Professors Lead Students in a Cultural Immersion at the Florida Film Festival

April 11, 2011

Florida Film Festival 2011

Socky O'Sullivan (far left) and Denise Cummings (far right) attend the Florida Film Festival with students enrolled in this year's course.

It was March 1990 and crowds were milling about the streets of Downtown Orlando. Drawing people of all backgrounds and age groups, the Orlando Fringe Film Festival was in full swing. Standing at the corner of Orange Avenue, Professor of English Socky O’Sullivan towered over a group of students with one hand gesturing wildly in the air, the other gripping the remains of a worn program book.

“The film was all about the virtue of self-preservation,” he exclaimed enthusiastically.

The students protested, and the group engaged in a prolonged discussion. For the students, debating their English professor was always interesting, but debating their professor while enjoying food and drinks with actors, directors and playwrights at Kate O’Brien’s, an Irish pub downtown, was far more exciting.

This was exactly the experience O’Sullivan was hoping for when he designed the Fringe Festival course for Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School in the spring of 1990. He wanted to promote an interactive class experience for his students outside of the classroom. After a decade, however, the Fringe Festival ran into difficult times, and O’Sullivan began searching for a new festival to focus his course on.

“I didn’t think it was providing the breadth and depth students needed,” said O’Sullivan. “I was looking for something comparable to do, and I thought the Florida Film Festival would be a good experience.”

At the time, the Florida Film Festival was held solely at the Enzian Theater, founded by the Tiedtke family, which has a long history with Rollins. John guided the Bach Festival for years, Philip is a member of the Board of Trustees and Elizabeth (Class of 2008) is now the director of operations at the Enzian. Because O’Sullivan already had a good relationship with Tiedtkes and Enzian, he decided to make the film festival transition and title it Film as Art: The Florida Film Festival.

“Teaching the course was fun, interesting and valuable,” said O’Sullivan. “But after a couple of years, I realized that students were hearing only my voice, and they needed to hear another voice with a different perspective.”

In 2005, O’Sullivan decided to spice up the course and invited Assistant Professor of Critical Media and Cultural Studies Denise Cummings to team-teach it with him.

“Denise has been wonderful,” said O’Sullivan. “She has generational, gender and distinct ideological differences from me. I thought it was important for students to hear that.”

“Having two professors in an immersion experience means that students get two different perspectives,” said Cummings. “We bring things that are quite different to the group. While my colleague has worked with film and studied texts related to film, he isn’t a film studies person per say, whereas part of my formal training is in film studies.”

A man whose favorite movies include The Godfather, The Quiet Man and Dirty Dancing, O’Sullivan has edited two film education books—Florida Noir: Crime Fiction and Film in the Sunshine State and Bad Boys and Bad Girls in the Bad Lands.

With a background in English and film studies, Cummings serves on the Enzian’s Advisory Council and Florida Film Festival Selection Committees: Narrative Features and International Shorts. Her first book, an edited collection called Visualities: Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art, is due out next month from Michigan State University Press as part of its American Indian Studies Series. She has also published essays on film and on cinema exhibition history.

Unlike most courses, where the professors preview the film beforehand, O’Sullivan and Cummings choose to experience the film with their class.

“We are experiencing it at the same time as the students,” said O’Sullivan. “We walk out of the film and talk about it. We are all formulating ideas about the film at the same time.”

“When the students are reacting to the film, we are also reacting,” added Cummings. “It is really a shared learning experience.”

Both Full Sail University and the University of Central Florida have courses related to the Florida Film Festival. However, neither institution places the same liberal arts perspective on the festival itself. Full Sail University, an official sponsor of the festival, focuses more on engaging filmmakers and the audience, and the University of Central Florida focuses on a marketing perspective. Rollins is the only institution that offers a course focusing on film studies, film appreciation, and cultural awareness related to the art of a film festival.

“I know when it began it was unique,” said O’Sullivan. “There hasn’t been another course anywhere in the world where students are intimately involved through the entire period and spend time not only on the aesthetics of film but on the mechanics, economics and sociology of the festival as well. And that makes it a really distinctive experience.”

“We are the only school that has a course like this in the film festival,” said Cummings. “This course is unique in that we take it truly from a liberal arts perspective,” said Cummings. “We see the course as dovetailing with the mission of the Enzian, which is to ‘entertain, inspire, educate and connect the community through film.’”

This month, the dynamic duo are enjoying their sixth year teaching the course together as their class participates in the Florida Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary, where many of the festival films’ filmmakers will be in attendance. At the end of the two week immersion course, the students will assume the roles of professional movie critics, writing several film reviews that will then be submitted to the Enzian.

“Over the years, I have seen an enormous growth in student knowledge about film,” said O’Sullivan. “Film has come out of the closet as a field.”

“There is this notion that you can study film in the classroom and screen film in rooms and with all of the updated scholarly resources,” said Cummings. “But it’s different when you can experience the film with the people who made it. That is a kind of classroom experience in itself.”

The 20th Annual Florida Film Festival runs through Sunday, April 17.

By Brittany Fornof (Class of 2011)

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