“One thing I learned at art school that has stayed with me for life is a love for world cinema in all its diversity.”
A SHORT ILAM MEMOIR
I went to Ilam with the specific goal of studying film. Today, dozens of institutions around New Zealand offer some form of film education, but at that time the only places resembling a film school were Ilam in Christchurch and Elam in Auckland. In startling contrast to today's over-hyped, movie-mad climate, the film department at Ilam had a pretty low status within the art school and was commonly regarded as a place for people who could not draw or paint.
My knowledge of Ilam was purely accidental. A friend studying engineering knew I was passionate about film and suggested I check out the University [of Canterbury] prospectus.
Having never done art at school, I didn't think I had much chance of being accepted, and at first I wasn't. But by some freak of chance another student pulled out of the course days before it commenced, and I was offered a place.
The first intermediate year was tough. I didn't even know how to hold a paintbrush. But some of my tutors were very encouraging. The best advice for life I ever got was from Doris Lusk, who peered over my shoulder during a life drawing class and loudly exclaimed, "For heaven's sake, Costa, if you must draw badly, at least draw badly with confidence." I traded in my 2B pencil for brush and ink, and my work immediately got bolder and better. Doris was not as dotty as some of the students liked to think. She taught me that drawing is about looking and seeing; a perception of great relevance to my film work.
The other lecturer who had a big influence on me was Laurence Aberhart, who taught us photography. His sublimely stark pictures taught me to appreciate how even the simplest images can carry a wealth of meaning.
I have few memories of fellow students. It was not at all a communal scene in my experience. We all pushed ahead, heads down, and did our unique things. I tended to socialise outside the school more often than not. Frankly, most other arts students bored, annoyed or exasperated me. And the ones who didn't, I've sadly forgotten. But one chap I enjoyed the company of was Ronnie van Hout. He was always cheerfully subverting every serious film cliché he could, and has entirely kept that fresh spirit of non-conformity in his work ever since. I like to think that I've kept my idealism intact too... often to the detriment of my career!
The so-called New German Cinema was at its height during the period I was at art school. Directors like Wim Wenders and especially Werner Herzog were hugely influential on me, and everyone else. I also recall being profoundly impressed by the cinéma verité movement, and the documentary films of Les Blank and the Mayles Brothers in particular, all of which I discovered at art school.
One thing I learned at art school that has stayed with me for life is a love for world cinema in all its diversity. Back in those days before DVD and even VHS, here was a magic place where one could be exposed to all manner of films. We studied Soviet and German films of the 1920s, British films of the 1950s and 60s, and Italian neo-realist cinema. I learned about context and history, and I can understand filmic storytelling as a continuum. It is extremely trying these days dealing with students who seem to believe that cinema began with Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction.
I can't say I learned much, if anything, of a technical nature at Ilam. I taught myself, mostly, out of books, or by tinkering around with the few bits and bobs of equipment that were around. I had bought my own small 16mm camera, and experimented freely on the school's editing gear. It wasn't easy. I often think that if we'd had access to the cheap digital technology that's around now, we'd have all been unstoppable.
I went to art school specifically to study film so that I could get enough of a start to realise my hopes of becoming a professional director. After I graduated, this proved rather difficult, but I was eventually able to go freelance and proceeded to eke out a living doing what I love. Ilam was a base camp climbing a precipice that I'm barely halfway to scaling. In another 25 years I'll either be waving a flag from the top or, more likely, sitting in a tent at the bottom watching some other poor bugger climb.