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PROF TALK: Kay Dickinson, Associate Professor, Undergraduate Programme Director and Area Head for Fi

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

PROF TALK is an ongoing series in which Julie Brousseau, an MA Film Studies student at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, interviews Mel Hop professors about their research interests, practices, and what brought them to their discipline in the first place. You can find all Prof Talk interviews here.

Today, we bring you Part II of Julie’s interview with Kay Dickinson, Associate Professor, Undergraduate Programme Director and Area Head for Film Studies, Cinema, conducted on February 14, 2017. Read Part I here.


J: Did you ever work in Film Production?

K: The short answer… no. I mean, I’ve never had a job on a big shoot. I made a film when I was an Undergraduate, which got picked up by the Institute of Contemporary Art in London…

J: Nice!

K: … which is a really big deal [laughs]. So I made one film in my life. It got shown there. At a really prestigious… but I realized, I don’t actually like the mechanics of filmmaking. Obviously I appreciate them, but it’s not how I enjoy thinking critically. I really enjoy the process of reading and writing, so that’s why I do that. But, yeah. It’s funny, I could have had some other avant-garde film career that was… I don’t know how successful, but I really made a distinct choice not to work in production.

J: Would you consider maybe doing research for a film? Or a collaboration?

K: For sure, yeah. Absolutely. That would be fun.

J: Instead of strict production.

K: Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of friends who work in films. I have a very successful cousin who is a director as well. So I mean, I’m close to the film world. I was going… there was a project I was going to be involved in, which was a kind of research creation mix-up between film and academia. Something like that might happen again. So I’m always on the fringes of that, and I’m really happy to do that. I’d like to expand in that type of thing a bit more here.

J: While completing either your Undergraduate or your Graduate studies, did you have a favorite course, and if so, what was it?

K: Oh, I haven’t thought about that for a while. Right [pauses]. As an undergraduate, I have this… so with Art History, I am an absolutely unacknowledged obsessive about the Industrial Revolution. This is probably why I’m interested in work and industry and stuff like that. I took 19th century art classes, which I really enjoyed. I forgot the name of this class, but it was almost like the equivalent of Methods here, the core class for my MA. The first week we read two chapters of Marx’s Capital, and some Freud, and some… It was just intense, intense kind of theory, along those lines. That was special, that has really set the basis for a lot of things I think about and do. Adorno and stuff like that. And I took this really great class at the MA called Women Weepies, which I really enjoyed. That was my movement into film. But, I don’t know. I’m one of those people that likes almost every class I take and find something in it. There’s nothing that was like, bang, Eureka! light-bulb moment, this is what I have to do. I’m just a nerd who likes studying [laughs].

J: That’s perfectly fine, I mean I’m like that too, so [laughs].

K: Yeah, exactly [laughs].

J: During your studies, or after, what was your favourite research project?

Arab Cinema Travels, by Kay Dickinson.

K: It’s funny, I like them all, but when you actually have to sit down and write them, the pain leaves such a [laughs] such a kind of burn on you that it’s difficult to sort of go, “Oh, that one was golden and untarnished by pain.” But I think, probably one of my favourites was working in Syria, which I did in extended periods between 2006 and 2010. That was just amazing. It was really, really interesting and I met amazing people. I think the research I’ve done there is probably… it’s probably stuff nobody cares about, but it’s probably the most, let’s say revealing stuff that people haven’t thought about, and asked about… or you know, people haven’t been in those libraries or interviewed those people. So it feels pretty special to me that I went into that, and it’s now totally impossible. There’s no way I can do that research now. It makes it… it was actually really difficult then to write it. All that material just lay there for two years because I just psychologically couldn’t face thinking about Syria. And I still can’t actually. It’s really… I had to go through my photos the other day for a friend of mine I met during that period. He had to leave with just the bag he was carrying and I saw him recently. I thought he was dead for a couple of years. I met him again recently and he said, “Do you have any photos?” So I had to go through them and pull out the ones that weren’t just… you know, my photos of the bus timetable that I needed [laughs]. You know these photos you take for… that aren’t of any value in that kind of immediate moment, and doing that was really difficult. So it is… it’s tough, but I think it’s probably my… that’s made the most impact on me. That work.

J: How did you get to that project?

K: There was a funding package that became available in Britain, and Britain has a lot less funding than here for travel and research. That became available for people working in the Levant, so Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, I think. And I was already working on Palestine and in Palestine. So I was like, “Okay, well, can I think across this region a little more? Would that make my funding more competitive?” It was really, I was thinking very… almost cynically. Like, is there a way that I could use this as a way to think about this region more so I can compete successfully for this? And I went and looked at what was going on… I had been to Syria before, but just on holiday. And I went and looked and found that there was this whole kind of not-for-profit, state-funded socialist model of film production that at this point in history was almost entirely unique globally. And I just thought, I’m going with it. I’m gonna put in. This is speculative, I’m just gonna write this proposal. Then I got the money, and so it was led by the money, weirdly [laughs]. Though I’d been to Syria and I knew about Syria, I didn’t ever connect it with film in that way, because the films aren’t accessible. They are not there on Netflix, you know? There are all very, very hard to get a hold of. So I just didn’t know that context.

It’s weird, and I’ve seen this happen to other people, that actually, some call for papers you see and go, “Hey, I really fancy going to the Bahamas, and there’s this conference on this, can I switch what I do to make it sound like that, so they’ll accept me?” And then, you can actually go [pauses]. A little tip there. [laughs]

J: So, this is hard question. A poison question in fact, but I still ask it. What is your favorite moving image?

K: My favorite moving image? [pauses]. I hate being asked this. I mean, it’s so impossible. I will answer it. Later [laughs]. I hate when people just randomly, not Film Studies people, kind of say, “What’s your favorite movie?”—which is not what you asked—because I don’t think they would say to a geographer, “What’s your favorite country?” Or they’d say to, you know, even somebody doing literature, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s that sense that we are film critics, and that’s what we do. We write about our favorite movies. So that’s my first answer [laughs]. My second answer is—it’s interesting that you said moving image, because films are harder. But actually, some of my favorite images are from Pickpocket, the [Robert] Bresson movie. And that’s a really unusual thing to hear from me, I’m sure people don’t associate me with kind of… high art French movies. But I’m kind of entranced by that and I’ve always been obsessed with pickpockets… which you probably don’t want to go there [laughs].

J: So, another potential poison question: is there a moving image or scholar that you particularly like to teach in your classes?

K: Oh. That’s really hard to have an instant recall about. I like teaching… I mean, it’s funny because most of the films I teach I don’t like that much. Because I’m trying to bring up some other critical issues rather than go, this is my favourite film. But I have really, really enjoyed teaching Third Cinema. Just, when people don’t know it, to engage people with the full extent of how cinema can be radical, and transformative, and revolutionary. I also really like teaching… I mean, I’ve had really great experience teaching queer avant-garde stuff. Again, what that does in the classroom. I mean, I’ve had… you know, just kind of straight white boys for the very first time saying, I don’t identify. And the rest of us going, well duh, that’s all of us all the time you know [laughs]. Getting a handle on our world. So… a text I like teaching… [pauses]. I don’t know, anything that kind of speaks to real social change or revolution, whether it’s feminism or, you know… third world anti-colonial theory, all that kind of stuff. But no, I don’t have a “god” [laughs].


Stay tuned for our next edition of Prof Talk, where we’ll interview another Mel Hop professor. You can read all Prof Talk interviews here.

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