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Your Portfolio Needs to Make Sense Overseas

Even more crucial than having a thick portfolio during the application process as an international student is to have creative material which assessors at film schools overseas can “get” without trying too hard.
Safina has directed various documentaries including the highly acclaimed 'My Mother India' and 'The Brides of Khan'

A common problem all students from South Asia can face when applying abroad to study film is having work that doesn’t cross borders easily whether in terms of style, nuances or content.

Safina Uberoi who has studied both at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and Sydney’s Australian Film TV and Radio Schoolsays she wasn’t able to get through to the Sydney school until she put in additional material to help Australian viewers “decode” her work.

In an interview with Rajyasri Rao, Uberoi talks of her fond memories of the Jamia film school, her experience at AFTRS and her advice to all those who want to make films.

While studying to become a film maker you attended one of India’s leading institutes for mass communication – the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia–what did your time there teach you?

We had some wonderful teachers at Jamia. Some had recently joined so they were as fresh and enthusiastic as we were. I particularly recall three young women, all passionate about film – Shohini Ghosh, Sabina Gadihok and Sabina Kidwai. They showed us some mind blowing films which completely overturned our ideas of what a documentary was.To enjoy learning something, and learn it well, you need good gurus. And a good institution is one which finds and keeps those gurus!

You went on to study at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney. How difficult was it to get in? What do you think helped strengthen your application?

It was very difficult to get into AFTRS. The School was, and still is, a highly resourced institution and it was extremely competitive.

“To enjoy learning something, and learn it well, you need good gurus. And a good institution is one which finds and keeps those gurus!”

There was also the disadvantage that what we were making in India was really different from what they were used to seeing and evaluating in Australia. I think this applies to anyone applying from India to study media overseas. It is almost as if, along with the portfolio, you need to provide a cipher so assessors can understand the meaning of what they are looking at.

After I did not get in the first time, I put in additional material to help Australian viewers decode my submission. I finally got in on my third attempt!

What was your experience there and how did it compare to your time at Jamia?

Jamia was more focused on documentary, while AFTRS was really a world class center for training film-makers to make fiction. For the short pieces we did as course work, we had junior actors, but for our final year films we could work with very senior performers.

But AFTRS was much more than a playground. Although it has fantastic facilities- what was really valuable was, the lessons we learnt from our teachers.

“It is almost as if, along with the portfolio, you need to provide a cipher so assessors can understand the meaning of what they are looking at…This applies to anyone applying from India (or South Asia) to study media overseas.”

One teacher who was outstanding was Brian Hannant. He was our directing teacher with a background partly in script writing. He taught me the value of a well structured script. Even though I direct documentaries, I have kept up this skill of constructing a narrative over the years. Even in documentary I follow Brian’s discipline of establishing a clear premise and following it through to a strong resolution.

Another great gift was fellow students. The caliber was so high that daily interaction was exciting and challenging. There was a huge emphasis on collaboration. When we left Film School, this spirit continued leading to many long lasting partnerships between fellow students.

How open is the school to international applicants? What advice would you give aspiring students of film studies from South Asia on how to gain a foot in the door?

“Sometimes a good photo essay or a slide show could be more compelling evidence of your talent in audio-visual storytelling than a ‘film’ as such.”

AFTRS is a national school and federally funded. When I was there, it spent as much per student as the Defense Academy did in training a fighter pilot. Australia does this because it has a conscious policy of developing Australian talent, but this also means that the main courses are open only to Australian citizens and permanent residents.

A Good Man, a documentary by Safina Uberoi, is about an inspirational Australian family.

But AFTRS does offer shorter ‘open’ courses. These are expensive, but well worth it. They are taught by industry professionals, so you get a very realistic education. And it all happens at the film school- which is a very inspiring environment.

“AFTRS is a national school and federally funded. When I was there, it spent as much per student as the Defense Academy did in training a fighter pilot.”

There are two other institutions in Sydney which offer very good film education where I have also taught:the Sydney Film School and the Sydney International Film School. The Sydney Film School has a more relaxed atmosphere and some excellent staff. It is small, like a family, but with the kind of people who will really teach you the ‘essence’ of making films.

Sydney International Film School has a more modern profile, and perhaps a few more of ‘toys’. They also have industry professionals teaching there, which keeps courses relevant and dynamic.

To apply, you need to check your budget, of course, and develop your portfolio. It will really help if you already have some strong material to show. It does not have to be technically accomplished - it need not even be a film. Sometimes a good photo essay or a slide show could be more compelling evidence of your talent in audio-visual storytelling than a ‘film’ as such.

And what advice do you have for anyone interested in pursuing film making as a career?

The same advice as I give people who want to make a film: What do you want to say? Film is a really expensive medium, and training in film takes years of study, and more years of apprenticeship in the industry. After all these years I feel there is really no point learning how to make films, no point spending that money, time and energy if you have nothing to communicate.

“Sometimes, when I get it right, I can feel that truth run right through me like an electric current. It could be out on location when we pan the camera at exactly the right moment and something unfolds before us…that is the magic moment when the story speaks through you.”

I truly believe that if you let go of yourself, then film making becomes more than a ‘tool’. It becomes a conduit, a medium through which something greater is expressed.

Sometimes, when I get it right, I can feel that truth run right through me like an electric current. It could be out on location when we pan the camera at exactly the right moment and something unfolds before us or an edit where a juxtaposition of two comments reveals a truth I had never consciously thought.

But that is the magic moment when the story speaks through you. Now your job is to hold that memory, and fight off all the Executive Producers who don’t get it - because the audience will sense it. You will see it in their eyes, their laughter, and their tears. If you believe your truth is best told by film, study it. Otherwise don’t bother.


A Promo for A Good Man, A Documentary by Safina Uberoi

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