CSI Alumni Zalika Reid-Benta, Chandler Levack, Phil Leers return for panel discussion

July 22, 2021 by Denise Ing

At the beginning of 2021, a panel of Cinema Studies Institute alumni returned virtually to speak with current students about their careers and how their Cinema Studies degrees helped get them there. Zalika Reid-Benta is a writer whose debut short story collection, Frying Plantain was on numerous “must read” lists, won multiple awards, and was longlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She completed a Major in Cinema Studies in 2012. Chandler Levack is an award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker. In 2017, her short film We Forgot to Break Up premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and SXSW. She was recently nominated for a Prism Prize for her co-direction of the music video for Jeremy Dutcher’s “Mehcinut”. She completed a Specialist in Cinema Studies in 2011. Philip Leers is the Project Manager for Digital Initiatives at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. He completed an MA in Cinema Studies in 2009. Prof. Bart Testa moderated the panel. Edited and condensed excerpts from the panel discussion follow. 

Prof. Bart Testa: How did you make the transition from student to professional? 

Zalika Reid-Benta: I had thought that I was going to be doing my PhD at Columbia, so I moved to England, but that didn’t last very long [laughing]. I came back within six months because England was just too expensive and I couldn’t really find a job. I ended up working at The Gap for almost a year. But when I was in my last year of school at U of T, I was a writing mentee in this organization called Diaspora Dialogues. I ended up getting a job there as the program manager where I run mentorship programs—which is what I do now.

In terms of writing and becoming a writer, I went through different residency programs including the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I also submitted my manuscript, which was my thesis at Columbia, to various small independent presses throughout Canada. Short story collections aren’t really profitable so not a lot of agents want to take that on, but because some small presses were interested, I was able to get my agent. I edited my work a bit more, the agent sent it out to other presses and that’s how I got published. That’s the very condensed explanation of how I got published and how I became a writer.

Chandler Levack: I knew that I wanted to do journalism and film criticism pretty early on and I started writing for student newspapers at the Innis Herald and then later at The Varsity where I was the editor for two years. I think that’s what allowed me to really find my voice as a writer and start freelancing for local publications. So, I interned at NOW Magazine when I was 18 and then when I was 20 I interned at Spin Magazine in New York, and that allowed me to start a freelance career in Arts and Entertainment writing while I was still a student.

In my last year at U of T, I ended up taking CIN349H1Y - Screenwriting that was taught by Patricia Rozema and Semi Chellas who later ended up writing for Mad Men. I’d written a lot of journalism before and people would say “Oh you should try screenwriting,” but I was always so intimidated by it. You had to write a feature screenplay as part of the course and you were mentored by these teachers. I felt like I’d found the thing I was born to do. They encouraged me to apply to the Canadian Film Centre, and wrote recommendation letters for me, and then I ended up doing the screenwriting program at the Canadian Film Centre

How I ended up directing music videos was because I was friends with this punk band called Pup in Toronto. So, I directed four videos for them and that’s what encouraged me to also start making short films. Then I also worked at TIFF for two years as an editor and staff writer for the festival. In April, I’m gonna direct my first feature through Telefilm’s Talent to Watch program.

So it’s been this slow building of different crossroads, trying things out and experimenting, and one thing leads to another: maybe I can review this CD, okay maybe I can get an internship, okay maybe I can edit a student newspaper, okay maybe I can work at a newspaper. I think it’s my education at Innis College and the Cinema Studies Program that has been totally invaluable to my foundation as a filmmaker, and to finding my voice as a writer as well.

Phil Leers: So I went to undergrad at University of Chicago and I studied Cinema and Media Studies, but wasn’t sure after that about what to do. I worked at an architecture firm in Chicago for a couple of years while I thought about what I wanted to do next. The CSI MA program was so perfect for me, for no small reason because it was funded. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do in the field but I knew I didn’t want to go into a lot of debt to find out. 

Around my second year in the Masters program, I realized that academia wasn't going to be my path and I started thinking about how I could apply what I was learning in other ways. In my coursework, everything was very theoretical and I wanted to combine that with more of a more hands-on approach. So while I was still in the program, I started interning at Vtape, which is a video art archive around Chinatown in Toronto— Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak run it. I was cleaning half inch reel to reel video tapes and interacting with them in a totally different way than I was intellectually, and I really enjoyed that.

So after I graduated, I got a second masters at UCLA in Moving Image Archive Studies. There’s not a lot of programs like it in the country and the program I was in doesn’t exist anymore [laughing] so there’s even fewer now. During that time, I TA’ed, I worked at film labs, I worked at The Getty. Throughout I had a focus on museums, and specifically film and video as art. So I graduated from that program and took a job in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art. My job at that point was to manage a grant from the Melon Foundation in New York and to archive a collection of film and video department materials dating from 1968 to 1990. Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and lots of amazing artists in the 1970s were coming through Pittsburgh. I worked with those materials for two years, I really loved it, and then an opportunity arose back in Los Angeles, at the Hammer Museum.

Basically I took a little bit from every experience that I had and it took me to this place that feels really far from where I started. But as I was kind of thinking about my experience at U of T and how it got me to this point, it makes its own kind of sense. 

Zalika Reid-Benta

BT: How have you put your education in Cinema Studies to work?

ZR-B: I was in CIN349H1Y - Screenwriting as well. I’d always been told by the people in my creative writing class, "You should write for film, or you should write for TV," and I was like, "Yeah, that sounds like something that I’d like to do. I like to watch and dissect movies." But then, in the screenwriting course, Patricia Rozema was like, "You’re trying to write a short story in the form of a screenplay and you can’t do that. You need to choose which one you’re going to do." At the time, I didn’t really understand that but it was something that I thought about throughout my career writing and my MFA. Now that I’m actually trying to go back towards writing for the screen, I can see what she means because it’s a completely different muscle.

Going through that screenwriting course actually helped me be a better short story writer and a better novelist, because you learn about beat sheets, scenes and constructing. It was very craft based, which I really appreciated. I actually just think that being in Cinema Studies, being able to read theory and apply it to film, and look at film in a different way has helped me write characters, and helped me really think about plot. So I just applied the critical eye that I honed in this program to how I write creatively. 

BT: Zalika, in interviews, people have asked you what you listen to when you’re writing, and instead of proposing a whole bunch of music, you propose lots of movies. So, your cinephilia seems to be part of your process.

ZR-B: Absolutely. It depends on what I’m writing but if I really need to feel inspired and energized then I will watch something. Right now I’m writing fantasy so I’ve been watching Lord of the Rings a lot, because I just feel like it helps. I don’t really have an academic eye when I watch something but it definitely does fuel me. I also dissect scripts a lot because I think that helps me in terms of plot and characters. I read the Moonlight script and I recently read the You’ve Got Mail script just because I wanted to see the difference.

When I was in my MFA program, you would talk about what you would read, but you couldn’t talk about what you would watch. I would mention movies a lot and I would get silence. [Laughing] Movies help me! I don’t know what to say! You can mention music but I can’t mention movies?!

CL: I don’t think I was a very good student [laughing] when I was in the Cinema Studies program. I mean, I felt a little bit alienated by the academic tone in some of the papers that I was reading. It took me a while to realize that you could write academically but also have your own personal flair and style, and have analysis, but also make jokes and have pithy observations. When I found a writer like Pauline Kael, it was like a giant lightbulb went off and I was kind of like, "Oh, this is how I would want to approach academic writing." Robin Wood is an incredibly funny writer, and has lots of great academic papers.

I think my education at U of T in Cinema Studies exposed me to so many incredible films and film analysis that I take with me to this day. I remember we broke down a scene from Roman Holiday, and discussed: what kind of angle is this shot? How long does this stay on screen? And that’s what I’m doing now when I’m preparing shot lists and storyboards with my cinematographer. At the beginning, when I was in first year University, I was like, why am I doing this? I’m never gonna use this in my life. And now it’s like the bread and butter of how I prepare as a filmmaker.

I think the biggest thing for me from U of T was also developing my own taste as a filmmaker, understanding who the directors were and the kinds of films that really spoke to me, and I think it really helped me develop my own identity as an artist. Like, oh, I love Éric Rohmer films. I took a New Hollywood cinema class that was incredibly invaluable for me in discovering films by Hal Ashby and Mike Nichols. Even if it’s a class like the Hungarian Cinema class watching all those Jancsó films and figuring out how he uses long takes. It’s funny because I would always talk about this when I was preparing for music videos, and some people would be like, "Oh my god, you are a hardcore cinephile, you know so much about movies." Well, compared to other programs which are more production oriented, U of T gave me such an invaluable insight and backbone of cinema and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m really glad that I have the in-depth theory and analysis training that I do.

PL: I felt like grad school for me was a really selfish time where I was just thinking about my projects, my ideas, my writing— but I learned a lot about how to surround myself with people who can help and to know how to loosen my grasp on a project, open it up to other perspectives, not feel so protective of what I find important and to be able to take constructive criticism and work collaboratively in a way where I’m also pushing things forward as the one person who can really do that in my role. I was really lucky in my cohort to have really great colleagues and to have had the advisor and professors that I did, some of whom I know are still in the program.

Chandler Levack

BT: What do you wish that you had known or encountered as a student of cinema studies that would have been really useful for getting you on your way?

ZR-B: I rushed through my undergrad because I really wanted to get to my MFA and I really felt like I had no time. So I didn’t take as many courses in Cinema Studies as I probably wanted to, or even in different departments. I basically just did my requirements, enjoyed the classes and did my best to get out. I feel like if I took more time, just calmed down and realized that I didn’t have to leave so soon— I still don’t know why I felt like I did— I probably would’ve just enjoyed what the Cinema Studies Institute had to offer a lot more.

CL: I was very professionally driven in university. I had a full time freelance journalism career going while I was in school, and I think that made my academic experience suffer more because I was not as seriously committed to reading all of the papers and doing the most thorough job academically.

I wish I had taken filmmaking classes at the Hart House Film Board and learned how to shoot on 16mm, maybe started making my own films in university. I felt like my academic education alienated me from my ability to think that I could be a filmmaker. Because filmmakers for me were so revered, and cinema was so revered, I was always thinking about it so analytically that the actual practice of it— like how do you actually make a movie if you have a very small budget and a crew? And where do you get gear from? How do you plan a shot list and how do you actually get it done? I couldn’t think that way, I was like, cinema is Agnès Varda and you will never be Agnès Varda so don’t try [laughing] and it took me a really long time to psyche myself up to the ability to be a filmmaker. Anyone can be a filmmaker. You just have to start making films.

PL: I got exactly what I wanted out of the MA program. One thing that I wish I had had during that time was seeing myself as being within the field already as I’m doing that work as opposed to trying to join the field. That would’ve really helped me to take advantage, earlier on in the process, of opportunities to publish what I was doing. To think of the papers I was writing for a class not just as something for a class but something that could be expanded on in another format or published in another format. But to realize, even as an undergrad, that you’re doing the same thing as the people who you’re studying and reading, you just haven’t been doing it as long and you still have a ways to go. To put yourself on the continuum as opposed to being something that you are looking at as an outsider, to challenge certain ideas and uphold other ones. That’s something I wish I had come in equipped with so I could have taken more initiative on my own, to feel that confidence that Chandler was talking about, like yeah, I can do this, too.

BT: Is there any advice that you would offer students in terms of trying to launch a career after they’ve graduated?

ZR-B: [Laughing] Do I really have any advice? Because I still feel like I need advice. My biggest takeaway was that there are many different paths to get where you need to go, so just because it doesn’t look like what's in your head doesn’t mean that you’re not getting there.

And also perseverance, which seems like a little bit of a non-answer but from a writer perspective, getting used to so much rejection of my submissions and not getting my stuff published, you just have to keep doing it even if it feels like the most terrible thing. The cohort that I had, we would have a submit-a-thon and we would try to make it fun. You’re doing things like sending emails and asking questions, and trying to find someone in the industry that you wanna work in and asking for advice. That’s what I did, I just went on the internet and was like, "I’m gonna quasi-stalk these people and send them messages on instagram and also just submit my work." Even if I am working at The Gap, I know that I am actually heading where I need to go.

There were many times where I was like, "I’m not gonna be a writer, I’m not gonna have my collection published." I took about a year or two years off refining the work and writing it and thought that it would never happen. And then an old mentor of mine said, "I really wanna see your book in a bookstore." That’s all she had to say to me, and I submitted to Banff and to different publishers. So basically, believe in yourself and in doing what you have to do to make it happen. Which is unfortunately, again, not very tangible. Keep on keepin’ on.

BT: What you said may not have been that concrete, but spiritually, it was the best possible advice. Don’t lose faith in yourself and persevere, keep cracking the doors. In any profession, this is always good advice.

CL: I would say that student newspapers are a really amazing way to try things out, get your voice going. When I first started out, I just sounded a lot like the writers that I admired and it took me a while to find my own authentic voice. Internships are great and hopefully, they are now actual paid opportunities for writers. They help you find mentors, it shows you the real-world experience of working at a magazine or newspaper.

I think the landscape has changed so much since I was a journalist in 2004; the conversation overall about journalism and film criticism, like, "Whose perspective is privileged in that conversation?" When I was first starting out, it was very very white, male and straight, and I think that really made the dialogue and the pieces that were published suffer. And it was certainly difficult for me, even in the privileged position that I’m in, to navigate my way into that career.

I would just say, keep writing, watch lots of stuff, stuff that you like, stuff that you hate, and publish. Even if you’re publishing for yourself or if you have a newsletter that you send off to your friends. It doesn’t have to be in the Globe and Mail to be a valuable piece of film criticism that people will want to read. The internet is an amazing way to have a piece catch fire. I think being a film critic and having an education at U of T made me 100% a better filmmaker and making films made me 100% a better critic. 

PL: I agree with everything that Zalika and Chandler said. I’m a testament that it’s okay to not have a clear career path. It’s okay to explore, I think it’s really good to do that. For me, working at a lot of different kinds of jobs— sometimes it would just be for a semester, sometimes it would be for a year— I’ve been able to take parts of those and it’s helped me to be imaginative - to broaden the idea of what I can do with my degree and with my interests. It opened the door to the museum world for me and now that I’m in that world, there’s a lot more for me to explore there.

And also, use the people around you. Like I said, I find mentor relationships with professors, and the relationships with my other classmates have been very helpful. Seeing what my cohort has done— they’ve gone off in so many different directions and it’s really inspiring for me to think, we were all together doing one thing and now we’ve all gone all these different ways. Some people are publishing books and some people are doing something in a totally different field but we all found our way to something. You’ll find your way to something, too. Keep your mind open and yeah, focus on the things that you can do—which can really make you a flexible and adaptive candidate.

So yeah, be imaginative, and reach out to people, ask questions. Most of the people in my field and in the fields that I’ve been in have been really open. You know, if anyone wants to reach out to me I’m always happy to help people. I’ve found that if you reach out, nine out of 10 times people are really happy to help, talk about what they do, how they do it and yeah, so take advantage of that.

Phil Leers

Question: I just wanted to ask if any of you had any advice on how to build such relationships with the people at University but also professors specifically, and other professionals that you meet along the way.

CL: I would say the best network you can have are your fellow classmates, those are the ones who are going to help you get jobs, you’re going to keep your eyes out for each other, you’re going to have each other’s back. I’m just really proud of all the people I went to U of T with. The school, and the Cinema Studies program in particular is a lighting rod for really smart, engaged, proactive people. Your closest friends that you meet in college are kind of your best connections.

PL: For one, be proactive in your classes, speak in your classes, go to office hours and things like that so you can build a relationship. You wanna find someone who you can tell has your best interest at heart. It should be pretty clear right away that you guys are “simpatico.” As soon as you can, open a clear line of communication with the person or people—it’s not always just one person, I had a lot of mentors in my time. It’s not a formalized thing, I don’t ask them to sign a contract of mentor/mentee. It’s really about seeing, well this is somebody who has something to tell me about what I want to do. It’s not like the mentor comes in and you passively sit there and receive their mentorship. It’s about getting them excited about what you want to do, get them on board, help them understand who you are and what you’re doing.

Generally, I’ve found that, especially at the University of Toronto, the faculty was so open— even people I didn’t have a close relationship with— to taking a meeting and talking things over. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a long-term thing, It can be just an, "Oh great, I had a great couple of conversations with that person and it helped to shift my perspective a little or tell me something I didn’t know." So always be open for it, sometimes a mentor relationship will happen without you even realizing it. A lot of it is about doing that work yourself and realizing, “I need mentorship, this is the guidance I want, these are the questions I have, this is somebody I feel comfortable trusting with those questions.”

ZB-R: Piggybacking off that, that’s definitely how it happened with me with my various mentors and it wasn’t even something that I was looking for. I would just have a question about a paper or, when I was in my Masters, a story, and I would go to the office hours— office hours are definitely key— and just ask them to expand on why did I get this mark, what are they looking for? And that led to another conversation which leads to another conversation and then you realize if you are simpatico or not.

One of my closest mentors when I was in school was very critical about my work and we would end up talking about movies— and this was my MFA. He ended up helping with the publishing of my book just because we kept in contact. He wrote this really great reference for me to various publishers and things like that. The person whose endorsement is on the cover of my book was also another mentor whose office hours I would go to in order to argue with them, talking about different things like books and movies. It was an organic experience for getting me to look at my writing and getting me to look at my papers differently.

PL: I just want to say, being on the other side of the fence now where I’m taking on a mentorship role, I’ve realized I love it. It is so rewarding for me, and I know it’s a really rewarding thing to do. You go into teaching because you want to help people. It’s corny but you learn as much from mentoring as you do from being mentored. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself: don’t worry about being annoying or being a pest or like you’re asking for too much, this is what they’re there for. When those relationships happen and you see the results of it, it’s rewarding on both sides.