Full STEAM Ahead!

In the public eye, art exists as a bit of a singular and miraculous object. It is consumed in a way that preserves a bit of magic, and provides an experience that is personal and collective at the same time. But how often do we think about art we enjoy from a practical standpoint? From inspiration to source material, the influence and methods behind production of art can be classified as routine, or perhaps even a type of engineering.

In America, there has long been a crisis in education; most of the focus has been on improving STEM fields (Science/Tech/Engineering/Math), where as a nation we ranked 38th internationally in the scientific arena.  The Federal Government funded the creation of a Committee on STEM education in 2015 to support the development of a more effective curriculum. As encouraging as this is, one has to wonder what the implications of heavy, long-term focus is on such materials. Talking with Kasai Omar, Director of Research & Development for CCBFF, STEM tends to manifest as “a drive towards well-defined careers,” in the US, which is harmful to “the observational spirit [that] is the very nature of cognitive development in children.”

This is where STE(A)M comes in. An infusion of the arts into a heavy science curriculum gives a necessary and vital breath of fresh air into these fields. For all of the perceived security that STEM advancement may bring, the arts are there to demonstrate our ability to observe and perceive the world around us with regard to and outside of scientific inquiry. Omar highlights that “the arts, as mentioned, are a catalyst for unlocking one’s way of thinking, and this can complement how one learns more scientific concepts…on the other end, various STEM studies can provide context for the nature of the Arts and the methods we appreciate in them today.”

Of course, this was not entirely lost on the Government either: the Every Student Succeeds Act and reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act openly elevate arts curriculum as central to a student’s overall education, ensuring that the arts get access to privileges like Title I funding.

For the most part, it is very encouraging to know there’s a consensus that to have STEM without the arts would be a disservice to students everywhere. Winston Williams, Executive Director of the Capital City Black Film Festival, reinforced the point that “the arts are the cornerstone of every great society…When the ‘A[rts]’ is left out of STEM, I get motivated to fight for inclusion.” More importantly, he felt that “both areas of study…are connected” but too often STEM conjures up images of people/students that are “left out” of the promising influence of artistic courses.

So what does any of this have to do with film? Film, perhaps more than any other type of art form, is a unique conflation of science and creative efforts. Omar brings up that “Film is an amazing medium for an arts curriculum to explore…[film] incorporates a variety of creative and technical skills that can be refined at minimal cost, especially with the variety of modern tools available at our fingertips.” Thinking on the design and implementation of a camera, the physics of using mirrors to capture moving images, the chemistry is takes to develop film…the entire backstory of producing movies comes from an engineering effort that took over a century to create! More importantly, film is a science and art that can be a tool for empowerment. Historic filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, all the way through Ava DuVernay, didn’t just become artistic leaders overnight; they refined the science and engineered their stories into pieces of visual magic.

Says Williams: “The United States must recognize the arts as an equal player among science, technology, engineering, and math. We must not only focus on the stars in front of the camera, but the millions of people who develop the technical tools which enable the final product to reach the masses.” Film stands independently as an artistic medium that reflects both how we see the world, how we would like to see the world, and all the ways we can think differently about the world at the same time. Especially as Black film (makers and stars) expands on mainstream possibilities, the opportunity that film provides as an outlet and as a voice is almost unparalleled. For what it’s worth, Viola Davis’ Oscar speech was right: “I became an artist – and thank God I did – because we are the only profession that celebrated what it means to live a life.” The entwined powers of interpretation and observation that are at the heart of all study are also at the heart of our day-to-day lives. This is especially important in the world of film, where one can create themselves as they want to be seen and heard.

As we see what unfolds for this new attempt at refining education, there is a lot of encouragement. Within the last couple of years, more and more festivals supporting this marriage of arts and science is getting back at the heart of what filmmaking and art production is about: observing and remarking on the world around us, and the experiences that we share.

Thanks for reading and supporting the Capital City Black Film Festival!

By Winona Youngblood