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Filmbuilding & Cross-Cultural Exchange with Tom Flint (Ep 52)

/ Jason Sholl

Tom Flint is a moving image educator and filmmaker whose interests meet at the crossroads of film and cultural exchange. Flint holds an MA in Art + Design Education from the Rhode Island School of Design with a particular interest in alternative approaches to moving image education and creation. Having spent 15 years living abroad, he is now settled in Boston, where he runs Filmbuilding - a program that curates discovery-based filmmaking experiences to promote cross-cultural exchange. Follow Tom on Twitter @Filmbuilding20 and visit his website https://filmbuilding.org/.

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Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Welcome to the Deeper Learning with WeVideo podcast. I am Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad. On today's episode, we have Tom Flint. Tom is a moving image educator and filmmaker whose interests meet at the crossroads of film and cultural exchange. Flint holds an MA in art and design education from Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular interest in alternative approaches to moving image education and creation. Having spent 15 years living abroad, he is now settled in Boston where he runs Filmbuilding, a program which curates discovery-based filmmaking experiences to promote cross-cultural exchange. I hope you enjoy the episode. Tom, it is so great to have you on the show today. Welcome, my friend.

Tom Flint: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Nathan.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: You and I have had some really great conversations prior to our podcast together, and you're doing some amazing work within Filmbuilding and your work especially with Filmbuilding and education. So before we jump into our questions today, I'd love to give you the opportunity to share more about your role and kind of what you do and how Filmbuilding and education intersect.

Tom Flint: Absolutely. Filmbuilding is a program that I've been running for the last, say, two and a half years since I graduated from a wonderful yearlong master's program at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I did a very deep dive into moving image education and alternative approaches to filmmaking education.

Tom Flint: Essentially what Filmbuilding is is it's something that meets at the crossroads of youth filmmaking, education, and cross-cultural exchange. It's informed in many ways by what I had learned when I was living abroad in Japan, where I spent 14 years of my life, and learning that there's just a tremendous amount that can be gained from being exposed to cultures other than your own.

Tom Flint: So I thought filmmaking is inherently a collaborative form of art. It's process-based, it's exciting, it's active. But so often what you find on film sets and in learning spaces as well is that people are assigned very specific roles. You're the director, you're the screenwriter, you're the editor. Filmmakers are working from scripts. And there are a lot of things set in place to make the filmmaking experience more streamlined and systematic. But a lot of times, that precludes opportunities for people who are working on a film together to really get to know each other and to really probe each other's perspectives.

Tom Flint: So what we do with Filmbuilding is we get youth from different cultural backgrounds. Cultural in the broadest sense. Kids who go to different schools, kids who live in different countries. Sometimes adults and youth. People who would otherwise never have the chance to meet each other, we get them together through this very discovery-based filmmaking process where they're working from a theme rather than a script. And they explore that theme collaboratively through the making of a movie. And all of the filmmaking stages kind of blend together seamlessly. So the ideation stage kind of mingles with the editing stage, and it's not done in this kind of streamlined fashion where everything is laid out for you. It's really up to the film builders themselves to kind of figure it out on their own. So it's a real challenge.

Tom Flint: But we've been doing Filmbuilding workshops for the last two and a half years. We've involved youth from various different countries and different cultural backgrounds. It's just been a magical experience, and there's always a lot that the kids who were involved get out of it. It's just been wonderful to see it grow into the program that it is right now.

Tom Flint: I have a lot of things that I'm working on right now. Hoping that it'll expand into something that can involve even more youth and become something that touches the lives of more people. Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: It's such an exciting collaboration that you're really facilitating. I can see there's so many... The educator in me sees all the learning opportunities. Of course, I see all the opportunities for kids just to be creative and have fun and tell their story.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: And then I'm curious, when you think about and when you see these students working together, have you seen students where they come to you and say, "Hey, I'm surprised about this," or, "I learned this about this culture," or, "This is something brand new that I learned."? Does that happen often?

Tom Flint: It does. It's a great question. Just for a little bit of context and background, we were holding in-person Filmbuilding workshops up until essentially COVID hit. It wasn't until May of last year, of 2020, that we had no choice but to try and roll out a program online using WeVideo. But up until then, we had been doing workshops where...

Tom Flint: For example, one of the first workshops I ever did involved a group of high school students from Japan that I had taught over there, north of Tokyo, coming to the greater Boston area and teaming up with an equal number of American high school students. So we had 12 students, six Japanese, six American students. We divided them into three different groups. So each group had two Japanese and two American students. And we gave them the same theme, which for that workshop was in-between.

Tom Flint: I think that was a three-day workshop. They got to visit some really cool locations like the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Mount Auburn Cemetery, which is this beautiful, beautiful, outdoor seventy-five acre cemetery right outside of the city, and the high school that I graduated from, actually.

Tom Flint: So they had access to these wonderful locations. They were working from this theme of in-between, and they had these little notebooks that we gave each group, and a pen. It was pretty much like, "Just go for it." And they got to discover so much through the process, just by being able to get to know each other and have fun and explore these locations collaboratively without knowing exactly what their films were going to be about.

Tom Flint: So a lot of the takeaways from that workshop and subsequent workshops as well were, "Wow, I didn't realize how similar we actually are." And when you think about cultural differences and how you define culture, it gets very tricky because there's so many different ways to define it.

Tom Flint: But my hope, and this has been answered with pretty much every workshop we've done, is that students who take part in Filmbuilding get to understand both that they are very unique on an individual level and on a cultural level, but there's also so much that we all have in common. So it's not necessarily one or the other. It's more of like a non-dualistic kind of understanding of that, of what culture is and how we're all special and unique, but at the same time, we're all the same.

Tom Flint: So that definitely appears again and again through all the workshops we've done in different forms. Some students will point it out straightforward like, "Wow, this is something that I do in my country, and I had no idea that they do that in, say, Chile." But it might be something that is embedded within them through the experience that they process maybe more slowly. But it really is about the relationships.

Tom Flint: One of the things that I kind of came upon when I was doing my master's course at RISD was really the importance of the collaborative aspect of movie-making and how movie-making is really... The treasure of filmmaking is that it allows us to engage in a sustained creative activity with people who have different insight and different experiences. And if we can leverage that for the purpose of growth and understanding, then that's really what we should be doing.

Tom Flint: So a lot of it has to do with cross-cultural understanding, of course, storytelling, learning about how stories can be told in visual terms. A lot of students' comments on that... One comment that a lot of students have made is that, "Wow, I didn't know you could make a movie about anything."

Tom Flint: We take a very minimalistic approach in Filmbuilding, so we're not using really high-end equipment at all. We really encourage students to use their smartphones and sometimes the mics on their smartphones. And we're not looking at lights and tripods and trying to make quote, unquote, "good films," because in the end, what is good film?

Tom Flint: What that does is it narrows the disconnect between the Filmbuilding experience, the filmmaking experience and the real world. So when the workshop experience ends, whether it's a one day Filmbuilding workshop or a one week workshop, the students feel like, "Wow, I can make a movie about anything. I can just call up my friends right now. I can edit on WeVideo, I can use my smartphone, and we can just go out and make a film." And I think for a lot of youth especially who have never made a movie before, there's that fear of not being able to do it. It's too costly. It's too much work. So that's really one of the big takeaways as well is how simple it is to just go out there and tell a story.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, as you were talking about the levels of collaboration, and the storytelling, and just the diverse perspectives that are kind of illuminated through your work, to me sounds like the way classrooms should be. So I'm excited that you're using WeVideo as a tool to promote that.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I think we're obviously going to learn more about you and kind of your role as we go through our next part of the episode here. We're going to do some kind of rapid succession of questions. So are you ready? Buckle in. We've got [crosstalk 00:10:42].

Tom Flint: Sure, sure. Fire away, fire away.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. First question is if you were on a desert island, which three books and why would you have with you?

Tom Flint: That's a tough question. That's a really tough question. I would say probably my favorite book to just read. And I'm answering this question, I guess, in more of a pragmatic way, thinking, "Okay, I'm on a desert island." Not necessarily my favorite books or what would make the most sense. But one book that I love to read that I've re-read so many times is Making Movies by Sidney Lumet.

Tom Flint: Sidney Lumet, for those who don't know, was an American filmmaker. He passed away maybe around 10 years ago, and made a number of just really wonderful films that many of us know. Dog Day Afternoon. He did Serpico. 12 Angry Men he did in the 1950s. So he's really a premier American filmmaker.

Tom Flint: But in Making Movies, he just kind of goes through the filmmaking process, and each chapter is dedicated to working with actors, shooting a film. How do you do this? How do you do that? And it's just such a fun read. So I would probably bring that.

Tom Flint: Oh God, that's a tough question. I would probably also bring... I love learning languages. I've lost a lot of my Japanese since I moved back here. I had a pretty good grip on the language, but I'm losing it. So I might bring a Japanese to English dictionary just so I can have something to study over time.

Tom Flint: Or I might bring maybe an English to Arabic dictionary, because I really have enjoyed my time in the Middle East, traveling there. And I did not really... I still can't speak any Arabic, but it's a language that I'd love to learn. And I think if you were to learn Arabic, you could most likely learn a lot about the culture and yeah, the history.

Tom Flint: One more. Maybe Film History by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, because I love to study film history. I'm a film nut, movie geek.

Tom Flint: So yeah, I would say those three. That's a good question.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I love it. Well, between finding food and making shelter, you'll have plenty of time to get a lot of your language skills up to speed, so you'll have plenty of time for it. I love it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, a similar question. How do you recharge?

Tom Flint: How do I recharge? Many ways. I started to meditate a lot recently. I was never much of somebody who is really into mindfulness all that much until... I think Filmbuilding in many ways kind of brought me into that, because it does focus a lot on being present. Again, when you're not working from a script, you really have to be aware of everything that's going on in order to capture the world in front of you. So yeah, I meditate. I try to meditate every morning. It doesn't always happen.

Tom Flint: There's a practice that I think originates in Japan. Japanese, it's called Shinrin-Yoku. It's basically forest bathing. It's gaining a bit of traction here in the States as well, but it has to do with just going out in nature and bathing in nature. Going out among the trees and going for a walk by yourself, or with a group of people, and just trying to be present in nature and find solace and appreciation for things that we often take for granted. And it has to do with using all of your senses. So you close your eyes, you listen to the sounds of the wind, of the branches or the leaves rustling. The smells. All of that.

Tom Flint: And then I live on a farm where I grew up. So we have cows, we have alpacas. Alpacas are awesome.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Nice.

Tom Flint: So I spend a lot of time with them out in the pasture. That definitely grounds me and allows me to recharge. Another good question.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Awesome. Thanks. All right. What is the biggest challenge in education?

Tom Flint: There's so many. Yeah, I mean, education, I think, in my opinion, is very far from where it should be. Improvements are being made here and there. But I think a lot of the great work that we see in education is being done by what you might call alternative schools. It's far from mainstream.

Tom Flint: But biggest challenge. Was that the question, the biggest challenge in education?

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, what is the biggest challenge in education? Yeah.

Tom Flint: I mean, this is kind of an obvious answer, but getting the arts recognized. I mean, the arts are being decimated wherever you go on the curriculum. It's always the academic subjects and maybe physical education, which is also extremely important, and the arts. And they're always thought of separately and pretty far down the totem pole.

Tom Flint: But I don't need to be the one. I think people who are listening to this podcast would have at least a basic understanding of how important the arts are. And film is, I think, one of the arts that can really transcend or help young people make sense of their experience in school, because it involves so much. It brings so many of the arts together. And it's fun and obviously, it's collaborative.

Tom Flint: So I would say the biggest challenge in education is just getting administration, getting schools, getting politicians to understand that we need the arts more than ever. Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Agreed. Yeah, thanks for sharing that. Okay, on the subject of education, school, when you were in school, what subject did you love the most?

Tom Flint: Well, my first ever kind of introduction to film... My introduction to film was in high school. I was very fortunate to have a high school film course offered where I went to school at Lincoln-Sudbury. I took that, I think, when I was probably about 16, and that was kind of a defining moment for me. I went on to major in film in college and I loved all those courses that I took.

Tom Flint: So I would probably have to go with film. But film is not a very common subject per se on the curriculum. So art, absolutely. And history. I love history. I'm interested in World War II. I'm interested in American history. I've been watching, yeah, Hamilton with my five-year-old daughter recently. We've seen it a number of times. She's really into it. I'm really into it. So I'm kind of honing in right now on that particular period of American history.

Tom Flint: So history, art, film. But I think, yeah, there wasn't really a subject that I didn't really like at all. I think I kind of found a way to enjoy each and every one.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. I can tell you are a learner and you love to learn new things, so that doesn't surprise me at all. Okay. Who was your favorite teacher and why?

Tom Flint: Wow, favorite teacher? I don't know. I think I hadn't been asked that question before. I don't think I have a favorite teacher. Or I wasn't lucky enough, I would say, to have, when I was, for example, in high school or elementary school, one teacher or one mentor that kind of opened my eyes to the world. Yeah, so it's hard to choose a favorite. I had a lot of great teachers. I think I was rather fortunate in that regard.

Tom Flint: But I don't know if you could consider him a teacher, but one person who dramatically changed the way I look at the world was and still is Nobuhiro Suwa, who is a Japanese filmmaker and educator. He leads the film program at the Tokyo University for the Arts, which is kind of like one of the most prestigious art universities in Japan.

Tom Flint: I worked alongside him for three years when I was teaching documentary filmmaking at Gunma Kokusai Academy and High School, an international high school north of Tokyo, for my final three or four years in Japan. And his whole approach to not only film education, but education in general was totally antithetical to what I had been exposed to as a student in the US. He just totally flipped my perspective of what film education could be. That's kind of when I was able to really connect the dots with my previous 10 years of experience living in Japan, and he just had a profound effect on me, and I still keep in touch with him. His name is Nobuhiro Suwa.

Tom Flint: He's also a very seasoned filmmaker. He's won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for a film he did. He's worked with very well-known actors, some French actors like Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was the lead actor in The 400 Blows by Truffaut. Yeah, he's just an incredible person. Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Awesome. What a cool connection. All right, next question. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Tom Flint: Yeah, when I was really little, I don't think I really remember. I think I went through a lot of those phases that a lot of boys do. I was really into dinosaurs. Again, I'm processing this all again right now through my daughter who's now five years old. I'm trying to remember. But yeah, I was into dinosaurs, I was into space. So I'm sure at one point, I wanted to be a paleontologist or an astronaut or something.

Tom Flint: But then when I got my first video camera when I was, I guess, 12 or 13 years old for Christmas. Our family got a camera, and that was all she wrote. I started making movies with my friends. Yeah, I knew pretty much right away that my life was going to have something to do with film. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That's so cool to see your passion realized. Very cool.

Tom Flint: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Who had the biggest impact on who you have become?

Tom Flint: Well, definitely Suwa is one of those people. My parents, of course, both my mom and my dad. My daughter, of course.

Tom Flint: I'm trying to think of one... My uncle, Austin Pendleton. He's an actor. Mainly known as a theater actor. He's based in New York. But he also has quite a career in film. He's worked with many of the great directors. He's a character actor. He's just at 80 years old, but he's still working. And he, being an entertainer, my mom's brother, he was always in my life from a very young age, of course. I don't know if you can draw a straight line between my decision to become a filmmaker to go into film and his background, but there was undoubtedly many influences that came from him, either directly or indirectly. So he's just had a wonderful, kind of just a big impact on my life. And we're very close. We have a lot of conversations. We love to talk about movies.

Tom Flint: One of my favorite things in the world to do is to visit him in Manhattan, where he lives, and just go out and see a movie together. Oftentimes, we'll see films that neither of us really know anything about. I'm not really the type of person who likes to read a lot of reviews on the film and stuff like that before seeing it. I like to just kind of dive in, and he's pretty much the same. Yeah, and then of course talking about it afterwards. We'll go to a bar or cafe and just unpack it and it's fun.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Very cool. All right, shifting gears a little bit, kind of back to education again. What's the most positive change that you've noticed in education?

Tom Flint: Yeah, I think distance learning is really... I mean, I don't know if it's been around long enough. The current form of distance learning I mean, with Zoom and everything. I don't know if it's been around long enough to really be able to deduce how effective it is compared to in-person education. I think it's not necessarily the case that when you are experiencing education in-person, it's inherently a better form of education. Although, some people may believe that.

Tom Flint: I think there's pros and cons to both. But I think the opportunities that are being provided by distance learning, being able, for example, to connect with people your own age across the world, I mean, I just think the opportunities are incredible. And when you look at different media, such as film, and you combine those two things together, I mean, I just see lots of opportunities.

Tom Flint: I don't really know where distance learning is going to go. I know that the industry is growing very rapidly and it will continue to do so for quite a few years, I think. But I'm just really excited by the possibilities there. And I hope that we in education can find a way to take advantage of it, but at the same time, keep our goals very clear and make sure that it doesn't preclude any kinds of opportunities that in-person learning is providing. But yeah, that's what I would say.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Yeah, excellent. All right. What's the worst advice you've ever received?

Tom Flint: My worst advice ever received? Oh man, probably being told that I should edit my own films. I made my first and only feature film in Tokyo. I finished it in 2014. I wrote the script myself starting in 2009, I guess, or 2008. So it was a multi-year project, and it took me about three years to edit. That was because... I don't think it was one person, but a few people. My friends said, "Yeah, you should try and save money. You can just edit it on your own. You have editing software." And then sure enough, I went to work on it.

Tom Flint: The writer, director of the film trying to edit their own project is just not a good idea because it inevitably drags on. And there's so many decisions that are really painful to make. You've got to kill your babies, but nobody wants to do that. Yeah, and I eventually, for that project called The Shadow Inside, I ended up handing it off to an editor after three years, and they cut the daylights out of it and it was a much better film.

Tom Flint: So I would say if you're a filmmaker, never try and cut your own project. Just open yourself up to letting go and collaborate with other people, because that's a big part of the experience. Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. I love how you provided your lesson learned after that. It's good. You're a reflective learner.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: All right. Well, the opposite of that question, what's the best advice you've ever received?

Tom Flint: Best advice? I guess to just go for it. I've received this advice from so many different people. I've been fortunate in that regard. But if you're developing a film project and you have all these questions lingering, how are you going to get funding for it, how are you going to do this, how are you going to do that. Just go for it. Just do it.

Tom Flint: When I graduated from university and I didn't really know what I was going to do with my life, I was pondering going out to the West Coast and making a living in the film industry there. But then I thought about the possibility of moving out to Japan, where I had studied for one semester, but it seemed like such a big jump. And it was, but when I asked people about it, "What do you think about this? Is it the right decision to make?" Because I was only 22 at the time. They said, "Yeah, just go for it." If it doesn't work out, then you'll somehow land on your feet. So yeah, just do it.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: That's awesome. Well, and again, it sounds like you have lived by that advice, and it's very evident that you have pursued your passion from as a childhood with Filmbuilding. It's so cool to see how you are sharing that passion with others and you are helping students.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: I feel like students are intrinsically motivated to make an impact with their voice, especially with creating multimedia. Which is why I love the WeVideo tool, because we are a place where students can collaborate with each other from different parts of the world to create a story together. And we learn so much from each other when we're able to be in that space where we have total freedom and autonomy to create and being able to decide like, "What imagery do we want to use? What audio and sound do we want to use to elicit a certain kind of emotion?" So I love to see how that work is really playing a big part in the lives of students today.

Tom Flint: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Well, as we wrap up, Tom, how can our listeners find out more about your work? Do you have some resources or a website to share?

Tom Flint: Yeah, absolutely. We have a website for Filmbuilding, which is filmbuilding.org. Yeah, there's some information there on different workshops that we've held in the past and the students that have been involved. I think pretty much all the films that were created in those workshops are up for viewing on the filmbuilding.org page, as well as social media as well. We have a Twitter page. We have a YouTube page with other video content.

Tom Flint: And we're getting ready to launch what's called the Filmbuilding Grid, which is essentially going to be a online social networking kind of platform where youth from all over the world will be able to continually work on projects together that they kind of initiate by themselves. So we'll chuck out a theme, we'll chuck out a challenge, and whoever is willing and able to work on it will be able to join. Yeah, I would say keep your eyes and your ears open for that.

Dr. Nathan Lang-Raad: Excellent. Sounds good. Will do. Tom, this has been such a great conversation. I sure have enjoyed this. Thanks for being on the podcast today.

Tom Flint: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It's been a lot of fun.