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Learning by Doing During COVID-19

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Like all of PCA’s international student body, when the lockdown was approaching in France, our BFA Film Art majors were forced to decide whether to stay in France or head back to their home countries.  A group of them saw the opportunity to document their return home, in these most unusual circumstances, and to consider the various perspectives and reactions to this shared international experience.  Here PCA faculty Alexis Niki tells us about the project, and what it has taught her as a teacher.

In mid-March, along with the rest of the PCA community, JiaLi (Jerry) Ding, Yao (Franklin) Cheng, and JiaXin (Rocky) Zuo learned that the PCA campus was closing and they would have to fly home. They were left with two days to pack everything up and find plane tickets. Nevertheless, these friends and colleagues in the Film Art program saw a creative opportunity. Together with YingQui (Megan) Wong, they grabbed cameras and filmed their journeys to three different cities: Los Angeles, Beijing, and Shanghai. Jerry and Franklin used the shared footage to create two different documentary shorts about the variety of perspectives and responses to the COVID-19 crisis that the friends encountered along the way.

In subsequent weeks, whenever I talked to Jerry and Franklin via Zoom, they would tell me about their films. Seeing their enthusiasm, I encouraged them to bring their projects into our Media Based Writing class. Their early cuts had all the basic elements, but needed better structuring. I knew that working on paper would help them make sense of the jumble of footage, find a narrative through-line, and develop their “characters.” I asked them to write an outline, and then as they progressed, to expand that outline into a script. The resulting script was a  technical tool—a working document—rather than a stand-alone creative expression. Nevertheless, both Jerry and Franklin saw the merits of this back-and-forth dialogue between paper and screen. “The paper outline helped a lot!” says Jerry. “It’s the thing I kept looking back at as I did my final editing. I wish we had had a better plan before we started shooting. We are missing so many establishing shots. But still, the paper outline is a great help, especially as I go back to the footage in search of specific elements.”

Jerry and Franklin turned a crisis into an opportunity for learning by doing — and as a result inspired me to stretch myself as a teacher. The experience has given me greater freedom to follow students, to use their own interests to guide them toward the stories they want to tell, no matter where they begin the process. It’s an approach I will be applying even after we return to the classroom.

You can watch the final cut on JiaLi Ding’s YouTube channel – 回家录 Go Home Club – A short documentary by JiaLi Ding.



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News and Virtual Campus.


Film Art.


Alexis Niki.