where I completed a creative writing and documentary study abroad program that I developed an interest in pursuing filmmaking as a career. Having the privilege of coming from a household where both of my parents have advanced degrees, I always planned on getting a Masters in something. I had a 10-year plan:
1. Complete an accelerated one-year Masters program in Advertising
2. Go to portfolio school for 2 years
3. Get a job at an ad agency as a copywriter and work for 5 years
4. Then go back to school for filmmaking for 2 years
But why go through all of that to end up at the same place? In my last semester before graduating, I decided to get my affairs in order and begin the journey of applying to different Documentary MFA programs. I was accepted into 3 of the 4 programs I applied to.
The program I ended up attending lasted 2 years and consisted of a 12-person cohort; we were only the third graduating class of students. A typical week consisted of attending 2-3 courses a day, with each class lasting 2-3 hours. Each quarter we would have to complete a short film. We had a select number of core or mandatory classes and were able to select electives. I already learned how to use photo and video editing software in high school so since production was my weakest point, I focused on taking all of the cinematography courses offered. I also branched out and took other courses, such as Writing LGBTQIA Characters, Stand Up Comedy and Performance Art. My favorite classes were those where we walked away with a practical deliverable such as a completed Documentary Core application or a press kit for our thesis film. What I enjoyed about my program and the reason why I decided to go to school for filmmaking was for the ability to have dedicated and structured time to focus on learning and creating.
So why was there such a strong reaction to graduate film school in the group chat?
The chat consisted of BIPOC filmmakers.
Academia in the United States has a history of white supremacy and like many other Black women in academia, I experienced the effects of that system. Giving and receiving feedback is one of the foundations of MFA programs and in general is something I enjoy. However, I felt a disconnect from my faculty and peers. I was making films for and about Black people and the lack of those eyes during those feedback sessions was felt. Having no core faculty of color or built in Black community impacted my experience as I struggled to receive valuable and informed feedback on the films I was making.
Additionally, along with the only other Black person in my cohort, I expressed concerns over the gaze or point-of-view from some of my classmates as they were making films about marginalized communities they hadn’t demonstrated investment in. We received pushback, with one professor stating, “we aren’t going to tell people what kinds of films they can and can’t make.” The topic of who has the right to tell what story is a continuous conversation in the documentary field with more intentional implementation occuring in recent years as illustrated by the addition of the Power and Positionality question in the Non-Fiction Core application. But during my time in school, these kinds of conversations weren’t encouraged. I naively thought people working in documentary would have higher social sensitivity. But the absence of diversity, community, and understanding was discouraging and is a major reason why I questioned the worth of my program.
Aside from the emotional toll there was also a real financial burden that came with pursuing an advanced degree.
$100,000. That’s approximately how much my program cost in tuition and fees. I also had to cover housing and living expenses. With the help of scholarships and assistantships, I ended up needing to borrow around $58,000 in student loans to cover my costs. I was awarded $32,000 in scholarships for my first year. I received around $35,000 in tuition waivers as part of my graduate assistantships, where I taught multiple classes for two quarters during my second year. Today, my program is fully funded where “all students accepted to the program are given a full tuition waiver and a stipend for living expenses during the academic year.”
There are many alternatives to entering the documentary field, so I caution folks to consider why they want an MFA, and the desire to teach at the university level isn’t enough. Teaching positions are hard to come by and often require moving to smaller cities, which was not my ideal. However, I knew at that stage of my life attending my program was what was best for me. I was fresh out of undergrad and needed more time to explore and grow.
Today, I am focused on directing my own films while adulting to pay off my student loans. I work as a design researcher for an audio company while freelancing as a cameraperson, event and podcast editor, and story consultant. My day-job provides me with the stability I need to achieve some of my personal goals and is the reality of many creatives.
What I would encourage BIPOC folks to do is seek out community outside your institution. Post graduation, I have been able to find resources, support, and collaborators through organizations like Mezcla Media Collective, NeXt Doc, OpenTV, Sisters in Cinema, Brown Girls Doc Mafia and many more. An MFA isn’t a magic wand to success, so take some time to ask yourself: Is an MFA really worth it?
To learn more about the history of MFA programs and hear more opinions from folks at different stages of their MFA journey, listen to the inaugural episode of Elodie’s podcast, VILIFY MEDIA PODCAST available on Spotify, Apple, SoundCloud and YouTube for the video podcast.