FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES IN AUSTRALIA
We have a very interesting guest this week. Dr Catherine Simpson is a Lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie University, Sydney – AU. She has research links with Istanbul Bilgi University. She is no stranger to Istanbul having lived and worked here for two years in the mid-1990s. In 1994, with her partner Bruce Jeffreys, she organized an ‘Australian Film Festival’ on Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu. The ‘interest of Turkish cinema-goers and press was exceptional with over 5000 people attracted to the 6-day event’ she says. You can read her report of the festival at: ‘Istanbul’da hersey olabilir’
After completing a PhD on the work of female filmmakers in Australian cinema in 2000, and having worked at Macquarie since 2001, Catherine seized the first opportunity to return to Istanbul. She is here for 2 months, with her partner, Bruce, and 2-year old daughter, Ayesha, exploring a project on contemporary Turkish Cinema. This project stems from her interest in the revival of the Turkish film industry after the hit film Eskiya in 1997. As a reciprocal event to the Aus festival in Istanbul, she and Bruce also mounted a Turkish Film Festival that toured Sydney, Melbourne and Perth in 1998. Although she doesn’t have a favourite film artist, she is inspired by the work of the new generation of Turkish filmmakers such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ugur Yucel, Yesim Ustaoglu, Yilmaz Erdogan as well as the work of those transnational filmmakers such as Fatih Akin and Ferzan Ozpetek.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in Perth on the west coast of Australia which is the most isolated city in the world. While it’s a very beautiful city and has much to offer in terms of lifestyle, most people who desire more than a suburban existence dream of leaving it. I completed my first degree, an Honours degree in History and Literature, at the University of Western Australia.
With a strong desire to travel and see the world I ended up living and working in Istanbul in my early twenties – an experience that has informed everything I’ve done since. After teaching English, my partner Bruce and I went on to organise the first (and only, as far as I know) Australian Film Festival in Istanbul.
I completed my PhD in 2000 then got a scholarship to study for one semester in Hannover, Germany at the International Women’s University, funded by the German government. Once I moved to Sydney, it took me more than a year and many, many job applications to find an academic position but eventually things fell into place and I feel extremely grateful to have ended up where I have.
Q: Could you please describe your current position at Macquarie University?
I’m a lecturer in the Media Department. Our department has 12 full-time staff and a number of tutors, who are equivalent I think to teaching assistants in the Turkish context. All the staff in our department teach across a number of different undergraduate courses and also at postgraduate level. I teach four courses every year: an introductory first year course called ‘Australian Media’ which focuses on the history of Australian media; two third year theory courses: one is a broader media theory course called ‘Media Identities’ and the other one is called ‘Contemporary World Cinemas’. The last course mentioned looks at films from around the world and believe it or not, we have a module on Turkish cinema! So last year, 40 students in Sydney watched Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak and Yesim Ustaoglu’s Gunese Yolculuk! I was delighted that many of these students chose to write on Turkish cinema for their final papers.
I also teach an 4th year honours course called Australian Screen Spaces. As well as convening these four courses I have a small number of postgraduate students. I’m also the person in the department who looks after international students coming to Macquarie to study for a semester or a year. Macquarie is probably the most international university campus in Australia and we have exchange agreements with more than 100 universities around the world. We also strongly encourage our local students to spend a semester or two at an international institution. This year we have had 3 Macquarie students study at Bogazici University.
Q: For students who are interested in film and television studies, what does MQ offer at both UG and PG level? What are the range of specialisations in your media department?
Macquarie’s Media department has a broad range of offerings and is an extremely dynamic and exciting environment to teach, research and learn in. At undergraduate level we have a 3-year Bachelor of Media degree with an option for keen students to continue onto Honours and beyond. We also have a combined BMedia/LLB(Law) degree. The BMedia degree gives students the opportunity to mix practical courses with theoretical ones from within our department and also outside of it. We offer specialist degrees in Visual Production, Writing or Multimedia as well as Public Relations and Radio production.
At postgraduate level we offer a 2-year Research Masters or a 4-year PhD program. Students can write either a traditional thesis or we offer non-traditional thesis program comprised of media production in conjunction with critical commentary. Currently we have around 30 postgraduate students writing theses on topics as varied as ‘the representation of Germans in Australian visual culture’ to ‘contemporary Polish Cinema’ to ‘copyright issues in online media’. Because our department attracts large numbers of undergraduate students, often our PhD students are also offered relatively well-paid teaching work in our department, this is in addition to their scholarship, if they have one. (In Australia it is legal for international students to work 20 hours a week.) We also have an online fully refereed journal SCAN which both postgraduates and academics contribute to. (See: www.scan.net.au)
What attracted me to Macquarie’s media department was the combination of creative industry professionals with the more traditional academic theoreticians. We strongly believe that both theory and praxis go hand-in-hand and our degrees, courses and symposiums reflect this. In comparison to many other media departments, ours is well-funded which means that we have many opportunities to contribute to broader intellectual and community life. We recently showed a series of Indian films at the ‘Bollywood on Bondi’ film festival. (Bondi is of course Sydney’s, if not Australia’s, most famous beach.)
Students also have the opportunity to showcase their work. For instance every year we have screenings of the best third year film productions at a local cinema which is inevitably always sold out weeks in advance. Some of these short films have been accepted into local and international film festivals around the world and have won quite prestigious prizes. The third year writing students also get the opportunity to produce a magazine, SCOPE. And this year we are trialling a third-year internship program with radio students being able to work at a local broadcaster. Macquarie also has its own radio station 2SER which students regularly contribute to.
Q: From your point of view what are the pros and cons of a career in Media? What attracted you to the field of Media for instance?
Researching film has enabled me to combine my interests (both academic and personal) in other cultures and the issue of representation, be it gender and/or ethnicity, with community-based activities such as bringing film programs to different countries. I guess I’m also politically committed to supporting in any way I can a diversity of voices in film culture and the media more broadly. For instance the contribution of women to filmmaking is vital for a healthy film industry. My PhD focused on how female directors produce filmic space. Since the 1990s, Australia has had a comparatively women-friendly industry with many of our top female directors receiving prizes throughout the world for their work (eg Jane Campion, Gillian Armstrong).
I guess for some people, the main cons of a degree in media might be that after completion, they feel that their future is not transparently laid out for them, like it might be if you study medicine or law. For other people of course, this uncertainty transforms into something very positive because they end up in an extremely interesting career that they couldn’t have even imagined. A degree in media is really just the beginning and often you need to complete a further postgraduate diploma in a specific area or perhaps get some kind of entry level job before you can progress to the next stage of your career. It is also relatively competitive out there in the market place in terms of jobs.
While my research work lies in a very specific area, primarly in writing and thinking about cinematic space, the current distinctions existing between the different media forms such as film, TV, the web, radio etc are breaking down. This process is often referred to as convergence. Given the range of specialists, generalists and industry professional in our department, I think we are particularly well-placed to deal with these changes in contrast to those departments that are still just ‘film’ departments or departments where students study the theory but don’t enage in any kind of media production.
Media literacy is of utmost importance in today’s society and a degree in media can lead you in so many different directions. Because media is ubiquitous in all of our daily lives, no matter where we are, it’s absolutely vital that we are critical and informed consumers and readers of the media because this is where we get all of our information from. And all of our courses at Macquarie try to give students these kinds of skills whether they end up in media-related professions or not.
As well as the most obvious professions such as filmmakers (directors, editors, cinematographers, producers, sound design etc), journalists and broadcasters, some of our graduates have gone on to work in public relations, advertising agencies, NGOs, teaching (at all levels), media lawyers, public policy, film critics, publishing, web design and production, events management and the interactive media industries to mention just a few. Many of the jobs of the future will be media-related, and right now we don’t even know what some of these might be. For instance, in the early 90s when the internet was just emerging as a public entity, who would have thought that you’d be able to make a very good living from designing and producing interactive material for an advertising agency?
Q: Australia is gaining popularity as a study abroad destination among Turkish students. Also ‘communications courses are one of the most popular fields of study’, with ‘students attracted by an image of the communications industry’. What you do recommend for the students who want to study media in Australia?
I would recommend that you study in Melbourne or Sydney where the main media industries are based. The smaller cities in Australia do offer good media courses but the range of jobs in the media industries is more limited. You should also choose an institution which gives you access to the latest technology and the best opportunity for developing your creative, critical and practical skills. I think it’s also important to choose a department, like Macquarie, which has industry links.
I also recommend that prospective students find out as much as they can about the different institutions in Australia before going there. The Australian consulate will soon open a new centre at their premises in Sisli which will enable students to visit and get detailed advice about the range of insitutions and courses offered in Australia. Spending three or four years in a foreign country can be a challenging (but also extremely rewarding) experience, so do some research on the lifestyle and culture of Australia so you know what to expect. The few agents in Istanbul who specialise in Australia (Alternatif being one of them) seem to have a good working knowledge of offerings at the different universities so they can also give you good advice. Perhaps talk to a graduate who has recently returned from Australia so you can get an insiders’ advice on different aspects.
Q: You have been teaching across a number of universities in Australia since 1995. What about the international student’s satisfaction with their courses at your department. What are the career opportunities for graduates? Can the international students easily find a job in film and TV production?
Film and TV production is such a small selection of the huge range of jobs that are open to media graduates. We have a quite a large contingent of international students in our department and many of them go back to their own countries equipped with the critical and practical knowledge and skills to confidently go into the workplace. I just received an email from one of my old Honours students who has recently got a job for a Singaporean TV station. Another one is working for a well-known woman’s magazine in Malaysia. Having studied in English in a foreign country gives students an edge over their peers and perhaps more confidence once once they return to their home countries. One of our current Turkish students works full-time for a well-known radio station (SBS) on the Turkish program while completing her media degree part-time. In Australia, Sydney and Melbourne are probably the best places to be in terms of job opportunities in the media industries. Just to give you an example of the varied pathways that can be taken, my sister-in-law is a photographer who completed a media degree at Murdoch Univesity in Perth, Western Australia. After working for some time sourcing photographs for magazines, she now works for the biggest magazine publisher in Australia, ACP (Australian Consolidated Press), negotiating agreements between photographers and the company. This job takes her from Sydney to London and New York.
Q: What are the intrinsic qualities needed to be a good film maker and can students get these qualities at university?
This is a very good question. I think the intrinsic qualities necessary to be a good filmmaker probably cannot be learnt, they need to be there in some form before the student comes to university. What university education can provide is the initial skills, mentoring and access to technology to develop into a good filmmaker. The university environment also provides students with good networks because filmmaking is an extremely collaborative activity where networks are vital. Making your own film, whether it is a documentary, feature or short film, while extremely rewarding, can be a very arduous process and not everyone has the internal fortitude or tenacity to pull it off. Things like funding play in huge role in whether a film gets made or not. Having a good story is only one aspect of the process, and making that story into a reality is a different kettle of fish altogether.
Q: As a foreign academic in Turkey do you think there are enough good training institutes / faculties for ‘film students’ in Turkey?
I’m fairly familiar with what’s on offer at Istanbul Bilgi university and they seem to offer students a really solid undergraduate and masters programs and have a range of good academics committed to both teaching and research. I have also seen some of their graduate students give excellent papers at international conferences. But I’m not that familiar with the other schools so it’s really hard for me to make a comment. However I’m very surprised that a degree in media isn’t on offer in many more of Turkish institutions, given that the discipline attracts a huge number of students in Australia and the fact that many of the future job opportunities will be in some way media-related.
Q: What do you think of today’s Turkish cinema: what are the best productions?
What’s really fascinated me coming back to Turkey after 6 years is the change in the kinds of productions being made here since we mounted the Turkish film festival in 1998. I’ve just seen four recent films that really impressed me; Yilmaz Erdogan’s Vizontele Tuuba, Mert Baykal’s Pardon, Dervis Zaim’s Camur and Ugur Yucel’s Yazi Tura. All of these films have a political comment to make but they’re not achieving this in a sledgehammerish way manner but rather through humour, through their aesthetics or their setting. I haven’t seen enough of the most recent productions to make further comment. Ask me after I’ve returned from the Altin Portakal Film festival in a few weeks time!
Catherine, I thank you so much for your time and answers. We put your departments link here (http://www.dmc.mq.edu.au/) for prospective students. (Where the website does not help, the students can directly contact either Catherine (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Alternatif(email@example.com)
Catherine is happy to consult with any students who may be interested in studying media in Australia. She will be in Turkey until mid-October.