American film-school students have been known to complain that their professors have little to offer in the way of practical experience. But in Europe, many directors do double duty in the classroom, sharing advice they’d only recently put to work on the set. High-profile examples range from Michael Haneke’s courses at the Vienna Film Academy to Wim Wenders’ at Hamburg Academy of Arts and Mike Leigh’s at the London Film School.
In Europe, as Pavel Jech puts it, “It is still considered a professional honor to be invited to teach.” Jech, dean of Prague’s FAMU film school (where Milos Forman sometimes lectures), adds, “Most teachers at FAMU are working professionals.” Though the school does not offer flush salaries, “Due to the tradition of FAMU, and its long-established emphasis on mentorship, it is not difficult to attract working filmmakers to teach.”
Jech oversees a faculty dominated by working pros such as two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek; and Vladimir Smutny, who lensed for Oscar winner Jan Sverak on “Kolya.”
The head of FAMU’s directing department, Vera Chytilova, helped forge the Czech New Wave of the ’60s along with Jan Nemec and former FAMU prof Jiri Menzel. Helena Trestikova, the country’s best-known documentarian abroad, lectured to Vit Klusak, half of the team behind “Czech Peace,” a sendup of U.S. military expansionism in the former East Bloc that was invited this year to Michael Moore’s Traverse City fest. Klusak is now lecturing at the school himself.
With this kind of expertise on tap, students often find themselves in the fast lane to their own successes. Former Leigh student Oliver Hermanus, who went on to win five SAFTAs (the South African BAFTA) for his thesis film “Shirley Adams,” says he learned real-world lessons he later used.
“LFS was great for preparing me to make ‘Shirley Adams’ because we were always working at the school as if we were dealing with the studio or commissioning body. Thus, when I suddenly faced real executives and producers, I was confident enough to fight my battles,” he says.
Rajko Grlic, the Croatian helmer-scribe who won director kudos at this year’s Karlovy Vary fest for his sex comedy “Just Between Us,” lectures at Ohio U. and is also a full-time professor at Slovenia’s Art School and Nova Gorica U., in addition to authoring the instructional website HowToMakeYourMovie.com.
He finds that having to engage the attention of students every week works as a useful reality check. “Teaching and making films at the same time is a very healthy thing,” he says. “It’s a means to be in contact with reality and not forget your audience.”
Emir Kusturica, the force behind the 3-year-old Kustendorf fest, has taken a hybrid approach, founding the event (held in January atop a Serbian mountain in Mecavnik) to serve like a one-week film school. All entrants are students who are flown in, housed and workshopped if their short pics are chosen for competition. This year, guest lecturer Johnny Depp helped bring off the fest’s main intent, to “fire up film students by letting them meet their idols,” as Kusturica describes it.
Kustendorf’s 2010 winner Mihal Brezis (who won, with partner Oded Binnun, for “Lost Paradise,” a love story set among religious conservatives in Israel) says Kustendorf has already helped shape her helming career.
“Meeting in the workshop with top working producers and directors has actually done a lot in pushing forward the film project I am currently working on,” she says. “I had the great luck meeting a very kind producer who loved ‘Lost Paradise’ and offered to pass on the script of my next short film to a renowned actress who I was keen to work with and had no idea how to contact.”
With so many film schools in Europe offering access to top mentors, it can actually be tough picking which one to attend. To help make the decision easier, Grlic advises, “The only way to find out if they are serious or not is to check what their students did after school.”