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UC Irvine’s digital filmmaking program waits in budget purgatory

"Weaving a Story" by Gabriella Salinardo and filmed in UC Irvine's Digital Filmmaking program.
(Gabriella Salinardo)

Even before the pandemic, budget cuts hit arts programs the hardest. Now, UC Irvine students involved in the digital filmmaking minor wonder if the program, which was already hanging on by a thin thread, will survive the university’s latest financial hardships.

Seven years ago, SoCal-based artists Ulysses Jenkins, Bruce Yonemoto and Bryan Jackson founded the digital filmmaking minor at UCI under the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Jenkins put together a small number of courses. When Yonemoto and Jackson were hired, the three instructors were able to expand the courses and revise a curriculum that turned into a minor.

Jackson said over the years the program became a pipeline to filmmaking for primarily Black and Indigenous people of color, women and LGBTQ students who have gone on to work in the film industry as producers, directors, cinematographers and crew members or continued their education at Cal Arts, UCLA, Columbia and New York University to name a few.

“There are actually two professors of color [in the program], which is unusual at the university,” said Yonemoto. “One of the strong parts of our program is that we support our students of color and want to enable them to tell their stories, which haven’t been told.”

A highlight of the program has been participating in the Newport Beach Film Festival, where students showcase their work like alumna Nancy Nguyen who decided to make a documentary about the last gay bar in her Garden Grove hometown titled “Frat House,” which later traveled to additional festivals.

"Frat House," a film by Nancy Nguyen about the last gay bar in Garden Grove.
(Nancy Nguyen)

They’ve also created a partnership across departments with the Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation — an opportunity for undergraduates to travel internationally to make films about communities outside of the United States.

In fall 2019, students received news that the program would be undergoing significant cuts due to lack of funding. They created a petition that garnered over 430 signatures and 50 testimonies.

The university was able to secure emergency funding. Students who led the petition initiative counted it as a win at the time, but now they find themselves in the same position they were in two years ago.

Recently, the arts department administration advised the program faculty to stop accepting new students into the minor for the new school year until there is clarity on its future. Jackson, a continuing lecturer, was given notice that his employment will be terminated in December of this year.

A video still from "Human" by Noelle McClinton.
(Noelle McClinton)

The pandemic threw the UC schools into a financial crisis resulting in overall budget cuts and halts in hiring.

Last year, The Times reported that UCI was able to fill a $67-million budget shortfall and achieve its UC-imposed $12-million savings target with no pandemic-driven furloughs or layoffs in 2020. Interim Provost Hal Stern said the campus dug into reserves, made a 2% budget cut and dramatically slowed down hiring, including largely pausing midway through a plan to add 250 new faculty.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a budget proposal that would give UCs an economic boost that includes restoring a $302.4-million budget cut imposed last year and adding $506 million in ongoing funding for core campus operations, student needs and the training of diverse medical professionals as well as one-time funds toward repairing facilities and a variety of research programs.

“With all of the news from the governor, you would hope that there’s good signs ahead,” said Jackson. “What we learned from 2008 with the last financial crisis when I still had a full-time job was that when money returns, it doesn’t go to the same place. It’s the next administrator’s position to decide where it goes.”

A video still from "Still Seasons" by Emily Morrison.
(Emily Morrison)

Although students like Stefan Buhr have reached out to student government and administrators, they describe their interactions with administrators as dismissive and evasive about student concerns.

“I’m graduating, but I don’t want to just see it disappear,” said Buhr, who is also co-president of the program’s club. “I want to make sure that the students that come after me also have those resources available to them so that they feel like they can navigate a difficult industry with the right tools and the right knowledge.”

Buhr added that his ultimate hope is for the university to recognize the potential of the program and to work with students to secure a stable source of funding and support.

Through an email statement, Kevin Appel, art department chair, said, “The Digifilm Art Minor has been a valued asset in the undergraduate curriculum of UC Irvine. The scale of any academic program on this campus depends on a budget received from the state that varies widely in size from year to year. We plan with a high degree of flexibility to make sure the resources received from the state are used in the most impactful way possible, balancing the needs of students in all of our existing areas of instruction. We are exploring all options to secure funding for the program to continue but have not made a final decision as to its extension.”

A still from "Passenger Seat" by Corey Nguyen.
(Corey Nguyen)

For Nguyen, the program changed the course of her career. She graduated from UCI with a biology major but is pursuing filmmaking while working as a crewmember on a feature production. She describes committing to film school as a hard sell for first-generation students and transferring to a film program as difficult in most colleges.

“It was a community that was really formative for me as a queer person and a filmmaker to know that there are other students who are very passionate about making stories about their experiences of being queer or coming from immigrant families and whatnot,” said Nguyen. “To know that there’s a very safe space where people can create work is reassuring and unique to other film schools, which tend to abide by Hollywood set structures.”

Ideally, the founders of the program would like three to five years to develop it into a major.

“Everything is changing so quickly [in terms of technology and platforms] that you have to be flexible and open to change,” said Yonemoto. “These schools are not, so that’s why we are very positive about our program. Students of color have a hunger to tell their stories ... we feel that it’s important to continue our programs and to give the opportunity for students to tell their stories to develop in the industry and to, literally, change the complexion of the industry.”

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