A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

A Hollywood Remake, Mason Style

By Colleen Kearney Rich on May 10, 2016


Mason’s growing Film and Video Studies Program is incredibly diverse in an industry that isn’t. Director Giovanna Chesler is building a competitive film program that she hopes the Hollywood film industry will one day resemble.

When filmmaker Giovanna Chesler addresses first-year George Mason University Film and Video Studies (FAVS) majors, she asks them to look around the room.

“You need to get to know these people,” she tells them. “Film is about collaboration.”

And she means it. Since she became director of the degree program in 2013, Chesler has been working to leverage George Mason’s diversity and entrepreneurship to build a solid film program that matters.

Giovanna Chesler, Director, Film and Video Studies. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Giovanna Chesler, Director, Film and Video Studies. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“One of the most important things for me as a filmmaker and an educator is the crisis that our industry faces,” she says. “So few women are in directing or cinematography positions. So few artists of color working in Hollywood. Our students are diverse, but our industry isn’t.”

What does it mean to have a film program at one of the most diverse schools in the country? Chesler believes this program and these students can make a difference. “As a faculty, we work with our programming, course content, and Visiting Filmmakers Series (led by Film and Media Studies professor Cynthia Fuchs) to mirror an industry back to the students that we believe can exist. ”

Chesler talks about the crisis in the film industry here.

She also believes one of the ways to effect industry change is by having a frank conversation at the undergraduate level. “We encourage students to think about their own bias when they are crewing up their films. We make sure they are reminded of the problems in our industry so they carefully consider their choices.”

Even the process of making student films is different at Mason. Some film schools like University of Southern California or Virginia Commonwealth University pay for their student films and, in turn, own the films. As a result, the school also makes decisions about who gets to direct those films. Mason does not.

Mason senior Irem Dogancali, director of the short film “Pineapple,” reviews a take with senior Darcelle Larkin, the film’s director of photography.

Mason senior Irem Dogancali, director of the short film “Pineapple,” reviews a take with senior Darcelle Larkin, the film’s director of photography. Photo by Logan McKennah Brown

“We see the benefits in both models. But ultimately, our faculty believe in the importance of students making the choice as to what they want their role in film to be,” she says. “Students who want to direct, do.”

That’s where entrepreneurship plays a role. As a first-generation college graduate, Chesler is committed to creating an academic environment that is conscious of a student’s financial situation.

“Our students don’t have a lot of financial backing for their film projects. Many are working jobs to pay for school,” Chesler says. “So when something looks good on screen, it often came through tremendous sacrifice.”

Teaching students about business practices and fundraising is a core part of the education they get at Mason. The FAVS Program has an active advisory board of film professionals and film lovers that provides scholarships and seed money to students. Each fall and spring, students pitch their films to a panel in order to get support for their projects. Board members work with students in advance of these pitch sessions to help them fine-tune their presentations.

Chesler’s goal is to build a strong undergraduate film and video program that can compete with the best schools not only in the region, but in the country. The opportunity to learn from working filmmakers inside the classroom—like Ben Steger, Lisa Thrasher, and Hans Charles—and in the field is key. To do this, they are partnering with the Virginia Film Office and professional organizations such as Women in Film and Video DC to connect Mason students to the professional community and create opportunities for students to get hands-on experience.

Actor and theater major Ben Peter (left) and assistant camera operator Bianca Salimbangon peer over the shoulder of director of photography Darcelle Larkin (center), while she inspects a scene she just shot. Photo by Logan McKennah Brown

Actor and theater major Ben Peter (left) and assistant camera operator Bianca Salimbangon peer over the shoulder of director of photography Darcelle Larkin (center), while she inspects a scene she just shot. Photo by Logan McKennah Brown

Professional internships are a requirement, and Mason students have worked with more than 100 companies in the region, including radio and television stations, production companies, and editing houses. One of these relationships is with the Washington, D.C., NFL team, which hires a few Mason film students each summer.

“They are learning to be professional on set while they are still students,” says Chesler. “We want production companies to know that we have students capable of working at that level and to work with the state to attract more film projects in this region.”

The FAVS Program is growing quickly. In 2006, former director Cindy Lont started FAVS as an interdisciplinary program with 30 students in collaboration with the Film and Media Studies Program, the Communication Department, and the Schools of Theater and Art. FAVS now has more than 170 students in its bachelor of arts program and added faculty. And there is no shortage of applicants to the undergraduate program.

“Not only has FAVS grown, but the films have also matured,” says Chesler of the quality of work. “Our students are not afraid to tackle issues such as mental illness, gender-based violence, and disability. They feel competent enough to address some of the critical issues facing society and to use the language of cinema to connect that to an audience.”

The FAVS faculty is also working to showcase Mason student films in the region. They pull together a collection of the best films from the fall and spring on-campus film festivals. Called the Best of FAVS, these films were shown at the Virginia Film Festival in November. Mason also participates in Washington West and DC Shorts, one of the top short film festivals in the country.

And the awards are pouring in. Last year Mason students in the FAVS 399 Web Series course, taught by Susan Kehoe, DA ’00, won a Telly, a Webby, and six Cinema in Industry (CINDY) awards. Ard Laoch na hEireann (Hero of Ireland), a film made by recent Mason graduate and Irish filmmaker Paul O’Halloran, BA Film and Video Studies ’14, was selected for a number of film festivals around the world.

It also isn’t surprising that collaboration has led students to start a number of production companies. Members of the Hand-Me-Down Films crew, for instance, have been working together since they were freshmen at Mason.

“[The program] was definitely an incubator,” says Hand-Me-Down founder Zack Gross, BA Film and Video Studies ’14. “It was the teachers encouraging us to find our ‘group.’ I think we all inadvertently took that to heart.”

Jamie Rogers contributed to this article.


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