Student Spotlight: Cynthia Li

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Cynthia Li
Major: Cinema & Media Studies and Computer Science
Hometown: Mission Viejo, CA
Favorite Film: Arrival (2016)

What do you like most about the CMS major?
I love the interdisciplinary and intertextual aspects of the major. One of the reasons why I decided to major in computer science was how far-reaching the field is, and I feel the same exact way when it comes to CMS. To understand different types of films, one has to understand different cultural histories, traditions, and technologies beyond our own and the professors in the program always do a fantastic job giving us the foundations to investigate beyond our comfort zones and encouraging us to follow our curiosities that they have so nicely opened for us. For example, I remember watching Cache by Michael Haneke in Intro to Film Analysis and completely not understanding the historical aspects of it because I had little to no knowledge of France and Algeria’s colonialist relationship. However, after learning about this foundation from lecture, I found myself not only appreciating Cache more as a cultural artifact, but it made me want to continue to learn more about this relationship. I ended up registering myself to two additional French classes, a subject, coming to the UW, I never thought I’d ever take.

Also, I just love how the CMS major gives me a space to talk with like-minded individuals about our love about film without feeling like I’m boring the recipient to death.

As a double-major in CMS and Computer Science, how do the two fields relate for you personally?
From a Computer Science standpoint, we’re often taught to think in binaries and through a more logical route. In CMS, we’re often taught to expand our range of thinking, to think critically, through different outlets, and empathetically. With computer science being so integral to everything in our lives these days, I find that the empathic and humanistic way of thinking that CMS has helped me develop and led me to consider more about the humans that are using the code that I create. In turn, it has forced me to think beyond just simply getting the entity to work, but also how I can change the items to be more accessible and comfortable for our diverse world. Taking the mindset I have when I formulate social and cultural questions for film and CMS classes, and applying it to technology and the interaction it is doing with humans, it has actually helped improve the code I create.

The logical ways of thinking that computer science has taught me also helps rein me in when I feel like I am going nowhere with a film on a critical level, the feeling where my brain has left the galaxy trying to analyze something on some strange existential level that may or may not exist within the text. The logic and mathematical instincts that I have developed through computer science has often helped me go back to the basics, like simply detailing the mise-en-scene or recognizing edited cuts and work my way through analysis from those smaller steps.

You’ve served as co-president of the UW Film Club for the past three years – wow! Looking back, how has the Club [or, alternatively, film culture at UW] changed over time?
My goal serving as co-president at Club has always been to make an open environment for anyone who simply enjoys film to feel like they could share their opinion with ease. I feel like film culture itself has always had a bad reputation as an elitist and pretentious field and can dissuade others from wanting to engage with film. I think during my time at Club, that we have been able to foster and expand on that ideal of creating an open environment where new members are not afraid to join in on a conversation with those who are entrenched within film culture and express their opinion without fearing the wrath of others. The post-film discussions that we are able to have get livelier with each year.

I also think the type of films played at Club has changed quite a bit over time, with more emphasis on showing films beyond America. Of course, we still have more to do on that front, but the willingness to engage with non-English films has definitely increased during my time at Club and, I think, throughout UW film culture itself with films like Parasite gaining more steam.

Advice for new CMS majors?
Don’t be afraid to speak up! I think the biggest fear I came into CMS classes was saying the wrong thing, but the thing is, cinema and media is subjective and broad to the point that there is so many avenues one could approach a film. The more you speak up, the more others will feel inclined to speak up as well, and with that, a genuinely great discussion could occur. Something that professor Mahadevan once said in class that has stuck with me and has helped me conquer my own fear of speaking up was something on the likes of “there are no wrong answers, just ones that can be backed up well by the text and ones that are less so.” If you can back it up, which you mostly can if you watched the film and did the readings, then you will be fine!

Plans for life after graduation?
For now, I will be staying in Seattle and working as a software engineer at Oracle to hopefully improve the cloud -- at least that’s the pitch I was given. Beyond that, I’ll probably continue to hunt the latest screening at Uptown or the Egyptian (fingers crossed that happens sooner rather than later) and hopefully be able to continue to write and analyze films at a critical level whether that be freelance or on a personal channel.