At the Icelandic Stockfish festival, Nordic and Baltic film schools shared views on a film future with AI, diversity, equal opportunities and learning from failure.

On 10 April, Reykjavik’s Nordic House hosted a roundtable focused on the current state of film education in the Nordic-Baltic region, organised by the Nordfilm Network, a collaboration between film schools in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

The two-hour session, which took place during this year’s Stockfish Film & Industry Festival (4-14 April), saw the participation of reps from each of the 11 schools taking part in the network: Steven Meyers (Iceland University of the Arts), Kristine Ploug (The National Film School of Denmark), Kjersti Normann (The Norwegian Film School), Thomas Brennan (Stockholm University of the Arts), Vytautas Dambrauskas (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre), Dainis Juraga (Latvian Academy of Culture), Veiko Vaatmann (Tallinn University Baltic Film, Media and Arts School), Annakaisa Sakura (Helsinki’s Metropolia University of Applied Sciences), Joachim Bergenstråhle(Dalarna Audiovisual Academy), Jürgen Volmer (Viljandi Culture Academy), and Henrik Højer (VIA University College).

First, Dambrauskas touched on Nordfilm’s main objectives. These are “exchanging knowledge and experiences”, “coordinating activities”, and enhancing the quality of education across the region while paying attention to sustainability and diversity. The eleven schools share “regional film education guidelines” and regularly set up workshops, masterclasses, seminars and intensive courses, including the Nord Creative Camp, which ran for two weeks in the Lithuanian city of Kintai.

The first “elephant in the room” tackled by the panelists was the impact of AI on teaching. Many agreed that AI is a tool set to revolutionise the industry, and that students should learn how to use it even though the quality of its deliverables is still rather mediocre.

“We use technology as a tool to create our own stories,” said Brennan, adding how “teaching is not just about telling what a given button or switch does, but more about why one should press them”, and how these “switches and buttons” can help to “express suspense and other emotions”.

Højer sees AI as just another breakthrough technology set to change the industry, like sound did in the 1930s and digital editing did in the mid-late 1990s. He argued that AI will force students and filmmakers to “reconfigure their workflow”, while making the “testing” of ideas and images easier.

After some speakers touched on ethical implications and copyright issues, Bergenstråhle expressed concerns towards the way algorithms work: “My biggest fear is that AI may alienate us from each other. We’ve been using the Internet and smartphones, and now we’ve got AI. But AI is also built upon things already done. Where is the real story? Are we reproducing stories already told with some mechanical, machine-based help?”

Besides, several panelists, including Vaatmann and Volmer, admitted that not all of their students are fascinated by AI, as some still refuse to use ChatGPT, prefer reading books, and enjoy shooting on film whenever they can.

Zooming in on the topic of equal opportunities, all speakers agreed this is an area in which there is wide room for improvement. In this respect, Ploug said her school acts as a sort of “sandbox space” where the students’ work remains behind closed doors and there are no internal film competitions.

Brennan explained that the first-year activities are common, and students are encouraged to discover their preferred specialisations while gaining a wider understanding of how the whole production team works.

“Success is often perceived as something going straight up to the sky, but it doesn’t work that way. There will be twists and turns, and in our school, we celebrate failure as something we can learn from. We really mean that. In our school, there are no grades, you can only pass or not pass an exam. And, we say that the actual exam is entering the school. After that, the learning process begins,” added Normann.

Some other reps, including Vaatmann, Brennan and Juraga, elaborated on how their schools’ entrance criteria are rather strict, and grades are still in place. However, they underscored how this more traditional approach - often imposed by the law - doesn’t affect their mission of creating a safe space for research and learning.

Speaking of diversity, Ploug said that the school’s selection committee attends unconscious bias training sessions, and their work is guided by a diversity charter. “It’s something relatively new, which has been in place for the last couple of years,” she revealed.

Next, Brennan touched on his school’s exchange programme with an Egyptian university: “There’s a demographic boom in the region, and maybe 30% of the population is under 25. This will have a huge influence on how film is consumed and produced. It’s interesting to see that 90% of the Egyptian university’s film programme students are women. They will be media leaders in 15-20 years, telling stories from their cultures. We support their efforts by bringing them to Stockholm and sending our teachers to Egypt. But the Erasmus programme doesn’t allow us to send our students there.”

Zooming in on gender equality in Estonia, Vaatmann said that the gender ratio is already balanced, and that a growing number of women are active in the local film industry.

Brennan stressed the importance of helping women to access more technical roles such as DoP and sound designers.

Ploug spoke about how one of the most common biases that needs to be broken is not seeing film as a feasible career path. “When he was a teen, one of our students living in the outskirts of Jutland asked his local councillor where he could study film. The councillor answered that there were no film schools in Denmark. This is something we need to address.”

Bergenstråhle stated that often female filmmakers stop working after their first film, and it’s hard for many to find their way into the industry. Without mincing words, he summed up: “Most films are still made by men, and men are still put forward.”

Juraga said that the school’s diversity efforts focus on gender equality and students from the Russian-speaking parts of the country. He added that even if some applicants’ level of Latvian fluency is lower than others’, ideas and creativity are put first when it comes to evaluating their potential.

Finally, Brennan invited his colleagues to think about something similar to symphony orchestras’ blind audition: “If we start thinking this way, diversity will sort itself out.” Ploug found this suggestion valuable, but also pointed out that many orchestras are becoming more and more sceptical about this approach.