SFIFF54: Interview With Joanne Parsont, SFFS Director of Education


Joanne Parsont has worked in the Bay Area film community for 15 years as a film programmer, writer, editor, consultant, project manager and media educator, specializing in outreach, education, youth media, children's and documentary programming. She spent eight years directing the Mill Valley Film Festival's Children's FilmFest and the Film Society's Schools at the Festival program and curated children's programs for the Pacific Film Archive and the Boston Museum of Fine Art. She has a bachelor's degree in Russian and political science from Duke University and a master's degree in mass communication studies from the University of Michigan. She worked in Washington, D.C. for both the Public Broadcasting Service and the Learning Channel before arriving in the Bay Area in 1994.

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Michael Guillén: Joanne, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you became involved with the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS)?

Joanne Parsont: I've been involved with the Film Society since 1997. For several years I worked as temporary staff for the festival. My first actual job was in publications and then I segued into working in the Schools at the Festival program. I continued to work seasonally at several different film festivals as a children's film festival programmer for many years. I stuck with it over time because I was committed to the program and what they were doing around education and I wanted to see where it was headed.

In 2005, it became a year-round program and they hired Keith Zwölfer to run it year-round. I stayed on as a consultant and contractor for a while and then in 2009 they decided to broaden the Education Department and incorporated all the educational programs from the Film Arts Foundation, combining the education portion and the filmmaker education portion under one umbrella. At that time, they hired me as the Director of Education for the whole department.

Guillén: What a great journey. Was your university training focused on education?

Parsont: Not at all. My undergraduate degree is in Russian and political science and I went back to grad school for a Masters in Communication. While I was there, I did spend a lot of time studying elements around media, education and children, representations of children in film, and the impact of media on children. That was by interest and not intention. So when I moved to San Francisco I fell into it without really meaning to. Though I had an interest in it, I wasn't anticipating working in that field.

Guillén: The educational arm of any film society, and its impact upon an international film festival, is of such importance that I'm delighted to have the chance to talk to you today. Clearly, the audiences of the future are cultivated by educating them through cinema literacy. It's my understanding that the Schools at the Festival program is celebrating its 20th anniversary?

Parsont: That's correct.

Guillén: Congratulations! This might seem like an overly broad question but it's important to articulate the essentials: what is the value of education within a film festival's architecture? Specifically within the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF)?

Parsont: There are a lot of important elements to it. For us, part of it is--as you said--developing the audiences of the future so they have a real appreciation of cinema outside of the multiplex and the mainstream movies that kids usually gravitate to or only get to see, broadening their appreciation of the film experience, but also using film to connect them with the rest of the world. Education develops cultural awareness so the kids can actually see on screen other cultures, other people, and especially other kids their own age in other places. But education can also engage them with the filmmakers so it becomes an opportunity to--not only watch films in their classrooms--but to engage with the people who make the films; an even broader opportunity to learn about the subject in the film and also to learn about how the films are created. To learn how an art form is constructed and created from the artists themselves is incredibly inspirational for them, whether they are interested in filmmaking or not, and helps them understand how media is constructed. Not only does this develop their media literacy skills but it provides insight into how media is created for different audiences and how even editing, or the selection of sound or image, affects how they experience a story. Part of it too is engaging them with the film festival as a whole. We want the festival to be accessible and open to our community. Connecting the educational community with the festival is a big part of the program's mission.

Guillén: How is that effected? Do you bring children to the festival proper or do you take the films to the classrooms?

Parsont: We do both. Because a lot of it too is about providing teachers with useful teaching tools to use media as a way to teach whatever they're teaching in the classroom, to support their curriculum. But we also bring about 3,000 students to the theaters during the festival.

Guillén: Really?!! I had no idea. That's fantastic.

Parsont: We pick about a dozen or more films from the overall program and sometimes add a few of our own selections for schools and provide weekday matinees throughout the festival at the Kabuki. We get groups of hundreds of students at a time for each of these screenings that includes elementary, middle and high school. We also send filmmakers out to the classrooms throughout the festival. In the last couple of years we've managed to do about 30 school visits during the festival's two weeks, in addition to all of the screenings, so that about 4,000 kids in schools all around the Bay Area get to experience the festival. We don't just focus in the city and a lot of times we'll take filmmakers further afield--to Woodside, Moraga, or Novato even--so that we can reach kids who aren't able to come to the festival.

Guillén: That's great. I truly admire that. So logistically, when you invite talent to the festival to satisfy its necessary spectacular dimension, it's wonderful to hear that they also participate in satisfying the festival's educational outreach.

Parsont: I have to add that frequently for the filmmakers the experience is equally compelling. The feedback we get from filmmakers who have participated in these student screenings and classroom outings is enthusiastic. It's sometimes the first time they have shown their films to a youth audience and they've been surprised and blown away by the insightful and inspired questions they get from the kids. It shifts the perspective on how they see their own films. After being to too many film festivals and hearing the same questions over and over again from adult festival audiences, to see it through the eyes of kids is actually enlightening.

Guillén: I'm sure it's refreshing for them. How do you determine which talent participates with the schools?

Parsont: It works two ways. When guests are confirmed, our guest services will send information to them about our program and ask if they're interested in participating? A lot of times the program will be self-selecting by filmmakers who really want to participate, they're interested in the idea, and they'll contact us. Our coordinators will then view their films to confirm that they're appropriate for students. Usually we can make a film work for the program, even if we only show suitable clips from it, but generally it's self-selective with films that have interesting subject matter that kids would be engaged with and connect to whatever they're studying in school. We'll seek out certain filmmakers that we know will fit that criteria.

Guillén: Along with the Schools in the Festival program, the SFFS Education Department likewise caters to upper age brackets, such as young students in or fresh out of film school. Can you speak to what you offer them?

Parsont: Sure. We have a relatively new colleges and universities program called SFIFF College Days. It grew out of a program that had been running for many years in conjunction with San Francisco State University that was an offered weekend elective course. It was a three-day series of five festival films that were privately screened for this San Francisco State class. We have since opened that up to other colleges and universities to participate. The program is the same: we have five films over three days with guest filmmakers and Sean Uyehara, one of the festival's programmers, serves as a guest lecturer to keep a consistent, overarching structure. He still teaches the San Francisco State class and this year we've added a class at the University of San Francisco called "Inside SFIFF" that's all about the film festival and that class is culminating with this College Days program. It's a way for college students to engage with the festival in a way that's both affordable, get a huge dose of the films, and meet several of the filmmakers to really see what the festival's all about.

Then, as part of our year-round film craft and film studies classes for adults, we've added another program into the festival that consist of a series of master classes with some of the festival guests that give audience members an opportunity to go a little more in depth about the craft of filmmaking behind the scenes. In this year's edition we have one class on film criticism--"The Critic's Response and Responsibility"--with the French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, who's in the Bay Area on a Stanford residency. We have another master class with Frank Pierson, the screenwriter of Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, who's receiving this year's Kanbar screenwriting award. Finally, the producer-director team of Alison Dickey and Azazel Jacobs of our Centerpiece film Terri will be conducting a master class on the producer-director collaboration.

In addition to that, we've added a whole new series to the festival this year called "Salons" to really give audience members a chance to appreciate and engage a lot more deeply with the films, the subjects and the genres they're seeing during the festival. The idea is to take the Q&A to a whole other level where you want to talk about the film but you don't have the opportunity to go into any depth because of the festival's schedule restrictions. The salons will be hosted by Bay Area film scholars. One will be on "Expressions of French Cinema" and the other will be on "The Social Justice Documentary."

Guillén: And as if that's not enough, you also have classes going on outside the festival within the community at such venues as the Roxie Theater and The Lab?

Parsont: Yes, as part of our year-round programming, we've added educational classes at these two new venues, and will be including a program at the Red Vic later this summer. It's just our opportunity to reach into other neighborhoods and communities in the City and also to expand into larger venues than the ones we've had in the past to accommodate more interest.

Guillén: I'm glad the SFFS has decided to venture into those neighborhoods with their educational offerings because--though SFFS's offices are located out in the lovely Presidio--that's not convenient for most transit-dependent cinephiles in San Francisco. So thank you for broadening your reach.

Parsont: Absolutely.

Guillén: So as someone who has been monitoring educational outreach within film festival culture for the last 10-15 years, and with the addition of these master classes and salons at the festival proper, are you sensing that Bay Area audiences have become more cinema-literate and require upping the ante?

Parsont: In some ways. The San Francisco Bay Area audience is already cinema-literate. The City has one of the most film-savvy and film-appreciative communities in the country in many ways so some of our efforts are about satisfying the hunger for additional educational resources and information about films. Our new programs came about from observing how people were engaging with the festival last year and how we could serve them better from an educational perspective. It became very clear to me that there were people who felt passionately about films and appreciated films from a variety of styles, genres and countries and that they only get these two weeks to appreciate it. It felt like there was so much more ground for us to cover year-round in order for us to be able to serve them better.

That's one of the reasons we expanded our film studies section in our Film Craft and Film Studies program because we didn't want to be just serving filmmakers with our film craft classes for emerging and working filmmakers. We wanted to be able to engage that other person in the audience who appreciates film but doesn't necessarily want to make film; but, does want to become that much more literate. We wanted to give them a range of classes they might be interested in from Hong Kong crime films to science fiction. It's been fun for us and it has demonstrated to us that there's a huge audience out there that wants more than to just go to a movie; they want to explore.

Guillén: I attended that Hong Kong crime films class and found it to be a useful primer to understand that specific genre. I commend the SFFS Education Department for providing these introductory courses on various genres or in-depth explorations of films that might be a bit difficult and require means of entry. I commend you on that arm of the program. In fact, I commend you on the whole program. It has amazing breadth and moves into many different areas of the Bay Area community and I thank you today for taking the time to detail your outreach.

Parsont: Absolutely. I'm appreciative that you noticed and that you're interested and that it looks like the program is filling a niche, which is what we were hoping.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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