Aug. 17, 2006. 12:06 PM
Atom Egoyan is heading back to school this September.
The acclaimed Canadian filmmaker will begin a three-year teaching appointment at the University of Toronto about 25 years after graduating from the school. He and a dozen fourth-year undergraduate students — three each from cinema studies, music, drama and visual studies — will explore how different media clash and come together in a seminar course called Transgressions: An Approach to Interdisciplinary Practice.
“I’ll be talking about work that I’ve encountered over the last few years where I’ve seen very exciting interaction between the different art forms,” Egoyan said in an interview, naming adaptations of Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Richard Wagner’s work as candidates for course material.
“I’m very interested in operas that have been interpreted into visual art, or visual art that’s been interpreted musically or pieces of music that have been used by filmmakers in very specific ways,” he said.
“I think that there’s a lot of things to explore in how we’re able to use the principles of each of these art forms either against each other or in order to elaborate ideas.”
Egoyan wants to elaborate these ideas right onto the classroom floor, having students recreate art installations themselves in order to explore them in ways no archival photograph or video footage could allow.
“It’s not a traditional classroom situation. That’s not what I’m interested in,” Egoyan said. “I’m more excited by the idea of actually creating a physical sense of what it would mean to interact with these pieces.”
It’s unlikely anyone would expect something traditional from Egoyan, 46.
“Atom is an outstanding individual, an outstanding Canadian, who has developed a career and reputation on doing innovative work,” said Pekka Sinervo, U of T’s arts and science faculty dean.
Egoyan’s career is also incredibly interdisciplinary.
Aside from the 10 feature films on his resumé — including 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, which garnered Oscar nominations for best director and best adapted screenplay — he has also worked in theatre, television, multimedia art installations and opera.
He is currently directing Die Walküre for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which opens in Toronto next month.
Egoyan’s ability to span different media was one of the reasons U of T wanted to bring him in, said cinema studies program director Charlie Keil.
“You hear a lot about `interdisciplinarity’ and that’s something that’s more easily thought about than accomplished,” Keil said.
“That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t happen as often as some students might want it to happen. So this gives them a one-time opportunity to blend those interests, which I think is great.”
Mani Mazinani, 22, one of the visual studies students selected to take the course, said he looks forward to working with students from other fields because his own art practice dabbles in different media.
Actively involved with video and music along with sculpture, photography and printmaking, Mazinani said it will be great to encounter the academic side of those other art forms.
The students were either invited to participate by their individual departments or selected for the course after applying for the opportunity. Certain baseline criteria, such as high marks and a keen interest in the course, spanned all departments, Keil said.
Besides teaching the course, Egoyan will also give a series of public lectures as well as meet with and advise both graduate and undergraduate students. A flexible arrangement with the university will allow him to devote as much time as he can, while also keeping up with his busy career, Egoyan said.
Students aren’t the only ones who look forward to school this year.
“I think that I’m at a point where I’m just really sort of bursting with ideas that I’d love to share with younger minds and see how they respond, see how they can incorporate that into their practice,” Egoyan said.
“I’m really excited by how a 20-year-old reacts to these issues in this particular culture — what the work that’s inspired me would mean to somebody who’s at the beginning of their career,” he said.
Egoyan’s own film career began when he was an undergraduate student at U of T, four years that he calls “one of the most exciting times of my life.”
Although he was studying international relations and classical guitar, he made his first short film in his freshman year.
He chuckled recalling how student filmmakers had to secure a small grant and then line up at the university’s Hart House Film Board to access their single film camera and editing system.
“What’s incredible is we’re living in a time when you can just go and shoot a film with a digital camera and edit it on your computer,” Egoyan said. “It’s a very different practice and it’s been hugely democratized.”
But with that comes a way of approaching film Egoyan feels might be in jeopardy.
“My generation of `cinephile’ has this sense of duration, like how an image is projected and held on a screen. There’s a sense of how we relate to time, which is very different from how a young person might feel,” he said.
“I feel there is a way of watching or absorbing work, which may be disappearing,” he added. “I just want to make sure that the tradition in which those works were created is still maintained.”
Egoyan is not the only big name in Canadian film to grace U of T’s cinema studies program this year.
In March, Robert Lantos — who has produced several of Egoyan’s movies — was named chair of the program’s fundraising campaign. Its goal is to raise $7 million for renovations and additions to the university’s on-campus movie theatre and the program itself.