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Film students head to Paris, study film movement

This semester, 13 students embarked on the French New Wave Project, a program hosted by LSU Academic Programs Abroad to engross students in the understanding and application of the French New Wave film movement that swept Paris during the early '60s. This program was the brainchild of two associate professors, Trish Suchy and Kevin Bongiorni, in the communication studies and French departments, respectively.

French New Wave ProjectVideo: French New Wave Project Student Films

French New Wave ProjectErica Mahorney takes a break from her busy shooting day to take a picture at the Eiffel Tower. Who says Tigers can't work hard and play hard?
Erica Mahorney

French New Wave Project(From left) Graduate assistants Mollye Deloach and Sarah Jackson plan out shots and scenes with Drs. Trish Suchy and Kevin Bongiorni to be featured in the LSU French New Wave documentary.
Nick Arnold

French New Wave ProjectLSU students got the opportunity of a lifetime when they met the living legend of French New Wave, Agnès Varda. Varda detailed the struggles of being young director with little support and money. Freshman Rebecca Matthews looks over Varda's famous still pictures that litter her studio in Paris.
Melaine Hackney

French New Wave ProjectLSU graduate students and professors coax the students into reenacting the famous "long take" from François Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" in the outdoor park near the Cinémathèque Française.
Melaine Hackney

French New Wave ProjectLSU student Natalie Crawford waits for her cue to jump into another student's short film while visiting the French New Wave landmark Parc Montsouris.
Kittu Pannu

French New Wave ProjectWhen wind became a negative factor in the sound quality, LSU graduate students crafted their own wind shield to conduct documentary interviews on the banks of the Siene River. (From left): Dr. Trish Suchy, Nick Arnold, Sarah Jackson, Mollye Deloach and Kittu Pannu.
Erica Mahorney

Inspired by experimentation with the film medium, the French New Wave movement captured the essence of French youth in the late '50s and '60s and often included little to no set up time, radical editing techniques and a break in film tradition never seen before.

"We wanted it to be a comprehensive learning experience where they're studying the French New Wave, they're watching all of the films, and then they're learning how to imitate the styles and techniques of the filmmakers, and the study abroad experience," Bongiorni said. "They took both classes to get their comprehensive knowledge and experiences and then having the actual study abroad experience, getting the full cultural context of the whole film movement and being New Wavists, it's this holistic approach."

The film and media arts department has always collaborated with various departments to create these interdisciplinary programs, Suchy said.

"We did the Fellini Project in 2009 and 2010… [it] was transformative because we got to extend it over two years and make amazing connections with Italian film scholars and even people who knew Fellini," Suchy said. "We wanted to do a similar project in France, and the New Wave offered so much potential — it was in some ways vastly more complicated a subject."

Those complications did not stop Suchy and Bongiorni from creating a diverse program, including app development, documentary work and course work in the art of French New Wave.

This project differed from what they have done in the past, Bongiorni said.

"This time, we got to work more with graduate students and develop an app," Bongiorni said. "It's a broader spectrum that captures the essence of what education should be and can be for students."

The French New Wave challenged the film industry at a time when budgets were big and most films lacked the creativity that revolutionized the medium 40 years earlier. This innovative style resonated with many of the students, including Erica Mahorney, a communication studies/film and media arts senior.

"The thing I liked the most about the New Wave was how they did so much with so little," Mahorney said. "You hear about outrageous budgets for films these days and then you see the New Wave films. It's like, 'if they can pull it off, we can, too.'"

Some of the main highlights of the trip include getting to meet and discuss film techniques with the "mother" of French New Wave, Agnès Varda.

"She was one of my favorite directors," Mahorney said. "To be able to talk about modern film and how French New Wave has influenced so much, that was incredible."

From the beginning, students exceeded the learning outcomes both professors originally wanted, Bongiorni said.

"They not only developed a facility in the techniques and comprehension of the New Wave, but they're completely conversant in it and completely at ease in it," Bongiorni said. "They understand the French New Wave, not just in the historical and cultural aspect, but also in terms of today, how it ties in and relates to cinema and culture. And with their skills, they are able to understand the French New Wave technically, culturally, socially, cinematically and they are able to apply it to the very films they are making."

In terms of the app, Melanie Hackney, a French studies Ph.D. student, wanted to create something that everyone could use.

"The primary function would be as an educational tool," Hackney said. "Through the project, we learned that students are comfortable with film and they know how to analyze film critically, but since they always have their phones in their hand, I think developing this app will be beneficial for them to expand their learning experience even more."

Documenting the project as a part of a French New Wave documentary had its challenges, said Mollye Deloach, a communication studies master's student.

"It's been really challenging to organize a documentary around an ongoing project, but I think that's the nature of documentary," Deloach said. "The best part was that you visit the locations where these directors stood, where they filmed these movies, and it's just this odd connection experiencing the French New Wave. The documentary helps fill that gap to show our own experiences chasing the French New Wave and trying to understand it fully."

Going to Paris to film the projects was a no-brainer, Suchy said.

"Paris is haunted by film history, everywhere. It's such a thrill to find the street where Michel was shot at the end of 'Breathless,' and to re-enact that," Suchy said. "I am a big believer in the power of study abroad to transform the way we think of ourselves in the world."

Communication studies and film and media arts senior Matthew Sewell believes programs like this are beneficial for students.

"I think that it should be a rite of passage for all film students — if you have an opportunity to do a project like this, it is definitely worth it," Sewell said. "This was the best way to hone your skills and really learn from it. Having that pressure and time constraints to finish everything in that week really showed us how the industry can work."

Suchy wanted to make sure that the objectives learned in the classroom would not just stay there, but rather be used in real life. Because of this, she chose to develop the program in collaboration with Academic Programs Abroad, the College of Humanities & Social Sciences, the Film and Media Arts program, the French Studies department, the Communication Studies department and LSU School of Music. Efficiency is usually how the university works, but in this context, efficiency would have been detrimental, Suchy said.

"It would be far more 'efficient' to load 200 students into a classroom, hand you all a book, lecture for 14 weeks on the new wave, then give you a test," Suchy said. "But I'm betting you learned a lot more this way, and a lot more that will stay with you, and a lot that exceeds the subject and that will prepare you to go on to other projects, beyond graduation and in the world, film related or not."

Working with the LSU School of Music, the filmmakers were able to pair up with a composer to create original scores for their films. This type of interdisciplinary work allowed composers like Nick Hwang, a music composition Ph.D. student, to live out his interests.

"My favorite part of the project is communicating with the director and figuring out how I can help contribute musically," Hwang said. "I think interdisciplinary work should be a part of an education, especially in creative fields. The experience and the understanding of how 'the other parts' work fosters better communication and insight for those larger projects."

Film and media arts senior Taylor Wilcox enjoyed these collaborations the most.

"Filmmaking is a collaborative art and this is the best way to show that," Wilcox said. "You're making films, writing them, you're thinking critically about them and then you work with a multitude of people like composers. It's just an amazing experience."

There are not many projects of this caliber offered at other institutions, Bongiorni said.

"There's innovation here at LSU," Bongiorni said. "There's an advance in interdisciplinary work here that is unparalleled at other schools."

As for projects like this in the future, Suchy said not to rule anything out just yet, hinting at a possible Italian Neorealism project that travels to Rome. Bongiorni suggested that collaborations with other disciplines might be in the works.

"If we did this again, we want to involve mass communication and marketing concentrations to see how they would market these films," Bongiorni said. "It's an incredible opportunity for students and gives them a coherent understanding of all aspects of film."

It is projects such as these that make teaching so worthwhile to professors like Bongiorni.

"This is what I thought teaching would be when I started out," Bongiorni said. "The students are motivated and go beyond what was expected."