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Boston film programs put sexual abuse talks on the syllabus

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

From left to right: Emerson students Emily Kramer, Liza Wagner, and Jacquelyn Ferzacca.

By Globe Staff 

As allegations of sexual harassment and abuse continue to dominate headlines, professors at some Boston-area film programs are recalibrating their classes, hoping to turn sordid details emerging from the entertainment industry and elsewhere into teachable moments.

Several instructors have altered lesson plans, holding hastily planned discussions that may start with allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, but quickly expand to include power imbalances in the industry, sexual harassment on the film festival circuit, and how students might respond to unwanted sexual advances.

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“I’m totally winging it,” Linda Reisman, a film producer who teaches a class at Emerson College on working in the industry, said in the weeks following the initial Weinstein allegations. “We probably would have talked about it in some form, but this is zeroing in on the personal and empowering kids to understand what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, what is under their control, and what they can do about a situation that may make them feel uncomfortable.”

Other Emerson faculty have compiled lists of articles for students, online discussion boards have cropped up, and the school is organizing a community-wide panel on sexual assault and harassment this spring. Meanwhile, Boston University’s film and television department is adding language to course syllabi to highlight the issue, and it is planning to hold workshops in Los Angeles, where many students get internships, to encourage them to speak up if there’s a problem.

Anna Feder, director of programming in Emerson’s visual and media arts department, tackled the issue of sexual misconduct during a class she leads on cinema exhibition.

“It’s the sort of problem that happens wherever there is a power imbalance, and film is rife with this,” said Feder, who highlighted recent controversies at the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain and Los Angeles’s Cinefamily theater, which closed last month after an investigation into claims of sexual misconduct.

One big concern: internships, which for many students constitute their first direct experience in the industry.

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“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous,” said Emerson senior Liza Wagner. “I’m motivated to shed light and bring change to how women are treated in the industry, of course, but I am wary of the process it will take me to get to that point.”

Wagner, who’s preparing for an internship next semester, said she previously encountered sexual harassment while working independently on a shoot last summer in New York, including cat calls, inappropriate texts, and unwanted touching.

“I couldn’t do my job because it annoyed me: I didn’t want to go to work, I didn’t want to interact with them, I didn’t want to see them,” said Wagner, who said she stopped wearing make-up and “dressed ugly” to ward off advances. “It made me wonder: Is this reality, and I’m just not tough enough to accept it, or is this something I need to confront?”

Brooke Knight, who chairs Emerson’s visual and media arts department, estimated the department places more than 300 students in internships each year — the majority of them in Los Angeles.

“We have a regular process to vet the internship sites,” said Knight, who added that he was unaware of any past sexual harassment issues during internships. “On rare occasions there have been internships that were toxic, but I don’t know that any sexual harassment allegations have been brought against intern sites.”

Paul Schneider, chairman of Boston University’s film and television department, said he recalled only one instance when the school pulled a student out of an internship because “something was not right.”

“One of the students reported that she felt there was a bullying and possibly sexually harassing atmosphere,” said Schneider. “There are a lot of things in place to monitor what’s going on, and people are extremely aware of potential hazards.”

Still, for aspiring filmmakers, the revelations coming out of Hollywood have been daunting.

Last month, Emerson alumna Audrey Wauchope came forward with allegations of her own, accusing a former showrunner of sexually harassing female writers on a series later identified as “One Tree Hill.”

“The staff sat on couches,” Wauchope wrote on Twitter. “Female writers would try to get the spot where the showrunner wouldn’t sit as to not be touched.”

Wauchope added that the showrunner, later identified by cast and crew members as Mark Schwahn, showed male staff members naked photos of an actress he was sleeping with, and once asked Wauchope’s writing partner, who was leaving the next day to be married, “if she really wanted to go through with it. Maybe he could have a shot?”

Wauchope’s allegations were later supported by a letter signed by cast and crew members, some of whom went on to detail specific allegations against Schwahn.

A representative for Schwahn declined to comment.

“I’m furious and sad and everything else for the women who have sat on that couch next to that man,” Wauchope wrote on Twitter. “I’m furious and sad and everything else that years later I don’t feel safe to be able to do anything real about this and that it seems to be happening all over this town.”

The flood of allegations coming out of the entertainment industry have served as a wake-up call to Emerson senior Jacquelyn Ferzacca.

“I’m definitely going to be more aware,” she said while discussing whether to ask potential internship providers about their sexual harassment policies. “Before, I would never have thought to ask that, but now I feel like it’s something I have to ask.”

Administrators at both Emerson and BU said their programs have labored in recent years to address structural issues of sexism, diversity, and gender equality.

Schneider noted that BU’s program has long sought to encourage female students to take leadership positions and confront instances of mistreatment, be it sexual or otherwise.

“The more women you have in leadership roles, the less likely you’re going to have this issue come up,” said Schneider, who added that three of the four student projects in one of his classes are led by women. “We’ve made it very clear to our students that in any situation — an internship, professional, or anywhere else — that if they feel like they’re being or about to be abused in some way they have to stand up and speak up about it.”

Similarly, Knight said that Emerson has made a concerted effort to make the department “as gender-balanced as possible.” He added that the school hosted a summit for successful women in film and media a few years ago, and that it has increased courses offered on female-driven screenplays, creating feminist media, and ethics, among others. And the school’s Bright Lights film series, which is curated by Feder, seeks to present an equal balance of films by women and men.

“A lot of this work we’ve been doing along the way,” said Knight, who added that professors are often better positioned to act swiftly, altering individual classes to address the news of the day. Building a larger curricular response takes time.

“We’re really great on the immediate and the longer structural issues,” he said. He added they were now discussing “that middle ground, where the news of the day has an impact on how we need to equip our students as they go into the industry.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.