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More than just a way into the reel thing

Are aspiring film-makers better off learning their craft in class or on set making tea? As London Film School reaches 50, Anna Thomson catches up with alumni

I've lost count of the number of flights as I follow Ben Gibson, director of the London Film School, up the many stairs of the building in which he works. He chirrups something about it being a lot easier since he gave up smoking. I wish I'd done the same. Almost out of earshot I hear the word "asbestos" but decide it's best not to ask (even supposing I had the breath left).

We emerge into a studio lined with egg boxes - not high-tech foam that looks like egg boxes, but actual egg boxes. There are gaps where some of this ad hoc soundproofing has come away from the ceiling, but apparently it works. Another quick march and we're on the top floor, where light floods in from above - not, Gibson admits, an ideal position for an editing suite. Tucked away in Covent Garden, with the Fame -esque Urdang Academy next door, the LFS building gives off an air of chaotic dynamism.

The school celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a month of screenings from alumni and a debate this week on the impact of film schools on film culture. So this seems an apposite moment to take stock and ask: what are film schools for?

Gibson highlights their origins in the Soviet Union, China and the Eastern Bloc. "They were trying to promote broader access to the means of production, to get people who weren't members of the leading families or aristocracy to make films." They also wanted to form a school that would inculcate cinephilia in students by giving them access to huge numbers of old films and help create a "Sandhurst-style class, who could come out of film school and go direct into high-powered positions in the industry".

The LFS was set up along similar lines in 1956 by Gilmore Roberts, the principal of the Heatherley School of Fine Art, in premises no less eccentric than today's (one visitor likened the approach to the old school, above shops on Electric Avenue, Brixton, to entering a set from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari ). But its approach was more hands-on.

The film-maker Mike Leigh, chairman of the school's board, fondly remembers his LFS days in the Sixties. "It coincided with an extraordinary burst of energy. I remember all kinds of movie-makers and film personalities coming to talk to us. In the space of six months, we had Hitchcock, Renoir, Godard, Truffaut, Huston. It was fantastic."

Frank Roddam, director of Quadrophenia , attended the LFS later in the Sixties, and he too found it inspiring. "It was a remarkable experience because we had students from all over the world, including a lot of US draft dodgers, so you had a political edge and it was also the time of flower power."

But does one need to go to film school to learn the craft? In the Sixties at Shepperton Studios, "the received wisdom was that film schools were ridiculous", Leigh says. "They had all come up through the industry and would quote, 'David Lean started out sweeping the cutting-room floor'." His view is very different. "If you spend time in a professional learning environment with a bunch of comrades and you're able to make mistakes, you learn, as it were, in the womb."

Roddam agrees. "When you are a student, you have this wonderful leap of ego. You feel like you're walking alongside Orson Welles, like you're with John Huston. You analyse their films and look at them from a strange point of equality because you feel it all as a right and it is available to you. When you go straight into the industry and specialise in one craft, you often get stuck in a groove."

Babak Jalali, a recent graduate of the LFS whose graduation short, Heydar, an Afghan in Tehran , was nominated this year for a Bafta award, sees film school in more pragmatic terms. "I felt I needed to be in a place where I was forced to do it. Also, frankly, I didn't think making coffee for people whose films I probably despised would build my ambition. Film school seemed a quicker, more certain route," he says.

Mamoun Hassan, who began his career in the late Sixties as assistant editor on Kevin Brownlow's It Happened Here , is sceptical despite having been head of producing, editing and directing at the National Film and Television School. "When people ask me whether it's worth going, I say, 'Are you a lucky person?' If you are, go straight into the industry, because it's all about determination. If you're not, film school fills that gap."

There is another more practical consideration, too - money. As Hassan baldly puts it: "How many people do you know with a spare £18,000 a year?" But Gibson and Leigh are keen to stress that for what the school offers £18,000 is cheap, and they add that scholarships and grants are available.

Roddam is scathing about the effects of charging students tuition fees. "The idea that you leave university in debt is probably one of the most stultifying things that could happen. At a time when you should be liberated and want to soar, you're like a slave."

A related fear is whether, if only the rich can afford to go to the LFS, a homogeneity will creep into the films coming out. Leigh, Roddam and Jalali do not think this is happening. Hassan, however, is less concerned about class than about the relative youth of most film students. "These people haven't had enough life experience. That's why self-referential postmodern films have caught on."

Where film schools are invaluable, Gibson says, is in counterbalancing "a bureaucratic film (industry) culture cravenly anxious about the market and lazy at engaging with innovation and new talent". The academy "has become the arena in which you challenge that. That's why film schools are of potentially fantastic cultural significance."

But might their importance diminish now that the technology needed to make a film costs considerably less than a year's tuition fees? In 2003, Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation won critical acclaim not only for its content - life with a schizophrenic mother - but also for its mix of snapshots, video diaries and short films, which Caouette had assembled over 19 years and edited in his bedroom using a standard iMovies software package. Gibson thinks new technologies will enrich rather than challenge film schools. "To claim that they will be evaporated by new technology is absurd." Roddam agrees: "It shows the appetite for cinema in general, but it doesn't mean they'll pass on anything memorable."

Gibson is also sanguine about the proliferation of film courses and modules at universities. His philosophy is that "many flowers may bloom". If anything, he envisages a democratisation of the medium, echoing film schools' original aims. "We want to make film school the possession of the people, with masterclasses, evening screenings and professional development classes for enthusiasts and professionals," he says.

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