Class offers new approach to Cuban films, documentaries

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September 23, 2008

5:25 PM

When deciding what classes to teach, a professor may decide to teach a topic that speaks directly to his or her more personal work and experience. Before the start of the fall ’08 semester, professor Ann Marie Stock of the department of modern languages and literatures found herself in just such a position.

“I had designed and directed this series of Cuban documentaries that I subtitled and distributed in the United States,” Stock said. “Initially, I was doing this on my own, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a wonderful learning opportunity for students to really think about … in this global era of connected cultures?’” Stock founded this series, called Cuban Cinema Classics. Stock founded this series to increase the audience for Cuban films.

Stock found the support she needed to launch her class, New Media Workshop, through the QEP/Mellon Grant Initiative, a grant offered at the College of William and Mary by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Charles Foundation. According to Joel Schwartz, director of the Charles Center, the grant’s aim is to build more research- and inquiry-based learning into the undergraduate curriculum.

“Undergraduate research is a buzzword out there,” Shwartz said. “While a lot of schools have put emphasis on this, it really hasn’t had a very transformative effect on the schools, because the curriculum remains the same.” Schwartz encourages courses that teach students differently and give them opportunities to participate in group or individual research projects.

After beginning plans for the class, Stock then teamed up with Troy Davis, director of the Swem Media Center, to initiate the project. Through a combination of Stock’s connections and expertise in Cuban cinema and Davis’ thorough knowledge of production, the two were able to create the new media research workshop.

Students who enrolled in the class were mostly film and Hispanic Studies majors, with whom Stock was affiliated through her work in both departments.

“It’s really a wonderful opportunity to blend groups of students with very different expertise. They learn to rely on one another,” Stock said.

Rather than focus on a mastery of standard Cuban film curriculum, the class puts greater emphasis on each student’s original research. The course also requires students to translate scripts from their original Spanish for the creation of sub subtitles, in an effort to create volumes for an upcoming Cuban cinema series.
Stock discovered through her contacts with a number of independent Cuban filmmakers — a group she calls “street film makers” — that the only impediment to Cuban film reaching the international circuit was a shortage of domestic subtitling resources.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time not with the masters, but with the young emerging filmmakers,” Stock said. “They’re working outside the industry for the most part, just kind of literally with cameras on bicycles. Some of these films are pretty incredible.”

Stock gave the task of translation to her students.

“The fact that we’re going to subtitle [the filmmaker’s] documentary means that he will have the opportunity to circulate that at international festivals,” Stock said. “What the students are doing is having an impact on artists and Cuban culture. This particular filmmaker will have his career trajectory shaped, granted in a small way, by the work of William and Mary faculty-student research projects.”

Pressure to update and modernize curricula at the College is a constant source of concern to professors of all departments.

“I really am committed to William and Mary students who want to make a difference, and that can be a difference in a scholarly way or … a difference in the life of a young Cuban filmmaker. At the same time, these people all matter to me, Cuban filmmakers and WM students. I can be the bridge in bringing them together.”

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