They don’t offer basic moviemaking courses like cinematography or editing. Professors don’t help students perfect their elevatorpitches to studio bigs. The word “film” isn’t even part of the program’s title.
And yet, when the Academy Awards ceremony takes place Sunday, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University will get the kind of close-up that is sure to raise its profile. Three films by former VES classmates — Joshua Oppenheimer, Jehane Noujaim, and Richard Rowley — are among the five nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature.
It’s an unprecedented triumph for a small program that takes an unorthodox approach to the world of film. Instead of focusing on the practical skills needed to start a Hollywood career, the department’s theorists, experimental filmmakers, and documentarians aim to train students how to think about the world outside the editing bay, and to translate those insights into the syntax of film.
The VES program is considered “the gold standard in the US for nonfiction filmmaking,” said Cara Mertes, director of JustFilms, a Ford Foundation initiative. Mertes helped provide grants for each of the Oscar-nominated documentaries by Harvard-trained filmmakers, in her previous post as director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program.
“It’s not a typical film program,” she said of the VES department. “They’re saying cinema is one form of understanding the world visually, one anchored by an understanding of visual culture.”
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