Karen K. Shibuya ’16 applied to the Film Summer Internship Award on the recommendation of Professor Austin Bunn, Performance and Media Arts. At first, she was unsure where she would find an internship to use the $5,000 grant money; all she knew was that the grant, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was a rare opportunity to gain paid field experience in film. The internship she landed, however, revealed itself to be as introspectively enlightening as technically instructive: she expected to work on a movie highlighting how financial constraints affect students only to be confronted with the quandary herself. “I was naïve on my first day of work and slowly saw that naïveté deteriorate over the course of the summer. But I remain optimistic that change is on the horizon,” she said.
The nonfiction independent film, Collegetown, examines college debt in the United States and the ways in which it affects the post-college choices graduates make. The film draws on true narratives, with a dramatic flourish. Its writer and director, Hugo Genes ’10, is a Cornell graduate who felt increasingly pressured to pursue a career in investment banking during his time here. After interning on Wall Street for two summers, he realized his reasons had been heavily motivated by the ability to pay off his college debt—he wasn’t actually content. Instead of working for those perpetuating the debt that continues to trap students to their industry, he wanted to bring attention to this cycle. So he turned to filmmaking.
The studio was “small scale” and “more personal than your average workplace.” Karen remarked. As a result, she was able to work closely with the footage. It was “nitty-gritty” work, she recalled—not the romanticized parts of cinematography people think of, like filming scenes and attending release events. “I was in charge of cutting, organizing, and synching the sound and video for footage. But after a while I was also trusted to decide what we should use in the film and what we shouldn’t.” With great power came great responsibility: little time was wasted before she was assigned tremendous amounts of editing work. It required extreme self-motivation and taking to sleeping odd hours, according to what needed to be done and when.
Not Conventional Research
Karen called this work “freelance humanities research.” She admitted that it wasn’t conventional research, but said that the word meant something very different in the humanities than it does in the sciences. “Those who want to go into a scientific field have the option of gaining experience in a lab but there are very few opportunities for someone studying film to get similar experience.” Science is also where most of the funding is—finding paid work experience outside those fields can be difficult. Karen was extremely lucky.
Women in Filmmaking
Another obstacle that could have easily prevented Karen from achieving the success she did was her sex. “There are exceptionally few female cinematographers. . . . it really is a male-dominated field, which can make it difficult to get into as a woman,” Karen noted. Although she didn’t experience prejudice in the workplace, like many women do, she realized that the odds hadn’t exactly been stacked in her favor to get her there. “Women aren’t just encouraged to go into film like men are!” The scholarship committee was cognizant of this, telling her that the volume of female to male applicants was dismally disproportionate. They were very happy, therefore, to be offering the award to a woman so highly qualified. And she, as a woman, was happy to receive it, saying that only through an increased presence in production positions would women be able to demand more respect in the media industry as a whole. “Movies by women, especially produced and directed by them, are extremely important. I hope I contributed in some small way to the reversal of these harmful gender norms.”
This was not her only altruistic goal for her internship. Above all, she hoped Collegetown would educate a large, diverse audience on the issue of rising college debt. “It’s currently the largest form of debt in the US and yet it feels like very little attention is being paid to it,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. And indeed, other countries have begun to restructure their systems of higher education, with Germany making all public institutions tuition-free this year (before, it was around 500 euros a semester). Meanwhile in the United States, where student debt has exceeded $1 trillion, tuition continues to rise and available aid continues to fall—college is becoming increasingly inaccessible to many students. The government-subsidized loans, she noted, help but only in the short term because they are subject to full interest upon graduation. This level of debt is why students like Hugo Genes feel financial imperatives to go into fields like finance so profoundly. The trend is especially prominent in those coming from less privileged backgrounds, Karen came to realize. “People think of Wall Street Financiers as people who were always wealthy, but we’re seeing a lot of students who are using it to make their way up from very limited means.”
“I was in charge of cutting, organizing, and synching the sound and video for footage. But after a while I was also trusted to decide what we should use in the film and what we shouldn’t.”
“The dilemma is, then: Should I choose a career that’s financially secure at the expense of my happiness or one I love even if it means being saddled with immense college debt?” says Karen. An increasing number are opting for the first option. And the shift is no coincidence, either—as interest rates on debt increase, more students feel cornered into taking jobs in the sector responsible for this burden. Over the past few years, financial and corporate employers have launched targeted recruitment campaigns on college campuses, with paying off college debt at their cores. The cycle has been intelligently and intentionally constructed, she stressed. “This summer was really disillusioning because it showed me the extent to which we as students are being manipulated.” She was no exception. Having had to find external funding for the internship and having seen how difficult it was for her employer to make ends meet both personally and for the film, she was dissuaded from going into film-making herself. Film criticism might be a good compromise between passion and security, she mused. She ended on an optimistic note, however, predicting an end to the cycle she herself felt trapped in. “I think we’re quickly approaching a turning point in the debate over student debt, and that at some point even this bubble will have to burst.”