Lights, camera, URI in action: Students experience film up close across the state

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 31, 2023 – Winter months can be prime movie-watching season. With the Golden Globes, Oscars, Netflix queues and new streaming releases, many of us turn to the silver and small screens to brighten the season’s long dark days.

This winter, University of Rhode Island students took their cinematic studies off screen and across the state, as part of a whirlwind winter honors course, “Experiencing Film in Rhode Island,” as part of J Term, URI’s intensive academic mini-semester that allows students to take one course and earn up to four credits during winter break. The students crisscrossed the state for a look at film statewide in the three-week period between New Year’s and the start of spring semester.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: Students visited the set of a television movie filming in Middletown, witnessing a production in progress with Verdi Films; the company is hoping to continue its URI connection, hiring students for internships.

Thomas Zorabedian of Wakefield, a veteran film and communication instructor at the University, taught the class, bringing in his perspective as a film critic and film and video producer/writer. His considerable connections helped bring the course together; Zorabedian directed the first master class for the Rhode Island Film Festival and serves on its board and as a festival judge. He retired as assistant dean of the URI College of Arts and Sciences in 2019, but has continued teaching film courses at the University.

“I love watching and discussing cinema, and particularly introducing students to films and exploring how they communicate critical messages and meaning,” he says.

Senior film media major Joseph Waits (of Kingston) has seen the world as a sailor and jumped at the chance to see Rhode Island’s world of cinema with one of his favorite URI teachers. “It was a great class,” he says, ”very hands-on and just a very cool experience.”

The eight-day experiential course offered multiple cinematic field trips, with a focus on the business of filmmaking. Waits says the class provided excellent connections for possible internships. “All of the sites and people we met with were so inviting and welcoming to our class.”

Perhaps drawing inspiration from the film Around the World in 80 Days, the class attempted to get around the state’s film sites in eight. They were only on campus at URI one day, when they met film director/producer Michael Corrente and actor/writer Mike Cerrone and viewed Corrente’s film Outside Providence, filmed in part on the Kingston campus. In total, students met with 16 Rhode Island film/television professionals and viewed nine films in six towns, including six Academy Award-nominated shorts.

The interactive class was offered as part of Winter J Term, when students take advantage of the winter break to take a class and earn credits. Some students use J Term as a chance to catch up on coursework, others to explore an interest. More than 1,800 students took advantage of the intensive winter semester, attending on-campus, online, or out-of-state in travel programs. J Term is rigorous — students spend as many contact hours with an instructor as they do during a fall or spring course, but within three weeks. Instead of budgeting their time across four or more classes, students can channel their energy into one course for the winter session, resulting in deep understanding of content in a small-class experience. J Term offers a meaningful academic experience and can help students stay on course for graduation.

According to Director Karen de Bruin of Middletown, the Honors Program wanted to offer some unique experiential learning opportunities for students during the winter session: “We have never offered a J Term course before and wanted to gauge interest,” she says. “I am excited about the prospect of offering a range of experiential learning opportunities for students to enable more students to complete the Honors Program while gaining meaningful learning experiences outside the classroom.”

“I have never taken anything as experiential as this,” says film major Christopher Celico of Westerly. “Having the majority of our class days traveling to some relevant location or meeting with a guest speaker made for a really engaging and unique film course.”

Among its many highlights, the class visited the Rhode Island PBS studio; met with Steven Feinberg of the Rhode Island Film and Television Office and Shawn Quirk of the Rhode Island International Film Festival; toured classic cinemas such as the Avon Cinema in Providence, the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, and United Theatre in Westerly (with artistic director Tony Nunes ’08); watched the filming of a Lifetime Channel movie in Middletown and met with the producer, Chad Verdi Jr.; met with Bill Dougherty, owner of the All South County Luxury Cinema in South Kingstown; and met with Dan Riordan ’06 at his Gnarly Bay Productions in Westerly.

“Our hosts were quite willing, and even enthusiastic, to strengthen their relationship with  URI and interact with our students,” Zorabedian says.

He says the class demonstrates the wonderful educational possibilities that J Term offers: “The growth over the years of URI’s winter term has been one of the more exciting developments that I have seen at URI in terms of offering students special, unique, and relevant learning experiences.”

John Olerio of Providence, director of URI Summer Sessions and Winter J Term, was glad to debut this new class on this year’s J Term schedule and is pleased to see how the program grows every year with new offerings: “We keep finding new ways of keeping it fresh.”