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Women in Film Education (WIFE)

Participatory Photography at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema

Women in Film Education (WIFE)

Participatory Photography at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema


Context & issues

Since the mid-1960s, university-based film schools in North America have played an important role as a training ground for aspirants to the film industry, thanks to the rise of director-driven films and a more diffused style of independent filmmaking (Petrie 2010, p.37). The history of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema (MHSoC) can be traced back to a Minor Program in Cinema offered by Sir George Williams University’s Department of Fine Arts. After Sir George Williams was transformed into Concordia University in 1975, a full Cinema Program was established within the Faculty of Fine Arts, which has now grown into Quebec’s major film education center. Many of MHSoC’s alumni have won national and international awards, and work on film projects across Canada. The film school is thus not only the primary pipeline of talent for the Montreal film industry but also an important part of the Canadian “film world.” Currently, the MHSoC offers three specializations: Film Studies, Film Production, and Animation, and accepts approximately 200 undergraduate students every year. The Film Production stream is especially competitive, attracting hundreds of applicants and maintaining an acceptance rate of 12-15%.           

Educational and training experiences shape how emerging filmmakers cultivate their distinctive personas and artistic styles, and subsequently carve out a career and navigate the industry (Fritze, Haugsbakk & Nordkvelle 2016; Mehta 2017; Henderson 1990; Hjort 2013; Scheibel 1994). However, several researchers have shown that female students often confront a hostile learning culture, especially in film production programs (Citron & Seiter 1981; Orwin & Carageorge 2001; Kearney 2017). Conventional pedagogical approaches can reinforce sexist assumptions regarding women’s technical competence, story-telling ability, and leadership skills, and consequently produce negative effects on female students’ confidence in taking on key positions, such as director, cinematographer, camera operator, and technician. In addition, young men’s aggressivity in classrooms and on students’ film sets can further engender alienating and stressful situations for female students.

The Women in Film Education Participatory Photography (hereafter the WIFE) emerged from on-going discussions on gender and film education among a group of Montreal-based educators, researchers, and professionals from the Quebec film and media industries. In response to the literature and also to the request from some female students at MHSoC, we pondered what interventions are needed to foster an inclusive learning environment in film school and to support emerging women filmmakers’ professional development. Currently, approximately 50% of student recruits in MHSoC’s film production stream are women. In 2020, four (out of nine) full-time professors are women. Three of them have each been teaching film production classes over 15 years (e.g., Script Writing, Film Production 2, and Film Production 3). It is generally believed that ‘gender imbalance,’ in terms of student enrollment and curriculum design, is not an issue in MHSoC’s film production stream. Nonetheless, this belief does not derive from a comprehensive understanding of what and how exactly female students learn in classes and on film sets. Little is known about how these women come to identify with film as an expressive medium and develop their filmmaking methods. To explore these questions, we launched the WIFE, with the goal of creating a space for female students from the film production stream to chart and analyze their entry into the professional milieu.   

Methods & process

Participatory photography is a powerful tool that allows research participants to take control of the knowledge production process and use their cameras to record and reflect their community’s culture and concerns (Wang & Burris 1987). The WIFE participants can document diverse places, peoples, moments, and ideas with cameras that the researchers may not have access to. As a result, photo stories can reveal a richer and more complex socio-cultural portrait of life than if only formal interview techniques are used (Wang & Burris 1987). Further, as Deborah Britzman argues, education is a human condition: we grow up in school and family life during our most impressionable and vulnerable years, in which love, hate, and ambivalence play out in our relationship to knowledge and others (1998). Most of these women move from high schools or CEGEP (publicly funded pre-university colleges in Quebec) directly to a university-based film school. They are entering adulthood, making sense of such notions as “responsibility” and “independence.” Thus, the WIFE aims to generate visual and textual materials that can shed light on the embodied and emotional dimensions of becoming a ‘filmmaker’ (Greenhalgh 2008).

In the fall of 2018, I began my fieldwork at the MHSoC as principal investigator, funded by a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellowship. Gradually, I got to know a group of female students by visiting their weekly film production classes. Many were intrigued by the WIFE and were happy to know that this research is concerned with female students’ interests and desires. After several weeks of formal and informal communications with twenty-six female students, ten of them sent me signed consent forms and became WIFE participants. One participant was in the second-year documentary and experimental film production class. The rest were taking second-year or third-year classes on fiction film production. In January 2019, the participants, research coordinator Gabriela and I gathered in two introductory workshops to review our goals, research ethics, methods, and processes. Then, in February and March, we met again in three reflection sessions, during which 3-4 participants talked about their photos and shooting experiences. Besides the formal meetings, Gabriela and I organized a pizza lunch party to further motivate our participants and stimulate conversations among them. By the end of May 2019, we had received over one hundred photos and had conducted in-depth interviews with every participant. During the interviews, the participants talked about what kind of professional career they aspire to, what kind of film they want to make, and what barriers they confront to achieve their goals. I also used participants’ photos to generate conversations about a wide range of topics, from peer support to family history, from in-class criticisms to experiences on film sets.     


Britzman, D. (1998). Lost subjects, contested objects: Toward a psychoanalytic inquiry of learning. New York: State University of New York Press.

Citron, M & Seiter, E. (1981). The women with the movie camera. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 26, 61-62.

Fritze, Y., Haugsbakk, G., & Nordkvelle, Y. (2016). "Why a formal training for TV and filmmaking?"  In Theo Hug, Tanja Kohn, & Petra Missomelius (Eds.), Medien-wissen-bildung: Medienbildung wozu? (pp. 257 – 271). Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press. Retrieved from:

Greenhalgh, C. (2008). “Emotion in teaching and learning collaboration in film practice education.” In Noam Austerlitz (Ed.), Unspoken interactions: Exploring the unspoken dimension of learning and teaching in creative subjects. London: University of the Arts London.

Henderson, L.H. (1990). Cinematic competence and directorial persona in film school: A study of socialization and cultural production (PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania). Retrieved from:

Hjort, M. (Ed.) (2013). The education of the filmmaker in Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kearney, M. C. (2017). “How film schools lead to pipelines full of Weinsteins.” Women and Hollywood, November 17. Retrieved from:

Mehta, R. (2015). Tacit anticipation among film students: An ethnography of making movies in film school (PhD thesis, University of Southern California). Retrieved from:

Orwin, A. & Carageorge, A. (2001). The education of women in film production. Journal of Film and Video, 53(1), 40-53.

Petrie, D. (2010). Theory, practice and the significance of film schools. Scandia, 76(2), 31-46.

Scheibel, D. (1994). Graffiti and “film school” culture: Displaying alienation. Communication Monographs, 61, 1-18.

Wang, C. & Burris, M.A. (1987). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3), 369-387.

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