Opinion: Angry filmmaker marches forward, or what it means to move on

By Jonah Ocuto, Multimedia Producer

Vicki Lei

Editor’s Note: Jonah Ocuto is a staff reporter at the Chronicle. Because he is a CTVA student, he was not allowed to report on this issue. We made the decision to allow him to share his thoughts in an opinion piece because of his unique insight on this issue, which is very important to the college community.

I’ve always had what aestheticians and posh grandmothers ubiquitously label “great skin.” In the past, I’ve attributed this remark to age and the lack of any real, worldly experience, rather than any pure, objective truth. Though, as a pimple has begun to emerge on my forehead recently, I’ve learned that, like most precious things in life, you don’t know you have good skin until it’s gone.

I feel like I’ve aged 15 years since March. Is the world ending? No. Does it feel like it? A bit. For that reason, every decision we make now seems like the most important decision we’ll ever make. Stress-induced acne is making a comeback.

I’m in a unique position at Columbia. I’m one of the few Bachelor of Fine Arts directing candidates, who have historically benefitted from the increased rigor and focus we put into our concentration. We are given priority in making the films we have dreamed of making, which in my case, is titled “Georgia Peach.” The film follows the interactions between a young, inexperienced nurse and a disabled, misogynistic veteran. I think it’s incredible, and I love it.

I’ve spent about three years and many dreamless, sleepless nights developing this film, so you can imagine my shock when I found out from faculty members desperate to get the story straight themselves that no undergraduate productions would be allowed to shoot their films on location, as reported by the Chronice. Instead, the college planned to cram 13 productions onto our soundstage back-to-back, neatly packaged like dead sardines. 

I worked with my director of photography and almost a hundred other filmmakers to speak with the chair of the Cinema and Television Arts Department, a meeting that ended on a note of hope. 

We were originally told our requests would be forwarded to the administration and would showcase our abilities to run safe, efficient sets. Voicing our concerns, however, did not lead to a change, and the decision to rescind off-campus filming not only stood, but was extended to the graduate students who were initially allowed to apply for off-campus shoots. 

The “town hall” that followed wasn’t so much an open forum as it was a desperate soliloquy; students were barred from showing faces or raising their voices in discussion. They were forced to communicate through a single Student Government Association senator, something akin to “communicating” through one-way glass. 

As the college has remained firm in its decision to neuter both the creative integrity and efficacy of undergraduate production and sever trust between the student body and the college at large, I’ve been faced with what feels like the most important decision of my life.

Do I stick with the school, garner their support, save money and sacrifice the most important work of my life so far? Or do I separate, shoot my film independently and find a way to navigate financial and creative risk?

A number of thoughts enter my mind when rolling these questions around in my head.

Thought A, or the spineless thought: I’ve paid roughly $60,000 thus far to attend this school, and so I would like to avoid the extra cost of shooting independently and receive the equipment and mentorship I’ve paid for and earned.

Thought B, or the great risk: I’ve paid roughly $60,000 thus far to attend this school, and so I won’t compromise the creative integrity of my film (i.e., the real education I’ve paid for) because somebody in the world believes that the magnitude of one’s prefrontal cortex is directly analogous to the drive, passion, discipline, honor, aptitude, authority, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

 I could write about the logistical nightmare this scenario creates for undergraduates. I could speak on the innumerable safety concerns generated by the idea of fitting so much production into such a tight space during the pandemic. I could tell you of the many students who cried when hearing this news. I don’t blame them; when I heard it, I couldn’t bear to tell my classmates at first. It didn’t feel right.

At least now we have something to be sure of: that our desires are not the school’s priority.

You only know you love something when it’s gone.

When there are too many options to navigate clearly, I like to make a list of things I know for a fact. Three stick out: I love movies; I love my classmates; and I love the movies we’re making. Right now, that’s all that matters.

While this may seem like an issue that only impacts the film community here at Columbia, I urge the college’s leadership to reconsider. The worst part about this entire situation, truly, is the college’s infantilization of the individuals who keep their institution financially viable.

When pressed, these typically faceless, nameless individuals in leadership roles will drone on about the way that the decision made is the best approach, without ever stopping to consider the fact that this was their decision—not COVID’s and surely not ours.

You know how everything looks larger on T.V.? This pimple, though only a hair smaller than the butt of a needle, looms large like an incandescent bullseye when viewed through a Zoom frame. It has become my shining beacon, a towering reminder of not only the incredible weight we’re all under, but the fact that despite the pressure, I’m still here—moving, breathing, creating.

I’m directing my film independently, and I’m doing it on my own terms. Every one of my classmates have detached their projects from the school, too, and we’ve found solace and community in each other. Right now, we can only lean on each other. Our art will be better because of this.

In the coming months, you will likely see many new Indiegogo, Kickstarter and GoFundMe pages for independent films from Columbia students. Consider donating or sharing these pages. We’re telling stories that matter, and right now, that’s what we need.