Preface From the Future
Several years ago I was asked to blog about my experiences studying at Beijing Film Academy (BFA) on my friend’s website Asianfilms.org (which has now morphed into AsiaPacificFilms.com, an excellent resource for streaming hard-to-find films from Asia and the Pacific). Little did I realize at the time that it would propel me to become the unofficial contact for foreigners wanting to come study at BFA, as the BFA English-language website was practically nonexistent. Eventually I added this Beijing Film Academy FAQ post which answered most of the questions to which I was frequently replying. However, when Asianfilms.org disappeared, so did the blog entries, so I’ve decided to repost them here on my new (as of early 2012) website according to their original posting dates. Though a bit outdated, I think most of my impressions and the information I give about BFA are still very relevant, despite the unbelievably rapid pace of change that affects just about everything in China. The biggest change I’ve noticed over the past five years at BFA is that a bunch of the (acting) students now drive incredibly expensive cars (when I was studying at BFA in 2006-2007, there were far fewer cars on the tiny campus, and they typically belonged to the upper echelon of well-connected professors). I guess after paying off administrators and professors at the school to secure their children a spot (yes, it happens all over China, including BFA), these extremely supportive and loving parents still had enough money to send their kids off to school in BMWs and Audis. There are plenty of stories of other ways some less fortunate students come about their vehicles as well. But I’ll save that discussion for another post. For now, enjoy the naive ramblings of a much younger me back in my days of ignorance and bliss.
FAQ for Foreigners Planning to Study at Beijing Film Academy
It’s amazing how many people have contacted me with questions about studying at Beijing Film Academy (BFA) since I started this blog here at iFilm Connections. Part of the reason is that this blog and my name seems to pop up pretty high in Google searches for Beijing Film Academy in English. The other part of the reason seems to be the fact that BFA took down their very limited English-language website, so now foreigners who either don’t read Chinese or are too lazy to wade through the jumbled BFA Chinese-only website have no idea who to contact at the school with their questions and end up contacting me instead. I’ve done my best to answer these questions, but usually don’t have the exact answer they are looking for and have noticed I’m often answering the same questions over and over again, and so I’ve decided to start a FAQ here where I can put up the most common questions I get with the most common answers I give (of course I do this at the risk of becoming the unofficial BFA contact for foreigners and actually getting even MORE e-mails from people asking about the school, which I would prefer to avoid).
I will make this very clear here at the beginning of the post. I am NOT in any way affiliated with BFA, I am merely a former student who studied in their one-year cinematography program. I take NO RESPONSIBILITY for the accuracy of this information, as I am basing most of this on my own experiences there, information I have gathered through classmates and friends there, and outdated information from when I looked up information about the school before and during my studies there during the 2006-2007 school year. I am posting this information in hopes that it helps the increasing number of foreigners out there interested in coming to study at BFA find the info they are looking for, since BFA seems to have very little interest in going out of its way to assist foreign students. If you don’t see your questions answered here in this FAQ, your best bet is to contact Mr. Ren at BFA’s International Training Center with your questions. See the question below on contacts for BFA.
So here goes:1 Hey, I hear BFA is one of the best film schools in Asia. So where the heck is their English-language website?
Now this is one of those great unsolved mysteries. In the not-so-distant past BFA did maintain (well, maintain might be too strong a word) an English-language site, although it contained a very minimal amount of information on just the very basics of what foreigners could study there. In all I think there were only about three or four pages total to the entire site. But it was better than nothing, and had contact information in English for those that wanted to ask more questions. At some point in either late 2006 or early 2007 they took those pages down, and they took down the “English” link on the top of their main website that used to link to those pages. Perhaps they were embarrassed by the pedestrian design of the site and the lack of useful information. Or perhaps they felt it generated more questions than it answered. Or perhaps they just didn’t have anyone to keep the information up to date. I’m pretty certain they DIDN’T do it in an effort to reduce the number of foreigners coming into the school, as they seem to appreciate the revenue we produce (they even boast about this in the introduction of the International Training Center on the BFA website, noting that since 1994 it has brought in over 15,000,000 RMB – over US$2,000,000 – for BFA). But that’s a completely different discussion that will not be touched on here in the FAQ. =0)
All foreigners wanting to study at BFA must register through the International Training Center. There are several different contact phone numbers listed on their webpage that I’ve listed below. The guy in charge of dealing with foreigners there when I registered for classes in 2006 was Mr. Ren, so that may be who you want to try and get in touch with first if you have a lot of questions. I will warn you that he was extremely rude and unhelpful with me when I dealt with him over the phone several times back in 2006, and I’ve talked to other international students at BFA who had similar experiences with him, but he may have gotten better over the past two years. I believe his number is 8204-3748 (which is listed below under Film Studies Office). Professor Ma seemed to be the person in charge of administering the Chinese language classes at BFA when I called back in 2006, but I never actually talked to her. I believe the number they gave me for her was 8204-1954, but that is also listed on the website as being under the Film Studies Office, so you might try the number listed for Chinese Language Studies Office as well.
For all numbers listed below you will need to add +8610 before the number if you are calling from outside China or add 010 before the number if calling from within China but outside of Beijing.
International Student Office: 8204-5433
International Student Dorm Switchboard: 8204-7722
International Student Dorm Front Desk (24 hours): 8204-3795
Director’s Office: 8204-3876
Film Studies Office: 8204-3748, or 8204-1954
Chinese Language Studies Office: 8204-5455
Fax: 8204-5747 or 8204-2132
I think they rarely if ever reply to their e-mail, at least they never replied to mine and I’ve talked to other foreign students here who were similarly unsuccessful, but you can give it a try.3 So I’m completely lost. I DO know enough Chinese to read the BFA website (or am clever enough to use Google’s translate feature) but can’t find the link to information for foreign students amongst the 2,863 links on the main BFA site. Are there some useful URLs for us foreign students who do read Chinese?
Well, I don’t know if these links would be considered useful to you or not, but I’ll list them anyway in hopes that they help you navigate the site:4 So I’m a foreigner and want to study filmmaking at BFA. What are my options?
It really depends on what you are interested in studying and at what level you want to study. Like film schools in many countries, BFA offers undergraduate and graduate level degrees, and then they also have their revenue-generating one-year intensive courses offered in most departments (which is what I took in the cinematography department). There is also a Continuing Education department that offers a number of extension courses in various subjects, but I’m really not familiar with how that department works, what they offer, or if foreigners can take classes there or not. And it doesn’t help that the link to the Continuing Education webpage from the main BFA site has never worked.
The undergraduate program in most departments is four years, and the graduate program in most departments is three years. Foreigners wanting to enroll in either of these must have scored at least a Level 6 on the HSK (汉语水平考试 － Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, China’s version of TOEFL for the Chinese Language). For both levels of study all departments will require you to take the entrance exam for that department (I’m still not sure if it’s a separate test for foreigners, but I’m pretty sure foreigners are expected to test alongside Chinese students for admission to the specific program). I believe the entrance exams for most departments are either in December/January before Chinese New Year holiday or in March after the Chinese New Year holiday. But even if your Chinese is incredible, you are an amazingly talented student, and you can actually show up in China for the entrance exam, you might not be able to get into the department you want anyway. Every year each department comes up with their annual student recruitment guidelines, which includes the number of foreigners they will accept for the next year. Unfortunately many departments don’t accept any foreigners in either their undergraduate or graduate programs (or both), and this varies by year. Before coming to BFA I had considered testing for the MFA program in the cinematography department while studying in the one-year intensive program, but found out that the cinematography department’s student recruitment guidelines for the 2007-2008 school year did not allow for any foreigners in the MFA program (and I’m pretty sure it didn’t allow for any in the undergrad program either). Upon further investigation I found out they had not made an allowance in their annual guidelines for foreigners for the last several years, and I’m not sure if they EVER allowed any foreigners to even attempt to test into the MFA program. So be aware of this if you have your heart set on testing into an undergraduate or graduate program. You would probably be wise to contact the department directly (and very early on) and ask them if they plan to allow foreigners to compete for a place in the upcoming school year, and if they say yes, ask them when the entrance exam will take place and the registration deadline.
For those unable to test into the various departments or not wanting to spend three or four years studying at BFA, there is always the one-year intensive courses, known as jinxiuban (进修班) and offered in most departments (in some departments the length of study may be shorter or longer than one year). These courses also require that you score at least a Level 6 on the HSK. These courses are targeted at Chinese students who can’t test into the degree programs or who just want to get specialized training for one-year, but usually don’t place a restriction on the number of foreign students who can participate in the program, and I’ve noticed that many departments seem to have at least one or two foreigners in these programs every year. While students in these courses are not degree students, for the most part they are extended most of the benefits and access to school resources that degree students enjoy, but again this varies by department. There doesn’t seem to be one set of guidelines that governs all the jinxiuban courses. Some departments require students to take tests or interviews to gain entrance and limit the overall number of students (like the directing department), while some departments take just about anyone who has enough money to pay the steep tuition fee (like the cinematography department). The quality of instruction tends to vary by department also. In the 2006-2007 cinematography jinxiuban course in which I enrolled, there was no interview or examination process and everyone who applied seemed to have been accepted, resulting in about 60 students in a class that really was only designed to handle about 30 students maximum (I met a Chinese camera assistant on a shoot who told me he had done the cinematography jinxiuban course over five years ago and at that time they only had about 25 students and were given ample resources to work with). I’ve talked to students in the 2007-2008 cinematography jinxiuban course and the situation has obviously gotten even worse for them, as the number of students in their course soared to over 90 this year. To accommodate them, the department merely found a larger classroom to hold all of the classes. The directing department seems to have their jinxiuban course organized a bit better, and even though they receive more applications than the cinematography department, they hold a competitive interview and examination process every June and only offer admission to the best 30 to 40 students (not exactly sure if that number is right), who they announce in early July. From the students I talked to in this course, they seemed much more satisfied with their course offerings, teachers, and resources than most of my cinematography classmates (and myself) were. But every department is different, and every year things seem to change, so your best bet is to talk to the department directly as early as possible.
As for the course schedule, classes in all programs at BFA run on pretty much the same schedule, usually beginning in early September and running until the following July, with a one or two-month break in January/February/March for Chinese New Year. As far as I know all degree and jinxiuban courses begin during the fall semester (usually in September) and cannot be started mid-year at the beginning of the spring semester (usually late February or early March).5 So I’m a foreigner and I want to study Chinese at BFA. What are my options?
This is a little easier than the last question. BFA offers three different levels of Chinese classes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Every year they might have a different number of classes at each level depending on the students’ needs, and this current school year I believe there is only one beginner’s class, two intermediate classes (lower intermediate and upper intermediate), and two advanced classes (lower advanced and upper advanced). I’m pretty sure most Chinese classes are only in the morning, meeting Monday through Friday from 8am -12pm for a total of 20 hours a week. To the best of my knowledge this is a pretty common schedule with many Chinese language programs in China. From talking to friends who have taken the Chinese classes at BFA, it sounds like the classes are kept pretty small, usually with only 6-12 students in any one class (I’ve heard of MUCH larger classes at other universities). In all I think every year there are less than 30 foreigners total studying Chinese at BFA, so it’s a very small program. As to the quality of the program, I have not taken Chinese classes at BFA, so I cannot vouch for how good they are, but the students I’ve talked to taking classes there seem to be fairly content. I’ve not heard any complaints about the program.
I think the big question for many people in regards to taking Chinese classes at BFA is whether or not it would be better to go to one of the more well-known Chinese language programs in Beijing. Again, I’ve not studied Chinese in Beijing and can’t vouch for any of the programs, but I am fairly familiar with most of the more popular programs here. I’ve also studied four different Asian languages in a number of different schools and language programs over the past decade and have a lot of experience with choosing language programs. In my experience the actual program and classes are not nearly as important as what you put into them, and to be honest I think it’s more important what you do OUTSIDE of the classroom while studying a language in country than what you do inside the classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the first person to recommend to anyone planning to live here for a while to invest the time and money in taking at least a year of language classes to get the most out of their stay. It’s essential to have that foundation and well-rounded approach to the language that a structured class can provide. But as far as which language program provides the best approach to the language, I think it’s hard to say and I think it’s much more important to look at the environment you will be living in and surrounded by than the actual differences in the classes themselves.
So having said that, I think that if you are interested in filmmaking and have plans to get involved in filmmaking here in China, then you can’t go wrong taking language classes at BFA, regardless of how good the classes actually are. Why? Because you are surrounded by Chinese film students and professors and a whole film community right outside your classroom door. You can set up language exchanges with Chinese film students, attend film-related lectures and events, sit in on elective classes, and get involved in student film shoots if you take the initiative. And I think pretty much all of the students who do take Chinese classes at BFA come here because of their interest in filmmaking. If you have absolutely no interest in filmmaking, then you might be better off looking into classes at one of the larger and better-known programs at BLCU (Beijing Language and Culture University), Qinghua (better known as Tsinghua to foreigners and jokingly as Qingwa – frog – to many Chinese), or Beijing Normal University. Or one of the zillions of other programs around Beijing or any other city in China for that matter. Except Guangzhou. Please don’t go take Chinese language classes in Guangzhou.
As for the schedule of Chinese courses, they run pretty much the same time as the rest of BFA courses, having a fall and spring semester with a one- to two-month break in January/February/March for Chinese New Year. Unlike the degree and jinxiuban courses, I believe students can begin Chinese courses mid-year at the beginning of the spring semester, although you’d probably want to register as early as possible as nobody works during the weeks surrounding Chinese New Year.6 So I’m sure I want to study filmmaking or Chinese or something/anything/everything at BFA, but I’m a poor student (or I need to have a rough estimate of expenses for the scholarship I’m applying to). How much is tuition gonna cost me?
Good question. I will tell you the amounts I know from my own research in 2006, as I’m unable to find any readily available figures on the current BFA website and I’m not going to call around and ask current tuition figures for every degree program. But these figures should give you a rough estimate of what to expect, even if they’ve changed or weren’t entirely correct in the first place.
Tuition for Chinese classes is probably the cheapest of any of the programs at BFA. As of 2006 they were about 9,000 RMB (about US $1250) for a full school year of classes (which is two full semesters, same as all the other degree and non-degree programs at BFA). Or maybe that was only for one semester. I’m pretty sure it’s for the full year though. There’s a very good chance that now in 2008 this may have risen over 10,000 RMB, but again you’ll have to check with BFA for actual amounts. If you pay a full year’s tuition up front I believe it will also allow you to get a one-year X (student) visa, which is nice because extending and changing visas can be a hassle (especially with a US passport these days… I can’t possibly imagine what the US did to prompt the Chinese authorities to raise visa prices and implement stricter visa restrictions for US passport holders only… I mean it’s so easy for foreigners to get visas to the US these days… yes I’m being sarcastic). In comparison to other Chinese programs around Beijing, I believe this is a fairly competitive price for tuition. BLCU, which probably qualifies as one of the largest and most well-known Chinese language programs in China, charges 11,600 RMB annually for a similar 20-hour per week language course (at least that’s the way it appears from the tuition chart on their website at: http://www.blcu.edu.cn/lzb/lx/english/fees.htm)
Tuition for undergraduate and graduate programs FROM WHAT I’VE HEARD are a little over 10,000 RMB a year for LOCAL STUDENTS in many of the departments (again, this amount may vary by department). If you do manage to test into a department’s undergraduate or graduate program then you can probably expect to pay at least 30% more than that, if not more. Think of it as a foreigner service fee (or the 老外手续费 as I like to refer to it in Chinese). But again, this is something you’ll have to check with the International Training Center and the specific department about for specifics.
For the one-year intensive jinxiuban (进修班) courses like I did, I can tell you what I paid and you can assume it is probably about that same amount for most departments and probably hasn’t gone up too much since 2006. In 2006, my Chinese classmates paid a whopping 35,000 RMB (obviously WAY more than undergraduate and graduate students pay, which is only one of many reasons I believe the jinxiuban’s raison d’etre is to make money for the departments) for the cinematography jinxiuban course, and the three foreigners in our class paid an even heftier 46,000 RMB each for the year. Why the 11,000 RMB difference? Ah yes, the good ol’ foreigner service fee. Alas, they have to write a letter that allows you to get your visa. Evidently it is a very difficult and time-consuming task. But again, we won’t get into that here in the FAQ. Suffice it to say that it’s another one of those great mysteries like the reason BFA took down there English website in the first place. Having said that though, your tuition gets you a full student ID, access to movie screenings and events, elective classes (at least I think we were allowed to sit in on those elective classes… we would have anyway though), a library card, and plenty of other nice little perks. And in the cinematography program, we did get to shoot our final project on 16mm. Of course we were sharing one camera and only got to shoot one film between 12 people, and were only given 200 ft. of film per person, but it was real film. Real Kodak film. And it was a real Arri camera. Real Arri SRII camera. Hehe. That’s ok, my friend at USC film school said they have to shoot on those same old clunkers too. And if you want to look at it this way, you’d be paying US $35,000 or more a year for tuition alone at USC, whereas the hefty 46,000 RMB I was paying (well, my scholarship was paying) only comes out to a bit over US $6,000. I would think that USC probably offers a lot more resources, better courses, and more opportunities (they darn well better at those prices!), but for those of us who can’t afford $35,000/year film school programs and have an interest in China and/or Asia, suddenly BFA becomes a very enticing option financially. That’s really the explanation I should give all these Chinese who ask me the same annoying question about what the hell is wrong with me when I tell them I came from the USA to Beijing to study filmmaking. But I just smile and tell them that it’s because I love their beautiful country so much.7 So I can scrounge up the money to come (and I couldn’t get into USC anyway), but where am I supposed to live?
Several years back BFA completely rebuilt the international student dorm, and they did a fairly good job of it in my opinion (by local standards). The International Training Center offices, the Chinese language classrooms, three floors of hotel rooms for short-term visitors, and two floors of dorm rooms for students are all squeezed into this reasonably well furnished 6-story building. But all this luxury comes at a cost my dear friends. Rooms are not cheap, although compared to what many foreigners are used to paying for dorms back home you might think they are a real steal. As of 2006, double rooms and single rooms (there are a lot more doubles available than singles) both went for 3,000 RMB a month. In other words, if you are in a double with someone else each person would only be paying 1500 RMB a month, whereas in the single you’d be paying the 3,000 RMB all by your lonesome self. The rooms come with their own bathrooms, and are about the same size and layout as a typical economy hotel room. The rooms also have color TV and air conditioning. Internet is available in the rooms but you have to pay about 120 RMB a month to use it. There is a community kitchen and laundry room on each floor, and a few other communal amenities. I spent my first week in Beijing in 2006 living in this dorm while I looked around outside campus for an apartment, but I really didn’t spend much time in the dorm during that week and really didn’t explore the facilities, so I can’t tell you too much more about the dorm. It is a pretty nice and clean place to live, and it’s super convenient since you are living right on campus. The international students also seem to have a lot of parties there. So it’s probably pretty similar to many co-ed dorms at universities abroad in a lot of ways.
The thing that doesn’t make sense to me about the prices and arrangement of the rooms is that doubles are probably bigger than singles (I never actually saw a single during my one-week stay at the dorm, so I could be wrong), so if you wanted to stay by yourself, why not just pay 3,000 RMB for the double room and have more space. But perhaps they don’t allow students to do that, or perhaps singles are about the same size as doubles. There’s actually a much cheaper way to get a double to yourself at the dorm though, which I found out the hard way living with my Mongolian roommate that first week. He was only 18 and was one of those rich, spoiled, English-speaking Mongolian aristocrat kids who’d probably grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He got most of his education in Moscow, and had been in Beijing already for some time learning Chinese, although he told me he didn’t go to class that often and spent much of his time while I was there that week going to clubs around town. At any rate, when I came into the room my first night, he had his stuff scattered all over the room. He made no effort to move anything until I started to pick up his dirty clothes off my bed and he reached over and grabbed them off for me. I could barely introduce myself because his massive speakers were blaring Mongolian rap at full blast (so my introduction to the fine art form of Mongolian rap was certainly not a pleasant one), and he made no attempt to turn them down. And things basically continued like this the whole week. I crammed my life belongings that I had brought with me into one corner and lived out of my suitcases for the week while desperately searching for somewhere off campus to live. The most effective part of his tactic was when he would come in at 4am from clubbing, pop in a DVD (all he did most of the day was watch pirated DVDs of Hollywood films at full blast on those massive speakers that doubled as his Mongolian rap blasters), turn the volume up really loud, and let the film run as he fell asleep. No, I’m not joking. I would toss and turn in bed at first to make it obvious that he had woken me up and I couldn’t possibly sleep with Miami Vice blaring in surround sound in our small little room. When he was sure that I was completely awake, he would ask me if I liked the movie he had in or if I’d rather watch something else. The funny thing is that to be honest, I don’t know if this little plan of his to have a double room to himself was actually a plan or was just merely the result of him being a spoiled little prick and not knowing any better. From the way he asked me these questions and seemed completely innocent about the whole thing, you might actually believe the whole thing wasn’t even an act. Especially that one time he looked at me with an earnest and curious expression on his face after I told him I was moving out the next day to an apartment and said “you know, you’re the sixth roommate I’ve had this year, and now you’re leaving too. I really don’t understand why all my roommates want to leave.”
So if the prices aren’t enough to scare you into not wanting to live in the dorm, then maybe that little anecdote will help convince you. Actually, lots of students I’ve talked to really like living in the dorm and really like the community of aspiring foreign filmmakers they are surrounded by. And most of them end up with very cool roommates. But you don’t have much space, and not really any private space save for your desk and your bed. But when you’re young, that’s fine. I did it for four years in college. But for those more ‘mature’ (i.e. old) people coming to study at BFA (like me), or just those who want to get more bang for their RMB, the only solution is to find a place to live off-campus. Unfortunately finding apartments in China as a foreigner (or even as a Chinese) is not a simple task, and usually involves a middleman who might very well be crooked, or a lot of walking, asking around, checking bulletin boards, and looking at Internet forums. The problem with most of the apartment complexes right around the film school is that they are older and typically filled with long-time dwellers who don’t move out, at least not until they die. It’s not like the Wudaokou area which has many new apartment buildings and a lot of students and young people living there who are always coming and going.
Having said that, there are PLENTY of apartments around the film school and there are rooms to be had if you look hard enough. I found a room right next door to the film academy in the apartment complex at the back of the Beijing Film Studio. I remember walking around and asking people running all the little shops on the road behind BFA if they knew of any people in the neighborhood renting out apartments and got a few numbers. The first several I called had already been taken (probably by other new students at BFA, as this was right before classes started), but finally I found an open room right at the back gate of the film school. It was a tiny room in a not very nice apartment that I would be sharing with a Chinese family. I wasn’t so interested in doing the homestay thing this time around in China (I lived with a Chinese family for half a year in Chengdu in 2004, and had a fantastic experience with them, but this one didn’t look quite as promising and I wanted a little more privacy this time anyway), and the fact that their shower didn’t work and they wanted me to take showers up at school was not exactly comforting. I had called another number before this one and the guy had told me he had already rented out the room, but he called me back later that afternoon and told me that it was available again (I found out later that my Chinese-American classmate was the one who went and looked at it and said he would take it earlier that day, but his parents had ended up making him live in the dorm because they were worried about his safety). So I went over and checked it out and was pleased with how much room it had and its close vicinity to school. And I’m still living here almost a year and a half later.
As for apartment prices, they can vary depending on the area, the age of the apartment, the size, and other factors, but I would say that if you are willing to share a two-bedroom apartment with someone else and have your own room (which is what I do) then you could expect to pay anywhere from about 1200 – 2500 RMB a month for a decent place to live. I live in the larger bedroom of my two-bedroom apartment and also have a small adjoining room that I use as my office, as well as a large balcony (which is VERY convenient for drying clothes), and I pay closer to the lower end of those figures above. Then again my building is rather old and a bit dilapidated, and while the inside of the apartment is decent and everything works ok, the bathroom and kitchen are fairly grimy (the kind of grimy that can’t be solved with a bottle of Mr. Clean and a lot of physical exertion… they will just never be a nice bathroom or kitchen and I’ve slowly learned to accept that fact). Of course if you wanted to get a fancier place or have a small apartment to yourself then you’d probably be looking at between 1800 – 4000 RMB in this part of town. Again, these are just estimates. If you are willing to commute a bit you could probably find better deals somewhere a little further away, or if you wanted to live in the lap of luxury with a nice apartment and lots of cool places nearby and don’t mind a longer commute, then there are several areas a bit further away that would certainly be nicer than the one directly around BFA. One of my top recommendations would be Wudaokou (五道口), which I’ve mentioned several times throughout this FAQ.
My advice for housing while living at BFA is to plan on coming to Beijing a week before classes start and live in the international student dorm. You can pay by the day or week (although rates may be a bit more expensive this way than paying monthly). Live there and see what you think. And maybe more importantly see if you like your roommate. If you are happy enough with dorm life, consider staying for the first semester at least and see how it goes. Otherwise, use that first week to look around for an apartment in the area as fast as you can. If you don’t find one before classes start, it will be a bit harder to get out and look, but you can still stay in the dorm as long as you need and can spend your weekends looking around. For me personally I’ve enjoyed the extra space, privacy, and quiet that I get living off campus for basically the same price I would have been paying to share a small hotel-size room with someone else. And the extra little walk to school isn’t so bad. Unless it’s raining. But the dorm is a pretty nice place (I’ve seen MUCH worse international student dorms here in China), and you can’t beat the convenience of being right on campus (in fact I think Chinese classes are still conducted right there in the international student dorm building). It seems to suit a lot of students just fine. The choice is up to you, but having an extra week or two before classes start to live there and check it out would probably help you make the best decision for your personal needs.8 What are some of the perks of studying at BFA?
What, you still have more questions??? Jeez. Alright, but I’m not writing another novella answer like that last one. The things I do for you people…
Here are some of the things I thought were nice perks about the film academy and factors I think that might help convince a lot of people to make that final decision to come study at BFA. I’ve tried to list them in order of how useful I found them (from most important to least important), but obviously this will vary by individual.
English-language room in the library
Wow, this place rocked. They have an entire room in the school library devoted to foreign language books, the majority of which are in English. I’ve been to USC’s library and seen their whole wing of the library devoted to film books, so obviously this doesn’t come close, but it’s got to be by far the best resource of English-language books on film and photography you’ll find in China. And they keep the library updated, getting in hundreds of new books every year on a wide variety of topics. I was so impressed by their selection and all the good stuff on offer that I often skipped several of my really boring and pointless classes and went to the library to do some self-guided studying. To me this was easily the single best resource at the school. Foreigners studying Chinese language are not issued library cards, so you might not be able to gain access to this place, but if you ask nicely you might just be able to get access. All degree students and jinxiuban students in most departments should all receive library cards and be able to get in here. The only bad thing about this room is that no books may be removed from the room, so you have to stay in there to read your books and have to live by there limited hours (fortunately they extended their hours the second semester I was studying there).
Free screenings and lectures by world-renowned filmmakers
I have to admit for all the shortcomings I like to point out about BFA, they sure do manage to get a fair share of big name filmmakers visit campus. And their visits are often accompanied by free screenings of one or more of their films. And even when the filmmakers visiting aren’t quite as internationally renowned, they still have some very good insights to share with the students. The not-so-famous Iranian director (to prove he’s not so famous I can’t even remember his name) who showed his film and spoke in one of our combined classes had even more useful points to make than Luc Besson did several months later when he spoke to a packed house in the school’s main screening auditorium. And it seems like almost every week there is someone else coming to visit. I recently missed a visit by one of my favorite Korean directors Lee Chang-dong that I’m still kicking myself over.
Free movie screenings on the big screen
During the school year BFA holds regular weekly screenings at least two nights a week (usually Monday and Tuesday), showing two domestic films on Monday night and two foreign films on Tuesday night. These screenings can be very hit and miss, especially with the domestic films, but at the same time they provide students to see films they couldn’t otherwise see even on DVD up on the big screen. And if you are a BFA student you get in free. Unfortunately I didn’t catch a single screening my first semester and only started to go occasionally my second semester, but I did see some very interesting films, and got a chance to see things up on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen, which was an important experience for a frugal aspiring filmmaker like me who never pays the exorbitant prices to go to the movie theatres.
On top of the regular classes offered specifically within departments specifically for different degree programs, there are a large number of elective classes offered throughout the semester, many of them given in the evening so they don’t interfere with students’ regular classes. From what I understand degree students (at least undergraduates) have to take a certain number of elective classes on top of their regular class load anyway, which is probably the main reason they exist, but I had plenty of classmates who sat in on a number of the elective classes, as they don’t really seem to take attendance. I rarely attended the elective classes, as sitting through my regular classes from 8am to 5pm was already enough to mush my brain up like Silly Putty in the hands of a 5-year-old, but there were a number of interesting ones that in retrospect I wish my mashed up little brain would have tried to endure. I did sit in on a few different ones with some of my classmates just to try them out, including one that showed short films of BFA student works and allowed the other students to critique the work, which I thought was a great idea despite the fact the films they showed that night were quite atrocious. However, be warned that there are a number of these elective classes that I doubt many foreigners would want to sit through, except maybe to gain a better understanding of the Chinese educational system. As I scanned the roster of elective classes posted in the main entrance of the main educational building at the beginning of each semester, I noticed such class titles as “The Five Virtues of Marxist Theory” and “Applying Maoism to Modern Practices” and a number of other courses that had absolutely nothing to do with filmmaking but were probably required by the government to be taught and may very well have been required electives for students. I never asked. I was very tempted to go sit in on some of those classes though just to see what they talked about. And just to see the reaction of the teacher when he walked into class, put down his books on the podium, finished smoking his cigarette, and looked up to see my smiling white face right in front of him. But again, the ‘Silly Putty Brain Syndrome’ kept me from carrying out these ‘missions’. Suffice it to say that there are probably some really good elective classes and some really bad ones, but with over 50 (or maybe closer to 100) different ones to choose from, there’s bound to be some real gems in there.
Access to equipment
Access to equipment varies greatly by department, and can only be checked out in certain periods when there is an assigned project to work on (which in my course only came at the end of each semester), but there is TONS of professional film equipment at BFA to be harvested and used if you can find a way to get to it. When we worked on our 16mm project we were borrowing huge HMIs, Kino-flos, and tons of grip equipment left and right. Unfortunately that was the ONLY time they let us near any of that, but it does exist and students to get to use it at some point.
You’re at film school!
You are surrounded by tons of other students studying filmmaking, you have departments stocked with experts in their respective fields, you have films being shot all around you, you have the chance to network and meet people and start your career in filmmaking. It’s all there. It’s just a matter of what you do with it. If you don’t take advantage of it here, who’s to say you’d take advantage of it at USC even if you could afford it (or get accepted).9 What are some of the drawbacks to studying at BFA (especially as a foreigner)?
You’ve got some nerve asking another question!
I have very mixed feelings about my time at BFA, as you can probably tell from my blog entries. Overall I was not extremely impressed with what BFA had to offer, but a lot of that had to do with my specific course, my specific conditions, and my specific expectations. I’m not going to list all the things I found wrong with the school here, rather I’ll try to objectively list some of the things I think are weak points of the school and some of the things that I think many foreigners studying at BFA might be discouraged or frustrated by. These are NOT in any particular order.
Studying filmmaking in Chinese
Most foreigners I’ve met who study filmmaking (not Chinese) at BFA do not have an outstanding mastery of Chinese. I’d certainly say on average we definitely have a much weaker command of the language than most foreign students I’ve met studying in the US have of English. And many of these foreigners don’t have a film background and are learning many of the concepts from scratch, though I don’t know if these foreign students are in the majority or minority. Learning new concepts in a foreign language are never easy, especially if you don’t have a firm command of the language. And Chinese is certainly not an easy language to master. I think that a lot of foreign students come here after years of Chinese study back home or even here in China having never actually learned anything IN Chinese, only having learned Chinese itself as a foreign language. And I think they end up getting overwhelmed and frustrated by their courses and have a very hard time absorbing the concepts being taught because they are too busy trying to keep up with the Chinese. The teachers in the classes here don’t slow down for the lone foreigner in the class, just like they wouldn’t slow down for foreigners in classes back in the US (even when they are the majority of the class, which is often the case these days!). So while it may be a good experience for raising the foreign student’s Chinese listening level and picking up a lot of technical vocabulary, is that something they necessarily need to pay all that tuition to do when they could go listen to tapes and read specialized books? That’s a big dilemma I dealt with during my year of study at BFA, as I went into my classes with a fairly strong command of the Chinese language, but at times (and with certain teachers) I would feel overwhelmed by the slew of new technical vocabulary and new concepts being thrown out so fast (and not always using the best teaching methods either, which is another problem I’ll get to below). And while I certainly learned a ton of useful Chinese along the way that has served me well while working in the industry here, I know there are a lot of new concepts that I completely missed because I was too busy keeping up with the Chinese or too exhausted from overexerting my brain from 8am to 5pm everyday. So what I really think would have been more effective and what I would recommend to any other foreigners considering studying filmmaking at BFA is that you have a solid grasp of professional filmmaking concepts and preferably some experience in the industry back home before you come jump into classes at BFA. Not only will it make your experience at BFA more rewarding, but it will also make it much easier for you to find a job over here in the industry after you graduate (or even while you are studying). Because unless your Chinese is at near-native level (and a good portion of the foreigners that come to study here are overseas Chinese who grew up speaking Chinese), you will spend a lot of time and energy just on the language front and not actually absorbing ideas and techniques, and the more you understand the content already the faster you’ll absorb the new vocabulary that goes along with it. At least that’s my two cents on the matter. Your mileage may vary.
Poor facilities and resources
Ok, this is the best film school in China and very possibly one of the best in Asia. And there is a lot of money that has gone into this school. But at times you simply wouldn’t know that while studying here. At times you will probably scratch your head and wonder “who exactly is it that started this rumor?” And it’s hard to pinpoint what it is that will have you thinking this, but I think foreigners who study here invariably ask themselves this question from time to time. Here’s an example. We paid all that tuition to be stuck in a horribly dilapidated and depressing classroom with very uncomfortable seats and decaying desks. The computer and projector system in the room was very cheap and when we could actually get it to work produced horrible results. Everything around me felt cheap, dirty, and neglected. Granted, there are some nicer classrooms around campus, especially in the new building on campus where we were fortunate enough to have one class a week the second semester. But overall the atmosphere of the main student building is pretty depressing in my opinion. The school does have a nice main screening auditorium, and they did just put in a new sports ground (a rubber-base mini soccer field and basketball courts), but overall I felt like it was not an environment very conducive to learning. Then again I’ve had a blessed life growing up in the US and going to nice schools with nice facilities and not all foreigners coming to BFA will have had such experiences or any such expectations. But I feel that I’m a fairly adaptable person having lived and studied in so many places in Asia over the past decade, and I definitely found BFA to be one of my least favorite campuses and I found student life here to be one of my hardest transitions. And of course this is not solely because I didn’t like the facilities, but I felt that this had a lot to do with it. I was also a bit disappointed with the fact that BFA houses tons of very nice equipment but the typical checkout equipment for a number of different departments and courses were DV cameras (Canon XL-1s and Panasonic DVX100s). Yes, the few projects we shot outside of our graduation 16mm film project were all done on these DV cameras. And we were given cheap plastic tripods on top of that. Come on. One of the best film schools in Asia? I’m scratching my head again.
Chinese teaching style
It’s a common known fact that Eastern and Western teaching styles are very different, and even within different countries and societies within the East and West there are vast differences. So I’m not going to beat this issue to death. Suffice it to say that no matter where you are from or what system of teaching you are used to, at least half of the teachers I had at BFA would have bored you to tears. The Chinese teaching style involves the teacher standing (actually most of mine sat since they taught for three to four hours at a time) in front of the class and talking nonstop about whatever they want with no regard for whether the students are grasping the concepts or not. And it’s not all that common for Chinese students to ask questions. And it’s not all that UNcommon for Chinese students to fall asleep. And the teachers don’t care. There were a number of my classes where we had a terribly boring teacher who seemed to really care less about whether or not anyone was listening to his boring lectures and I would turn around (yes, Mr. Goody Two-Shoes Foreigner always sat at the front of the classroom) to a sea of hair with an occasional face bobbing up and down. Literally the entire class would be sleeping as the teacher droned on and on. For me personally as a teacher that would be a huge bruise to my ego and I would probably just get up and walk out of the room, but some of these teachers were just so robotic in their approach to teaching that I’m not even sure they noticed. Even when the fat guy who always sat behind me would start snoring loudly on occasion. It’s kind of funny looking back on things like that, but in the end it’s really kind of sad. My impression of teachers here in China is extremely low, and I’m afraid many of them really just don’t give much of a damn about what they are teaching or if the students absorb it as long as they get paid. I might feel bad making such a generalized statement like that had I not been told repeatedly by my Chinese classmates and Chinese friends that teachers in China are simply all like that, and that is exactly how school was for them their entire upbringing. And people wonder why China lags behind the West in terms of creativity.
Those are the main drawbacks that I can think of from my own experiences at BFA. I don’t put those here to try and scare potential students away from studying here, but merely as an idea of what to possibly expect so that your expectations before arriving might be a little more realistically aligned. No two foreigners will have the same experience at BFA, and the things I might have hated about my classes the next guy may love. But that may just be because that next guy is French. They’re weird like that.10 Where is BFA located?
Well, first of all it’s in Beijing, China, but if you didn’t know that much already, then I think you have bigger problems than finding your way to the campus. More specifically, it’s located just outside the northwest side of Beijing’s Third Ring Road, about 200 meters north of the Jimenqiao（蓟门桥) bridge. This is a fairly convenient location in that it is not too far away from central Beijing, and there is a bus stop with a number of routes covered right next to the front gate of the school, but the nearest subway is several kilometers away and there really isn’t much to do in the near vicinity of the school. There are also not that many restaurants or shopping districts nearby. There is a Wal-mart a few kilometers away, and Wudaokou (五道口 – a popular shopping and entertainment area located near the Beijing Language and Culture University, Qinghua University, and Beijing University) is less than 10 kilometers away and only about US $2 by taxi (or US $0.15 by bus!) from BFA. The Xitucheng stop on the Line 10 subway (which curves around the 3rd Ring Road to busy Chaoyang Business District on the east side of town) is only about a half kilometer straight north of the BFA main gate.
And for those of you too lazy to go look it up on Google Maps yourself, here’s the final favor I’m offering today: