Film and Media at Berkeley

From the beginning of Film Studies as an academic discipline in the United States, the film culture in and around the University of California, Berkeley, has played a significant role in the development of the field. Already in 1955, at the time when film journals, societies, and festivals first began to acknowledge film (especially film made outside the confines of Hollywood studios) as a medium of artistic expression worthy of critical study and interpretation, the Berkeley-based University of California Press made an important contribution with the founding of the journal Film Quarterly.

Pauline Kael began her career as film critic for the New Yorker in Berkeley from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s; she was also manager of the Berkeley Cinema Guild, the first repertory cinema in America. The Pacific Film Archive began screening films in 1966, specializing in experimental and documentary films and foreign art cinema (even more than forty years later, the PFA continues to provide central programming for film courses and a home for special film-related events).

During the period of rapid expansion in the academic study of film nationwide, Berkeley film culture continued to make its mark. In the early 1970s, three major film journals were founded in Berkeley: Camera Obscura (1972 to present), Women and Film (1972-75), and Jump Cut (1974 to present), which opened film studies to the intellectual currents of structuralism, semiology, feminism, and Marxism. At the same time, the University of California Press rose to the forefront of publishing scholarship on cinema. This rich intellectual environment provided the context and rationale for a formal program in Film at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1976, UC Berkeley launched the Film Group Major in response to demands by undergraduates to be able to major in Film. William Nestrick, an associate professor of English, was the founder and Head Advisor of the Film Group Major, and directed the program until 1991 (in his honor, our screening room, 142 Dwinelle Hall, is called the “Nestrick Room”). In consultation with Bertrand Augst (Comparative Literature) and Seymour Chatman (Rhetoric), Nestrick organized a program leading to a B.A. in Film, administered through Undergraduate and Interdisciplinary Studies (UGIS), drawing primarily on film courses that were already being offered by faculty in the Departments of African-American Studies, Comparative Literature, English, French, Italian, Rhetoric, and Scandinavian. Marilyn Fabe, a new Ph.D. in English, taught the core introductory courses. Later, as new humanities faculty members interested in teaching film came to Berkeley, they were added to the Group Major faculty. In addition to the regular, already existing film faculty, a distinguished visiting professor or lecturer was hired yearly, chosen by the chair in consultation with the Film faculty. Visiting faculty in the early years included Stanley Cavell, Raymond Durgnat, Richard Peña, Bill Nichols, Kay Kalinak, Russell Merritt, B. Ruby Rich, and Scott Simmon.

The curriculum in the group Film major included required courses in film history, film theory, film genre, and auteur studies—a rigorous curriculum that is still the core of our undergraduate program. It was the intent from the beginning of the program to make the Film B.A. a demanding major that required not only a systematic study of all aspects of film, but also the knowledge of a second foreign language, in keeping with the faculty’s expertise in international cinema. The Program’s emphasis rested on the study of film theory, film analysis, and film history; an introduction to film production (“The Language of Film”) was added in 1993, followed by a course on screenwriting. In the meantime, as the digital revolution lowered the cost of film production, the border between film studies and film production became more fluid.

Ph.D. and D.E. in Film Studies

In 1991, the rapidly expanding program moved out of UGIS into a more regular Humanities setting, and the establishment of a graduate program in film studies was envisioned. Because of its intellectual and personnel ties, the program found a home within the multidisciplinary and theoretically open Department of Rhetoric. In the 1990s, several film faculty members were hired who have shaped the program in defining ways, and a number of affiliated faculty members also joined the program. Film also made a point of drawing on the vibrant local filmmaking scene by hiring filmmakers to teach avant-garde and documentary cinema courses. The Film Program was given permission to admit graduate students specializing in film in 1996, offering them a Concentration in Film as part of the Rhetoric Ph.D. program. This arrangement lasted from 1996 until 2011, when the new Department of Film & Media (established in 2010) was given final approval by the University of California to offer its own Ph.D. During these fifteen years, graduate study in Film benefited from the interdisciplinary approaches encouraged by the Rhetoric Department, and the program gained the distinctive intellectual profile for which it is known today: internationally comparative, methodologically innovative, and theoretically motivated. As the Ph.D. moves into its new home in the Department of Film & Media, these founding intellectual commitments remain, even as new fields of study emerge in digital and installation media.

Early in the development of its Ph.D. concentration in Rhetoric, Film began attracting graduate students from various departments who wanted to add Film Studies as a minor field (a Designated Emphasis) to their Ph.D. The Ph.D. in Film has in turn profited from the wide variety of perspectives that students from other departments have brought to it. The D.E. was approved in 1997 and started in 1998. The combination of Ph.D. and D.E. students has led to robust course enrollments over the years, and has contributed to making film at Berkeley an exciting and steadily growing program known among graduate studies across campus.


Our transition from an undergraduate program to the Department of Film & Media would not have been possible without the active support of the former Dean of UGIS, Donald McQuade, and the former Deans of Arts and Humanities Tony Newcomb and Ralph Hexter, as well as the present Dean Janet Broughton. The Directors of the Film Studies Program during its transformation were Professors Tony Kaes (1991-1997), Kaja Silverman (1997-2001), Linda Williams (2001-2006), and Mark Sandberg (2007-2010).