–>Note: This article first appeared in the Austin American-Statesman Opinion section on Aug. 6, 2002.
Last month, two seemingly unrelated events took place in Austin.
At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and later at a nearby East Fifth Street café, hundreds of people came out to watch a program of short documentary films about East Austin. The films, mostly portraits of neighborhood people, their lives, hopes, and concerns, were made by University of Texas students as part of a summer initiative directed by Radio-Television-Film Department professor Andy Garrison and designed to connect the university to communities nearby. Judging by the enthusiastic response, the films were a great success.
Hours earlier, the state’s attorney general had ruled that UT could not charge students a new infrastructure fee. Millions of potential dollars were lost. The past and incoming UT Student Government presidents declared the fee’s death "an enormous victory for students."
How are these events connected? Both relate to the debate over student fees at UT, a discussion that has largely ignored the practical benefits of those fees at a time when increases in state aid or legislative permission to raise tuition are unlikely.
I came to Austin to teach in the RTF Department five years ago. I wanted to teach students to do the same kind of social issue documentaries that I’ve been privileged to make — and to teach at a university where the tuition was low enough to allow a broad range of students to attend.
While UT’s program had a solid national reputation, I found that the RTF Department had out-of-date equipment and not enough of it to serve student demand. Scenes of students crying in the hallways because there wasn’t room for them in production classes were common. We joked that our equipment was older than our students — and it wasn’t far from wrong. My first spring break, every single film camera we had was broken and out of commission.
Today, that situation has turned around, in large part because of a modest fee charged to every College of Communication student and dedicated to acquiring equipment. These fees let us keep pace with technology and allowed us to reallocate our existing budget to staff lab sections to teach technical skills and to offer more classes. Where there was once one editing class a year for undergraduates, there are now eight, serving several hundred students. Where there were no digital video cameras, there are enough to cover our entire curriculum of classes.
Given the tools to teach, new faculty was recruited. They included a Cannes Film Festival award-winning director, nationally known documentarians, a rising star African American experimental filmmaker and Garrison, who started the East Austin Documentary Project.
The film program’s turnaround is best seen in the work of the students. In the past year, two RTF students have won student Academy Awards. Another won the International Documentary Association’s best student documentary of the year for her moving portrait of Mexican day laborers in Austin. A young Navajo student had his work chosen for the Sundance Film Festival for the second time. Their work is just a taste of the quality films being produced.
What about the impact on the outside world? One needs look no further than the exploding film industry in Austin, populated by graduates of UT. And to an ever-growing number of the UT grads rising through the ranks in Hollywood. And to the crowds watching the East Austin Documentary Project films.
It would be presumptuous of me to try and compare the "worth" of what our department at UT does to the other pressing needs in our state. Especially when thinking about the numbers of uninsured children (and public school teachers), the low levels of social-service spending and other priorities in a time of a looming state deficit crisis.
That said, as I was watching people at Café Mundi watch the films, about corner grocery stores, and local artists and musicians, and people who run a small homeless shelter, the potential for what our state university’s programs can achieve was clear.
Today, UT’s film program is one of the best in the country. Its documentary program is the best. In lieu of increased state aid or tuition increases, student fees are the only recourse to keep it so. If the fees are cut, classes will have to be cut, dedicated teachers will leave and the overall quality of the program will decline. Those are the consequences.
Stekler is a nationally recognized filmmaker whose last feature documentary, "George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire," won an Emmy and the Special Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
For further information contact: Paul Stekler, Department of Radio-Television-Film, 512-471-6679.