Just as photography is said to capture souls, film, as a moving, multi-angled, image, has the power to peer into the centre of a subject’s personality, revealing both the seen and the unseen. As Creative Production Film Masters student, Jennifer Jo Stokka, puts it, “Cinema allows the audience a direct view into the psyche.” What better way to explore the conscious and unconscious realms of the Self than through a combination of documentary and fictional film?
In her practice-based research project, Jennifer aims to capture an original version of character studies in a hybrid documentary film, by utilising Jungian methods of analysis. The project will examine three unique individuals and how they navigate their everyday realities using the documentary observational mode. Meanwhile, fictional sequences will showcase unconscious elements of each subject’s psyche – namely, dreams, fantasies and spirituality. The goal of the film is to ask the audience to reflect on their own psyches and forms of Self-expression. Jennifer is harnessing the creative autonomy afforded by our unconventional MA programme to explore her vision to the fullest.
Are you currently putting together your MA project proposal to apply to Catalyst this year? Read on to learn about Jennifer’s experience of the programme, and how she’s developing her fascinating project.
Need some guidance on how to put together your project proposal? Reach out to our Admissions team for a recording of our latest online workshop with programme lead, Jon-Carlos Evans.
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
I have always been interested in documentaries, as well as character studies. However, in early 2020, I happened to see two films within the same month that set me on the path to this project: Close Up by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami; and, Whose Utopia? by Chinese visual artist Cao Fei. Viewing these films and, subsequently, learning about their constructions, presented to me a new way of seeing the documentarian-subject relationship. I was inspired by the level of autonomy given to the subjects in each film, and the ways in which the directors allowed the subjects to express themselves. I knew I wanted to make a film that followed similar principles, and I also had a strong desire to make an intimate character study. Finally, I settled on the hybrid film format, as: 1) It would give me the freedom to show the subject in various lights and facets; and, 2) it would allow me to flex multiple filmmaking muscles, as many skills are required to complete the different parts of the hybrid film.
Why do you think that film is a good medium to explore psychological themes?
The struggle to understand one’s Self is a universal truth – every human experiences this for at least part, if not all, of life. Cinema (and I would also argue Theatre) allows the audience a direct view into the psyche of another for (roughly) two uninterrupted hours, whether it’s a real human subject in a documentary or a character in a fictional film. We all become psychologists and anthropologists when we sit down to watch a film.
What are your influences within documentary and fictional filmmaking?
So many! To name a few: Abbas Kiarostami (doc & fiction), John Cassavettes (fiction), Agnés Varda (doc & fiction), William Greaves, (doc), Kirsten Johnson (doc), Kelly Reichhardt (fiction), and basically anyone who is trying to do something original in order to uncover a new facet of truth.
How have you planned out your creative process?
Much of my process is improvisational, which is both a blessing and a curse. I am a meticulous planner by nature, so many of the logistical aspects of filmmaking come quite easily to me. However, there are many creative and aesthetic ideas that I simply cannot plan ahead of time and must figure out in the moment through play and collaboration. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am so drawn to documentary filmmaking, as it allows for more spontaneity than scripted formats.
“I was looking for something a bit outside the norm. I liked the idea of working toward my own unique vision – with some guidance from the tutors – as opposed to creating projects that had to fit certain criteria”
What tools and resources are you planning to use to explore this idea?
The works of Carl Jung, especially his works that deal with accessing the unconscious mind through dream analysis and Active Imagination. And, of course, the subject of my film will be my most valuable resource, as we will be working quite closely together in the construction of the fictional sequences of this film.
Are there any tutors that have had an important impact on your process or experience so far?
What was your creative background before starting the Catalyst MA?
I was a performer for many years with a focus on theatre in my teenage years and early twenties, and then shifted to improv and sketch comedy, as well as filmmaking, in my mid-twenties. Since 2019, my primary focus has been on filmmaking.
Why did you feel this programme in particular was a good choice to pursue your creative goals?
I’m from the US and it seems that most film programs there are designed to teach you a rigid, traditional, studio-focused structure, which is fine for some, but I was looking for something a bit outside the norm. I liked the idea of working toward my own unique vision – with some guidance from the tutors – as opposed to creating projects that had to fit certain criteria (i.e. genre-specific, meeting certain technical requirements, etc).
“If you don’t know or understand yourself, your history, and your unique point of view, how can you possibly create work that is meant to explore these same themes in others?”
Could you share something valuable that you have learnt or discovered through this MA so far?
Our first major deliverable in the first trimester was a three-minute autobiography. When we received the prompt for the project, I thought: “This is an impossible task. How can one summate their life in three minutes?” In retrospect, it was a genius assignment to have given us, especially at the start of our MA journeys. It forced us to think about which parts of ourselves most urgently need to be shared with the audience. This is a question that I think should be at the root of every new project for a filmmaker/director/writer/artist/etc. If you don’t know or understand yourself, your history, and your unique point of view, how can you possibly create work that is meant to explore these same themes in others?
Also, this may be boring to some, but learning about budgeting, funding, and pitching has been quite valuable. These are tools that are ESSENTIAL for independent filmmakers.
What would be your advice to those who are putting together their project proposals right now?
Don’t worry about having every single element of your pitch perfectly figured out at this stage. Things WILL change. Just know which core question(s) you are hoping to address with your work. For me, I knew I wanted to figure how I could personally use the elements of hybrid filmmaking to explore one individual’s identity. It wasn’t until later – after I’d already submitted my proposal to Catalyst – that I realised Jung’s work would play such a pivotal role in my project. And it wasn’t until even later that I knew who my subject would be, which again changed my approach to the project. So, establish your core question(s) and know your unique POV as a filmmaker, and then the rest will fall into place over time.
“I’ve fallen prey to the misconception that creative inspiration will only strike randomly, when you least expect it.”
What catalyses your creativity?
Play! Stimulating conversation! Learning from others! But also, I need to do the work – I’ve fallen prey to the misconception that creative inspiration will only strike randomly, when you least expect it. The truth – at least for me – is that inspiration comes more often, and more potently, when I sit down and do the work.