Cinematic arts professor Michael Smith recently returned from a year of teaching cinematic production and design in Jordan through the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, orchestrated through his alma mater, University of Southern California.
“I contacted the head of instruction, who was home from Jordan for the summer,” Smith said. “We discussed what I could contribute to the program, what they were lacking. That’s how we came up with the plan for me to teach cinematic design.”
A desire to teach somewhere outside of the United States is not new to Smith.
“I knew I wanted to do a Fulbright. I knew I wanted to go overseas,” Smith said. “It’s something I have been thinking about ever since I became a professor.”
After earning a Master of Fine Arts degree, spending years guiding students through the intricate process of film making in the States and playing an instrumental role in the development of APU’s Theater, Film and Television Department, Smith was ready for another challenge.
“Just getting out of the regular routine here at APU enabled me to think differently about how I teach,” Smith said. “Having to teach people who, for many of them English was a second language, caused me to look at cinematic design concepts in a different way. … The experience has changed the way I teach the APU course as well.”
To those who are informed about the current conflicts in the Middle East, it is no surprise that the youth Smith interacted with have a strong desire to have their voices heard and their stories told.
“The Middle East right now is going through the kind of social upheaval that the U.S. went through in the 1960s,” Smith said. “There was a lot of creativity that came out of the U.S. during the ‘60s and ‘70s. I think we will see the exact same thing over the next decade come out of the Middle East.”
During times of oppression, revolution and war, people historically have been pushed toward a creative outlet to express their opinions. This is exemplified in the protest songs of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Buffalo Springfield, as they decried the corrupt nature of the Vietnam War. The same creative rebellion against war is obvious in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” with regard to World War II, and the debilitating effects of the war in Afghanistan are portrayed in “The Hurt Locker,” an Oscar-winning film directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
“There’s going to be a lot of interesting stories that are being told by young filmmakers that don’t have anything to lose,” Smith said. “And if those stories can get out, people will be quite interested in what they see.”
Senior cinematic arts major Phillip Hall considers Smith a mentor and has had him for his “Cinema and TV Production 2” and “Cinema Aesthetics” classes.
“He challenges you by asking, ‘Why did you frame it this way?’ I always have to have an answer, which encourages me to build a case for my choices or reconsider them altogether,” Hall said.
Now that he’s back at APU, Smith has begun taking practical steps to increase the standards of the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, pushing for a separate application in addition to the general forms filled out by freshmen hoping to be accepted into the university.
“Michael is a blessing to our department,” Hall said. “He has been working really hard to raise the level of quality within APU’s BFA degree, and really make it mean something, give your achievement gravity in the industry, as well as be competitive with other schools.”
Overall, Smith wants his students to understand the immense power of a story. The art of cinema is a gift, and without an emphasis on well-crafted, intentional storytelling, many students will graduate with a vacant sense of creativity.
“It’s unfortunate that the only thing that can get made now on a large scale is a comic book,” Smith said. “Do we really need another Batman movie?”