You don’t have to take a class with Claudia Ferman in order to learn about film from her. Ferman’s insight into film as communication, her passion for what film is capable of, and her deep respect for the language of the medium can turn any listener into a receptive student. The Latin American Studies Association (LASA) clearly recognized this when it offered her the directorship of its film festival in 2003.

Ferman, associate professor of Latin American and Iberian studies, rarely speaks of film without mention of its relevance to the classroom. After committing to take on five festivals for LASA, her first order of business was to find a way to involve her Latin American film students in the process. She introduced an independent study that offered students the opportunity to watch and discuss films submitted to the festival.

In the months before each festival, Ferman and her students meet weekly to watch the submissions. The films, submitted from filmmakers around the world, all focus on subjects connected to Latin America. The majority are documentaries, taking topics and images from real life — everything from the environment to child labor.

Students watch two or three films per week and present them to the group. To prepare for these presentations, Ferman instructs students to pay attention to defining elements in each film, such as who directed it, the country of origin, who produced it, year of production, and the formal features (the specific language of the film) — aspects that inform viewers about the film’s perspective beyond the subject matter or the story.

“I try not to influence my students when we’re discussing the films,” said Ferman, who watches every submission. “I use their opinions as a way to get acquainted with these films.”

The last festival that Ferman directed featured 43 films, carefully chosen from over 100 submissions. Throughout the year, in addition to watching submitted films, she travels to other film festivals to gauge what’s being shown and which films will work for her audience.

Ferman looks for films that will cater to various perspectives. This year she emphasized Bolivia, environmental issues, and indigenous film and video production. Documentaries are typically at the center, since the festival’s audience comprises scholars and students. She believes, however, that fiction should not be thought of as a second choice for academics.

“Sometimes fiction allows you to think and feel in a deeper manner than a documentary,” said Ferman. “Documentaries, in their style, form, and language, can be very evocative and effective, but they can also keep the audience at an emotional distance. Fiction is not, as some may think, less serious. Both forms have their place in the classroom.”

Ferman bases the direction of the festival on topics that are new in the field, currently sparking debate, or not getting the attention that, Ferman thinks, perhaps they should.

“I can’t say that I pick the best films — that term is too relative,” Ferman said. “I look for films of good quality that fulfill some clear objective. Sometimes subject matter takes precedence over quality, but the subject matter of a film speaks to you because the film is good.”

To ensure that there is a sizable pool of submissions to choose from, Ferman spends much of her time publicizing the festival to filmmakers and distributors. Since inheriting the festival from its previous director, she has put an enormous amount of time into research and advertising.

In the years before she was called on to direct the LASA festival, Ferman, a filmmaker herself, won three awards at the festival. Having been on the other side of the submission process, she knows that rejection is something every filmmaker must be ready for. Film festivals have their own logic, she says, and she has learned a lot and gained a new perspective on the process as the festival’s director.

The LASA festival takes place every 18 months and this year was held June 11–14 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Ferman had considered not directing the 2009 festival, as she was on sabbatical in Argentina and the workload seemed too much to do by herself. But LASA offered her additional support staff while in Argentina.

“It’s a very intense year of work,” she said. “Everything needs to be ready about four months before the festival so that filmmakers can make plans to attend.”

In 2006, thanks to a Tucker-Boatwright grant, Ferman was able to bring some of the directors from that year’s film festival to the University of Richmond. They presented their films to students and faculty and taught a master class to her Latin American film students. A few years earlier, Ferman brought a portion of the festival to a Latin American studies conference hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Film is a very diverse medium that holds a lot of possibilities,” said Ferman. “It’s a language in and of itself — a discourse of images. In this digital era, it’s a form of communication that’s important for students to be able to understand and use.”