Tell me story.
I’ve been telling my students to tell me stories for years. Tell me a story in the films they’ve wanted to make. And remember that all lives can be told as stories.
Stories are also a central part of all the commencement speeches I’ve heard over the years. Stories with relevant lessons, often from the lives of the famous. Stores about what the speaker has learned in their own life. Nostalgia for their time in college. Advice on making a way into the real world.
So as my time at the University of Texas’ Radio-Television-Film department comes to a close, I thought I’d write my own “commencement” speech, for my UT students and colleagues and for my friends in the Austin film community, that was part farewell, part thank you. And tell some stories.
I grew up in a very traditional Jewish suburban family in northern New Jersey. Drove into Brooklyn most Sundays to see our relatives, working class immigrants who all seemed to live on the same street a block from the elevated subway line that rattled my grandparent’s tiny apartment with each passing train. I went to waspy Williams College in rural Massachusetts, where it was very cold in the winter and everyone dressed like models in an REI catalog. I went to grad school to study politics at Harvard, drifted into a focus on African-American politics in the post-civil rights South which led to a job teaching southern politics at Tulane in New Orleans. Too much time spent on local election campaigns, playing music, and starting to make films, while not publishing much in political science journals, ended my career as a scholar early. But the filmmaking stuck. I got a job in Boston helping to make the landmark civil rights film history series, Eyes on the Prize. A few years later, at a party in New York, I heard about a job opening to run the film production program at something called the Radio-Television-Film department at the University of Texas. And I got hired and am here today.
So what about the story of what I’ve learned here at UT?
I really had no idea what awaited me when I moved to Austin in 1997. The RTF film program needed some big changes, but it also had some great advantages. It was affordable, with tuition a fraction of those big-name film schools like USC and NYU. UT was in Texas, far away from the semi-straitjacket industry models of filmmaking that one could get caught up in LA and New York. Texas was lot more diverse than most of the coastal filmmakers I knew realized and that diversity made for a lot of interesting stories for filmmakers here to tell. And finally, Austin had a small but vibrant film community that would build on Rick Linklater’s Slacker and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, along with an equally small Austin Film Society, and a then relatively small SXSW film festival, all of which would be fueled by the graduates of the RTF program year after year. Everyone grew up together and it was an amazing time to be here.
Our college’s Deans supported a slew of big changes, providing new equipment and facilities and backing wholesale curriculum changes made by the world class film scholars already here and by the new RTF faculty we brought in — filmmakers, screenwriters and media studies folks — who wanted to be in a place that wasn’t LA or New York. We attracted more experienced applicants to the grad programs, students who came from all over the world. A screenwriting MFA track was established. Our majors, at nearly a thousand strong, began to reflect our state’s population, with over a third Latino. New working filmmakers and writers were hired and a number of new film and media scholars, almost all women, kept enhancing the major. Student films went to Sundance and Cannes and SXSW and young screenwriters begun to fill writer’s rooms in Hollywood. PhD’s got jobs at universities around the world.
And what did I learn? That all of this happened because of the efforts of people who loved this program at UT. Who worked together for a greater good. Put together people like that to work with and you can accomplish more than you might have ever dreamed. Today’s RTF program, our students, staff and teachers, are the product of these last two decades plus of change. And it’s been inspirational to be part of it.
We have a catch phrase here at the University of Texas. What starts here changes the world. What starts here changes the world. I don’t doubt that that’s true for some things. It’s a great ad campaign slogan. But the “here” that can make that statement true for each and every one of you, is you. Because what happens here, tapping your heart, can change you. What happens in your heart can change your world. It may point you in directions you never imagined. Never ever forget it.
I cannot believe my luck in getting a job at RTF and UT all those years ago. And all the wonderful things it’s brought me, through our students, our staff, and my colleagues. I wish you the same in your lives. Good luck.
Paul Stekler is a Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin Chronicle.