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Film School Confessions by a Deservedly Angry Black Woman

Film School Confessions by a Deservedly Angry Black Woman

My name is Nola Cooks. As of May 2020 I chose to no longer be a student of the University of Windsor Communication Media and Film Program because I didn’t feel the school could support me as a Black Woman and Director. I've decided to share my experiences as a Black American Woman on campus for the sake of anyone that might consider entering any film program.

I will be naming names solely because if any person of colour is reading this you need to know what your allies look like and the struggle you will be up against. I had no idea what I was going to be up against for the next four years when I started. If you are a person of colour considering joining this program or any film program I urge you to reconsider until these issues are solved, everywhere.

When I started film school I was 4-months pregnant and determined not to let that hinder getting my voice heard. Miraculously, I gave birth halfway through the Winter semester. I was the only Black woman in my entire class and I was one of the few people of colour that were interested in directing. I should also mention that although I appreciate digital film - my passion is analog filmmaking. This is the trickiest, most independent, and most expensive way for me to deliver the purest form of my visual voice.

Here is a collection of my experiences with various professors. It’s important to remember, this is not all of the horrible experiences I had at this University, but these are the moments I will carry with me probably throughout my career:

To start, it’s not rocket science. Being a filmmaker you’re going to need equipment. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that my tuition would be essentially paying for use of equipment.  Most film schools have abandoned celluloid film - that’s on me. I can’t help but be passionate about it. At the end of the day, I ended up having to use money out of my pocket to buy my own stuff. It’s important to remember that although I was fortunate enough to scrape together enough money to buy old analog film equipment, if you're considering going to film school as a minority with little or no resources, you’re going to have to rely on the resources provided. In whatever condition they’re in. Broken. Missing chords. No SD card. Bent tripod stands with missing plates. That’s if you are even able to get your hands on equipment.

Kyle Archibald is the current film equipment technician. Oh boy! The amount of times I stood in front of a locked door while trying to return equipment are countless. I had to arrange for childcare in order to make sure I could make it to the designated office hours - why couldn’t Archibald be on time if I had to? It’s a common joke around the program that “this is just how he is”. What privilege to be allowed to not go to your job and still get paid.

Professor Heather Hartley, frustrated by complaints about broken film equipment, reached out to the students to send emails about difficulties they had faced. Of course I sent an email, I thought this was going to enact change. Instead what happened was my email got forwarded to multiple members of the faculty and I became a pariah. I was branded as “difficult”.

Backroom deals with highly favored students and professors is probably the most aggravating thing I faced. I was told about grants I could get because “Being a woman of colour is really huge right now”. Then I watched small film jobs get handed to white students.

I’m not interested in shooting YouTube videos for businesses or filming wedding videos for the rich. I know that these gigs pay quite a bit of cash. Cash I could have probably used to buy new, shiny equipment. But it was not an appropriate solution to make up for the school’s lack-of-resources as it was so often presented to me.

Professor Nick Hector, I visited on several accounts, and he has a great open door policy. To his credit, he did introduce new and different faces to the film program and started a lot of workshops which I attended - outside of school. When I brought up the corruption behind professors helping fund certain student projects and not all he shut the door and told me not to share what we had talked about in that meeting. He wanted me to talk to the head of the faculty. I asked him what was in it for me. He said ‘to help another possible student’. Which is why I’m writing this now.

After feeling frustrated, I came to Professor Hector about dropping out of the program. He told me that he and other film professionals in the industry only hire people with degrees. I told him that’s not really my concern since I want to be my own boss. I asked him to read my script. He requested that I provide a “plan” on how to make my film first. Apparently my “plan” was too idealistic therefore he would not read my script. Apparently my plan to self-publish my own work would be “too hard” and I “wouldn’t know what I was up against”  If my plan wasn’t good enough, why not provide me with resources?

Listen, I’m well aware I’m not Paul Thomas Anderson, who notoriously won 10k and made his first film. (Shout out to Maya Rudolph - you got a good egg sis). I’m also not Harmony Korine who met a punk rock Larry Clark while skating which started his career. I understand that I have to depend on my community, have a good hustle, and make important friends. The first proper film I make I know I’m not making money on it. It’ll act as a calling card to show people what I’m capable of and more importantly allow me to make all my other movies.

I’ve been to Professor Mike Stasko’s office many times for advice on my writing. He’s the “fun guy”. He comes from a very affluent family in Windsor and he has brought a lot of attention and students to the  program. He’s like the fonzie of the University of Windsor. You know, super casual, chill, and out of touch. He’s the “Went-to-Columbia-University” kind of rich. He wears his grad ring very proudly. Several times I was left with mixed feelings. I don’t outright hate him. He is fundamentally different from me which means he completely could never understand me.

My first email to him was a question on whether or not I should take a production course while being pregnant. He responded ‘no I should not’ This left me wondering shouldn’t we be making allowances based on special circumstances versus closing the door? If the industry doesn’t work, why shouldn’t the university be preparing future graduates to change the industry to make it more inclusive? I came to him a lot over the years because I thought to myself I don’t have a choice. This is the only resource I have. I have to make it work for me. I mean I paid for it right?

I’ve seen several of Professor Stasko’s films. Mainly because he shows them to students in class. Inappropriate? Absolutely.  In Boys vs. Girls, which employed many students, the first time you see a person of colour on screen they are spat on. Not only that, an Asian character was referred to as “Yoshi''. His defense was that it was a nostalgic film of the ‘90s and he was trying to be representative of that time.

I should mention that he also used the class as a focus group and I made my concerns known on the survey hand out. I don’t know what the final edit looked like because I refuse to go to the screening. His current one in production, written by white men, Vampire Zombies From Outer Space consists of racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes.

He did give me his thesis 16mm reels and early student films. So I guess that’s nice. I took them homes and taught myself how to project them.

Oh yeah, he also connected me to another affluent white lady in Windsor who runs a film camp for kids, Amanda Gellman. I wanted to talk about my business idea to get a few pointers in the right direction. She thought I wanted a job (I didn’t), interviewed me (I thought I nailed it), and waited about a month for her to get back to me about the position. Surprise! I wasn’t hired. I thought to myself, maybe she doesn’t know me, perhaps I should arrange a meeting. So, I texted her. She stood me up again.

As a person of colour there are several microaggressions that you have to constantly blow off. That’s just life in general. As a film student I had to learn how to hone my craft with no working equipment paired with the battle of having to teach myself. What I regret the most is the risk I took with my money. Again I was “fortunate” to be able to get a loan. I do not think anyone in a lesser circumstances should risk getting into debt for a lack-luster education you can provide for yourself.

A clear example is my time with Professor Tony Lau. This is a hard one because he made allowances for me considering my circumstances. During his lighting course (which I absolutely learned nothing I couldn’t Google myself) he stated to me “that I probably had a bad group”. My group consisted primarily of people of colour. Some of the members in my group were not capable of even the smallest task of focusing a camera. Believe me, I know the irony of a production group being mostly minorities and not having the standard skill set which we paid for, with the expectation that it would be taught to us. It isn’t lost on me. Trust. This experience left me taken aback as Professor Lau is a person of colour himself. I chalked it up to him not really knowing how to cope within a mostly white faculty.

The registrar's office. This is where I get really mad because this is very personal for me. They fucked with my money for years. Every single year I had to deal with this problem. I get benefits from the US Navy because my father, who was a Navy vet, was declared 100% disabled due to injuries fighting for a racist country.

For four years, I was given the runaround by the registrar's office about what forms to fill out and how they didn’t know what they were doing. Explaining other people’s paperwork is not my job. This money, especially this year due to COVID, was delayed due to incompetence by their office. I’m talking about five thousand American dollars per semester. This is money I use to provide for myself and my child that I wasn’t able to get on time because they didn’t want to pick up the phone or do their job. I was even told that they didn’t know how to fill out the forms and I should come to the office to pick them up - this is after 3 years of them filling out the same paperwork. When it finally was all said and done. I could not get mad because they were the gatekeepers to my money. Money my father ultimately fought and died for.

Professor Nadja Pelky is a new professor that has listened to me countless times vent my frustration and referred me to so many resources. She sent countless emails on my behalf. She exposed me to other artists of colour. She created a safe space for everyone and even called me out for referring to myself in a negative light. She broke down the history of racism through photography and she’s unapologetic whilst maintaining fierceness. More importantly than that, she hired me along with a bunch of talented women and empowered them with skills within the arts. I love her deeply.

Professor Min Bae, himself a person of colour, has been a force for students and was one of my biggest supporters during my time at the University. Before one production which I was an Assistant Director on, I had a meeting with him and another woman of colour about the abuse that was happening on the set of Decrescendo. I watched a woman of colour get undermined endlessly. I watched her lose passion for the project while getting bullied behind her back. I regret not standing up for her more.

I guess its gotten awards and is being screened? I got an IMDB credit from it which I absolutely feel guilty about.

Professor Bae acknowledged that we were correct about what was happening on set. However he insisted this was the true evil of the film industry. He insisted that we needed to hang in there and see it through. He recommended to me that when I leave school I need to find any and all film collectives with people of colour or women. I can not thank him enough for his time and energy. I learned the most about technique, dignity, and perseverance from him.

Professor Jyotika Virdi, the only woman of colour in the faculty, works tirelessly to teach the critical thinking needed to expose the seedy nature behind racism in the media. One of the first movies she makes the students watch in her Media Aesthetic course is Do the Right Thing. This was the first time I saw screening of Black representation after two years in this film program. It was nice to finally see “The block was still standin’”.

Theory Professor Brian Brown tirelessly introduces his majority-white class to the manufactured nature of the way people of colour are represented in the media. The way they use the media to make you hate us for our skin colour. This work is echoed by Professor Kim Nelson who said to me "We need more Black female voices in the horror genre" and while I greatly appreciate the sentiment, I was left thinking “but no one around here is going to help me”. No one even looks like me.

It’s true as a Black filmmaker in the program no one was going to help me. All I was left with was a “nice sentiment”.

My enthusiasm dropped. My passion dropped. My grades suffered. I was incredibly depressed, which I did make one professor aware of. I was then routinely gaslight. I was told things were going to get better and that I should apply to the University’s Master’s Program. Things never got better. I was also still encouraged to sign up for courses. They still wanted my money and they got it.

I did manage to direct my own film. I had a terrible and racist producer who did nothing and wanted to shoot my movie unethically. I raised all the money for this project myself. After about $2 thousand dollars, my partner’s full-time energy watching my child mostly on his own, and using my own house as a place to shoot - the film camera broke because it wasn’t maintained appropriately. That cost me $400 dollars.

What I should have done was just throw that money directly into the garbage. Who was I going to be able to hold accountable? My favorite Black editor sat in an unorganized editing suite for hours trying every which way to make my movie “work”. Working with out of focused shots, terrible gear, and paying for all of it. Down to even recording an original score. The less-then-two-year-old foley room didn’t work.

I’m still working on this film. When I tell people that, they urge me to stop and to make something else. I never got to make it right in the first place. Every artist has a choice on when they want to put down the paintbrush. Since this project was all I had left after the anguish that I had been through, I couldn’t abandon it. It remains on my hard-drive as a reminder of how I failed. I can’t put down that paintbrush. I can’t let it go.

So, I decided to leave Windsor without my degree with the hopes of possibly transferring or taking classes online. My education is and has always been my responsibility and the choice I’m making is entirely my own. My experiences are also entirely my own. Either this faculty has a huge systemic racist problem, or they're grossly incompetent. I'm hoping they claim both.

I fully need to state that yes, this film school has problems. In fact, many film schools have problems that are much similar to this. If you are a person of colour and are considering going to any film program you will have a harder time than your white colleagues. You won’t be able to access higher-end equipment easily if you haven’t already bought it yourself. Your voice will not be heard unless you scream, become labelled as difficult, and get into people’s faces. I believe this is true across the board for all film schools.

Save your money. Create a collective of like minds and strategize so that we can make our own production and media powerhouses. So that we can tell our own stories, hire our own people, and keep them safe.

While Black Americans protested a system of racism I thought about my own experiences at the university. I looked at the pathetic post the school made and the lack-of-statement made by the School of Creative Arts as a prime example of the systemic racism I had to face over four years. The School of Creative Arts, instead of releasing a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, continued with a campaign of lies about their facility in order to get more student money in September.

Both the main campus and the newly opened  School of Creative Arts Campus located in downtown Windsor, had an opportunity to make their students of colour feel safe and they chose not to. They are so incompetent that they lied in their Instagram stories about how all the equipment in the new fancy building was supposed to be state-of-the-art.

The majority of the film department was broken or not plugged in appropriately or was just simply MIA. There is no technician on site to help you troubleshoot errors. No one could even get into the building without a runaround from tech support. This isn’t just a people-of-colour issue this goes for every single film student. Of course, we’re just the ones that depend on these resources more than our white counterparts. But hey, they’ll still take your money right? I’m not surprised.

I’m very much aware that speaking out like this puts me in an egregious position, and I’ve heard time and time again about how speaking out could cost me a future job within the film entertainment industry. Last time I checked, the industry was never fond of hiring queer, trans, or people of colour anyhow. So, what do I have to lose?

Nola Cooks is a new, regular contributor to The Town. She is a Director based in Toronto.