James Choi, an instructor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the College of Computing and Digital Media, worked in the film business in Los Angeles for 17 years before returning to his hometown of Chicago. He started teaching as an adjunct at DePaul five years ago and became full-time faculty in 2014. His repertoire includes numerous short and feature films, including "Made in China," which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative at South by Southwest in 2009. Read on to learn more about his recent experience at a workshop in Cuba with the world-renowned Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami.
We're curious to hear about Cuba. How was it?
The 10-day workshop was held at Escuela Internationale de Cine Y TV, about an hour outside of Havana in the small town of San Antonio de los Banos. The school was started by renowned novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Its classrooms have attracted many of the greatest filmmakers around the world, which made it a fitting venue to hold such a workshop. Kiarostami held formal masterclass lectures for our group and the entire school. Then the rest of the time, our group went through the process of developing, writing and producing a short film under his tutelage. He shared his own philosophy and approach to filmmaking, but as he stated on our first day, he wasn't there to teach us about filmmaking but to help us realize our own approach.
What was it like to work one-on-one with Abbas Kiarostami?
It was a bit surreal being at a film school started by Gabriel Marquez in Cuba, studying under a filmmaker who's had a huge creative influence on me. He taught as a philosopher would and always challenged you to think outside the box, encouraging you to embrace the process of realization by being open to new ideas and suggestions. In the first four days, we explored our environment and developed story concepts, while receiving constant feedback from Kiarostami. It was a close-knit, collaborative space where he was available all day from breakfast until late into the evenings. Once we started shooting, we would run into him on the streets, because he would be out there as well, participating. Technology there is minimal-they barely have any internet, no cell service. It was strange and difficult yet exhilarating to get off the grid and focus on filmmaking and what matters most in storytelling; character and story.
What were the takeaways from the workshop that you are now bringing back to your students?
Unfortunately, in the U.S., we are almost forced to approach cinema as a "business" first. We tend to forget that in most parts of the world, cinema is still an art form. In many ways, the most powerful of all art forms. We now have the ability to share stories through the visual medium much more easily. It's imperative to encourage one another to create freely and hear from a greater diversity of voices outside the strict boundaries set up by the business of film. This is something I hope to instill in the students at DePaul. We didn't go out there with tons of equipment yet filmmakers were able to create by getting to the bare essence of storytelling and fearlessly approaching the process as a way of learning by doing. It was truly humbling to see some of the amazing work that came out of this experience.
You have filmed in Chicago and Los Angeles and Shanghai-how does filming in Cuba compare?
The biggest difference is that they have such limited resources. They're isolated and on their own in many ways. It's just different to not have people readily accessible via internet or cellphone. You're knocking on someone's door and telling them to meet you at 2 o'clock the next day by the tree to go shoot something, and then you hope that they will show up.
What about the film that you made in Cuba? When do we get to see it?
The short I made during the workshop runs 6 minutes and is entitled "An Artist Life." It focuses on a young painter who works as a barber and wielder to support his art in San Antonio de Los Banos. You can be on the lookout for the Filmando en Cuba con Abbas Kiarostami shorts films to be touring the festival circuit in the coming year.