Finding a career in film not easy for international students wanting to stay in Atlantic Canada after they graduate
When choosing what you want to study at university, there are a lot of options – medicine, engineering, business, just to name a few major majors. But film school can be a hard sell to just about anyone’s parents.
“My parents were against it,” says Maya Salem, an international student at NSCAD hailing from Lebanon. “But I didn’t care. I even got a scholarship at one of the universities there, but I still didn’t care.”
Inspired by some of her favourite TV shows, like HBO’s Euphoria, Salem knew she had an interest in film and wished to study it. And a career in filmmaking, or an adjacent art, appealed to her in ways more lucrative vocations did not.
“I knew that getting a degree in the film major was a better degree,” Salem says. “I chose to go with film because I felt like this is a job I can work from anywhere in the world…I like working with people, and I get bored easily. This is perfect, because I get to work with different people, on different sets, maybe in different countries. It’s never the same thing; it’s always a different challenge.”
Besides fighting off the perception of the ‘starving artist’ parents and friends might carry, Salem faces many additional hurdles on her career path.
“When I got accepted, I was shocked,” says Salem, who recounts having less than a month to prepare to move halfway around the world, arriving in Nova Scotia on New Year’s Eve. “‘I can’t go back. I’m here.’ I spent my whole layover crying in the washroom.
“It was scary,” she says, “but I’m so grateful, looking back. I pushed myself so far and now I’m really happy where I am.”
Now in her third year of studies, Salem has discovered a penchant for photography and cinematography. She enjoys working with colour and contrast, and creating different moods with those mediums, much like the makers of Euphoria do to depict the state of mind of their characters.
One of her classmates is Haoran Liu, another international student who studied film in Wuhan, China, but believed he could learn even more studying abroad.
“You can learn a lot of knowledge,” Liu says. “It’s different between China [and here]. In China, we just focused on the shooting and writing. While I’m here, I’ve learned how to make a schedule, about writing. And you have to learn how to use the machine for editing. We also have to learn here how to set up a background in the studio.
“At NSCAD, I have more chance, more opportunity, to shoot a film. I think that’s a good opportunity, because when I was in China, it’s so hard to shoot one film. [Maybe] just a short film.”
Salem is also a fan of NSCAD’s broad offerings in the film department and she discovered her love of photography and composition because she had a chance to study many different aspects of filmmaking. She doubts she could have gotten the same education in Lebanon.
“Arts, back home, they literally give almost no attention to it,” says Salem, explaining that interest in the arts comes with a common retort. “‘How are you going to make money?’ They really disregard arts. NSCAD would never exist back home.”
Salem expects to graduate from NSCAD next year, and Liu, this summer. And while both are happy with the education they’ve received here, they’re also concerned about the next chapter of their journey.
“After I graduate, I feel like things are only going to get harder for me,” Salem says. “I’m on a student visa until I graduate, and then I really want to stay in Canada. I would have to start working on my work visa and finding a job, and I’m kind of time constrained.”
Unlike several of her home-grown classmates, who took time off during their studies, especially during COVID, Salem hasn’t had that luxury.
“I also have this insane pressure from my parents,” she says. “The longer it takes, the more I’m wasting money and rent. Especially during COVID, I was in such a bad mental place. I seriously wanted to take a year or a semester off, but unfortunately, legally, I would lose my visa status if I did that. I was also not qualified for CERB, so I had to work during the [pandemic].”
Liu, who discovered a taste for editing at NSCAD, is in the same boat. But he’s determined to give himself some R&R time once he graduates.
“My plan is, the first week, give me a rest just to relax,” he says, adding then it’s time to hit the pavement. “I want to find a media job here. Whatever media, whatever film. I learned this major, so I want to do that…the first challenge is, I don’t know how to find work.”
Salem struggles with finding work, too. She doesn’t have the same local networks her classmates might have after years of living in Nova Scotia, and her past work experience doesn’t exactly transfer.
“I don’t know, just, how to find people and be like, here’s my work,” she says. “I even have a recommendation letter from my old boss back home, but I’ve really struggled getting hired or finding a job, and I feel like once I graduate, all international students are going to go through the same thing.
“It’s just hard, I feel, to graduate with minimal or no experience and find a job.”
“I come from China; English is not my first language,” Liu says. “I’m not sure if I will find a good job.”
Liu wishes NSCAD did more to help him and other students connect with potential employers, or offered on-campus jobs or volunteer opportunities to help expand his resume.
“The university has a connection with the workplace. Every year, the university can provide maybe a few students to go there for working, whatever. Just to give a chance to them. That’s a good thing for the university, a good thing for Nova Scotia, for Halifax, for Canada. They can know there are a lot of people who want to do this job, and make this area better.”
Despite the challenges, Salem and Liu are both determined to give a career in the film industry of Nova Scotia the ol’ college try.
“While I’m here, I have more chances,” Liu says. “When you’re in China, the chances are really small, because there are a lot of people.”
“Back home…it’s very rare to see people go and spend all their money just on film [school], because to them, it’s betting,” Salem says. “You’re betting your life, your savings, on arts. Even though the film industry back home makes a lot of money. I don’t know why they have this mentality.”
However, Salem isn’t betting on her future. She’s investing in it.
“Exactly,” she says. “You’re making a name for yourself.”
Atlantic Film Coop a unique tool available to international film students
Jinos Akhtarkhavari made two films, The Patry and There is Enough for Everybody, during her time in Halifax.
Originally from Iran, Akhtarkhavari studied film on the side while she attended Kent University in the U.K., earning her degree in psychology. Now in Ottawa, she lived in Nova Scotia for seven years, during which time, she directed two short films: “The Party” and “There Is Enough For Everybody!” Both shorts earned a spot in the FIN Atlantic Film Festival.
“[The Party is] about a little boy who wants to invite his aunt to his house,” Akhtarkhavari says. “His aunts don’t live in Canada, they live in Iran, and because of the visa issue, they cannot go to his place. They join the boy online through a big screen in front of the table, and they arrange to have the same food so the boy feels they are eating together.”
The idea was inspired by Akhtarkhavari’s then four-year-old son, who asked his mother the same question surrounding family abroad. The film was produced through one of the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Cooperative (AFCOOP) filmmaking workshops, this one specifically aiming to make a film in the Farsi language.
“AFCOOP is a gem in Halifax,” Akhtarkhavari beams. “I have a few friends and family in different cities of Canada, Vancouver, Toronto, and many cities, none of them have this privileged co-op like AFCOOP that is so open and so inclusive. They really want to help.”
Akhtarkhavari understands the barriers Salem and Liu face, and besides encouraging them to reach out to AFCOOP, she has a few other words of advice.
“Trying to compete may be a pitfall we all might fall into; we try to compete with native people,” she says. “But instead of competing, we should find our own ways. We shouldn’t imitate or try to be like other people. We should find our own pathways, strengths, and advantages.”
Akhtarkhavari says this advice also came through AFCOOP, from the instructor of a course on how to pitch projects.
“Her advice was to be yourself,” she says. “Be proud of what you are. Use your difference as your advantage.”