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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

Pedagogical City Hopping: the DocNomads Film School

“What if we create a curriculum for a school we’d like to attend ourselves?” That question was the foundation for a group of five educators who gathered in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2011 to brainstorm an entirely new two-year Masters-level film program dedicated to documentary production. The partners came from Lusófona University in Lisbon; the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, Hungary; and LUCA School of Arts/College Sint Lukas in Brussels, Belgium. Vítor Candeias, who represented Lusófona University in designing the program and is a course director as well as a documentary filmmaker, says that the original idea was to consider the mobility of the students—they would move to a different campus each semester. But beyond that, how do you design a curriculum that doesn’t exist yet and that would be different and original? 

“We were discussing what to do and were not very satisfied,” he says. “But when we asked what kind of school we’d like to attend, that was a magical idea.” From there, the team was able to create a unique and powerful curriculum that includes masterclasses, events and visits, and practices and skills, with a focus on how the three schools could work together in a complementary way as students moved from city to city.

The program begins in Lisbon, where students study the history, modes, aesthetics and practices of documentary film, with an emphasis on creating a shared foundation and creative language. This foundation is especially significant for DocNomads because students come from extremely diverse backgrounds, life experiences and careers and with varying levels of exposure to the filmmaking process.

Candeias explains that there is also an emphasis in the first semester on developing a sense of creative autonomy. While he recognizes that many students will eventually partner with other filmmaking experts—for sound design or editing, for example—and indeed, teamwork is encouraged, there is also a strong emphasis on students understanding how to do each part of the filmmaking process themselves. “They will work in duos and on teams, but they will also make their own films. We want them to be independent,” he explains.

The program’s second semester takes place in Budapest, where the focus shifts to advanced concerns, from foundational knowledge and a technical skillset to more sophisticated ideas related to aesthetics. The emphasis on directing, cinematography, editing, history and theory continues, but students begin to hone their own sensibilities.

For the third semester, the program takes place in Brussels, and the emphasis is on sound. One of the major assignments during this part of the program is to make an entire film with only the audio component, adding images once the sound design is complete. “This is the opposite of typical filmmaking,” says Candeias, noting that the practice helps students understand the complexity of sound in a new way. Students also learn how to prepare budgets and production files, and they begin to think about sales agents, distributors, the festival circuit and more as they consider their careers after DocNomads.

In the program’s final semester, the 24 students are divided into three groups of eight and sent back to one of the participating three campuses, where they work with an advisor and complete the program with a final film project. In the end, students graduate with an impressive portfolio that includes four individual films and eight co-authored films, as well as between 10 and 12 written essays.

Eneos Çarka, currently in the doctoral program in Cinema and Media Studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, attended the DocNomads program beginning in 2019 and graduated in 2021. He had already earned a BA in film directing from the University of Arts of Albania, and an MA in Film Studies from University College London. Asked why he wanted to attend yet another program, he says, “I had seen DocNomads’ films represented in festivals, so I knew about the program,” he says, adding that he was unsure about applying directly to a PhD program. “DocNomads was the best in-between thing. To me, it was a two-year-long lab; you practice filmmaking and find your voice.”

Çarka also notes that he appreciates the program’s focus on creative documentary, as well as the fact that it helps students understand the practical challenges of the industry. “We are also very international as a group, with people from many countries,” he adds (and Candeias concurs). “So far, we have received students from 67 different nationalities, which brings together a close community of people from diverse cultures and varied backgrounds, [which] also widens their network of potential cooperation after the program.”

While it may seem like a logistical nightmare to run a program with three different universities in three cities, Candeias was not concerned. Indeed, for him, the issue centers on the experience of the students: “In the beginning, we thought this will be a problem. We knew we would need to be well-organized because the students should not feel like they are going to three different schools. They should feel that they belong to one school, DocNomads. So, it’s one school, regardless of three campuses.” That said, they also celebrate the differences among all of the faculty; the differing perspectives, methodologies, practices, aesthetic choices and approaches offer excellent exposure. “We encourage the students to experiment, not to do what they’ve done before,” says Candeias. “This is a lab for two years, and you are in a protective environment. Be brave!”

Applicants to the program must have a bachelor’s degree in film, art or media studies, although other degrees may be accepted in conjunction with a strong creative portfolio. Applicants must also make a film specifically for the application process. Candeias offers this encouragement: “The competition is tough, but candidates that prove to be talented, socially minded, open to criticism and capable of teamwork, have a chance to get admitted.” Finally, nearly all of the students receive funding to cover the tuition, and only need to cover living and transportation costs. Applications are accepted each year in early January.

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