Seattle Central Community College Guts a Treasure
The Best Film and Video Program in the Region—and the Only One That Costs Less Than $25,000—Is Disappearing
Trent Roberts and Jesse Lomax
Jesse Lomax couldn't even answer the question. How did Seattle Central Community College's film and video program affect your life? The college had announced two days earlier—on June 14—that it would be eliminating the film and video program after 25 years. Lomax just stood there, his eyes welling up. He was on the seventh floor of the Sorrento Hotel, looking out over the city, attending a reception to celebrate this year's 20 graduates. All the program's spots were filled; they always are. "We didn't know if he was going to be interested in anything until this," his mother said quietly.
Another voice—louder, angry—came to mind.
"This is gutting a treasure," said John Gordon Hill, a filmmaker and president of the board of Cornish College of the Arts, which does not have a film school. Neither does the University of Washington. The only other film programs besides SCCC's are at the private Art Institute of Seattle and Seattle Film Institute, where tuition costs $87,300 (for a bachelor's degree, the only available comparable degree) and $24,900, respectively. At SCCC, tuition for the entire two-year program in film and video was $6,500.
"This shouldn't be this good, and it is this good—it's the best in the region," said Hill. "How many other centers of excellence does SCCC have that it can be so cavalier?" (At least one: SCCC is known for its 33-year-old apparel design program—which was also on the chopping block last week but was then narrowly saved, and is now said to be "seeking efficiencies.")
"Other film programs," Hill continued, "teach you what to do. This program teaches you why you're doing it."
Lomax had been a tagger. He'd been in trouble with the law. Now he was talking about moving to LA for film work, maybe getting his bachelor's. His short movie, "Getting Over," had been a hit at the pre-reception screening at Seattle Art Museum. "Getting Over" told the stories of graffiti writers in Seattle, following them up onto green steel girders of bridges under wet skies and orange streetlights.
"I'm not gonna be in the NBA," one said. "So I'm gonna do what I can to be the next man in this."
In a surprise move, the camera panned out on one tagger being interviewed. It revealed that he's in a wheelchair—he lost his right arm and the use of his legs when he fell from a bridge and broke his back while drunk, high, and tagging. "Getting Over" was more than pro or con with regard to graffiti. It was a subtle, complex thing; there was art in there. The same goes for the program. It was more than strictly a technical or academic exercise for Lomax.
"I'm Jennie Grant, president of the Goat Justice League," the older lady on the screen sweetly said during a different video. She was one of the subjects in SCCC's student film showcase last week, which included documentaries, features, and a couple of creative ads. Subjects included: enviro-nerds (a beekeeper, a rooftop gardener, a goat lady who fought to make dairy goats legal in Seattle—now there are 36 of them registered in the city), artists making clay pots and photos in darkrooms, a misunderstood crossdressing straight man, a woman into corsetry (needles pierced through her arms, ribbons entwined among the needles), a guy teaching hiphop clowning to kids after school because he's madly in love with dancing and will do it anywhere (in the parking lot, in the hallway—"He dances a lot of places," one kid says), two self-consciously (humorously) white hiphop boys, a fierce black woman slam poet ("I always say my middle name so that all the people that said I wouldn't make it will know when I do make it that it's me"), a trio of drug-addicted single mothers and the women helping them, little girls with corporate dreams, a sleepwalking version of Rocky Balboa.
Some films were very good. Others were just okay. But together, they composed an incomparable portrait of the city as a city. This is the messy, economically diverse place that conservatives flee for the suburbs. SCCC's film and video program represents a version of Seattle that feels endangered, as budget cuts slash into basic services and do away with affordable education. SCCC is doing away with three programs this year (film and video, the publishing arts, and interpreter training), and even more important, tuition is set to rise by 12 percent next year—and an additional 12 percent the year after (a final decision about that will be made by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges on June 23).
Meanwhile, the central-city neighborhood immediately surrounding SCCC has undergone a condos-and-cuteness boom in the last five years.
"Capitol Hill is a place I've lived for 15 years," said Mark Rogers, one of the graduates, who also works as a guard at the Frye Art Museum and a server at Cafe Presse. His background is in photography, and he's also a writer; SCCC seemed the right way to marry the two. The film and video program is known, as Hill pointed out, for its liberal arts approach, not just its technical know-how.
"This is a school I've had great respect for," Rogers said. "I thought a community college was for the community. But I don't know; maybe this is the way Seattle's gonna go. It's—it is breaking my heart."
Marty Oppenheimer, owner of Oppenheimer Cine Rental, took the stage at the packed screening to encourage supporters to write the college administration in protest: "The college has a low level of respect for this program, but it has reached the lowest level," he said.
"The program is Seattle's, and possibly Washington State's, most comprehensive, hands-on, real-life preparation and education for crew employees entering the film industry," Seattle Office of Film & Music coordinator Chris Swenson wrote in a testimonial. Other testimonials came in from graduates now working everywhere: CNN, Microsoft, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Warner Bros., Tori Spelling's TV reality show, America's Next Top Model, the Dutch education board, Getty Images, SIFF, Disney. "The loss of the... film program... would have a huge negative impact in attracting and retaining film productions in Seattle."
Sal Tonacchio, one of the program's two leaders—Sandy Cioffi is the other—said the department wasn't given the chance to propose internal cuts before it was axed wholesale. "I just can't believe a community college, which reaches so many people who don't otherwise get reached, would cut a film program when we are so surrounded by visual culture," Tonacchio said.
"This has been coming for a decade," said Cioffi, "and they didn't do anything to stop it. The college administration is using the revenue issue as cover of darkness to do something because of their lack of imagination." For Cioffi, the maker of the documentary Sweet Crude and a candidate for Seattle City Council until she withdrew on the same day the SCCC program was cut, this decision is yet another example of widespread cultural privatization. "Our storytellers will have to be independently wealthy," she said. "Is that the future you want?"
Onstage Thursday night, the graduates didn't know quite what to say when asked about the future of the program. They were trying to celebrate their graduation, after all.
"I'll say something," said a woman who took the mic after an extended silence. She had introduced herself earlier as Christy X, sometimes Christy NC-17, "a supporter of the underdogs of the universe."
"I'm 38 years old, I'm a single parent, and I'm one of four single parents on this stage," she said. "This was once in a lifetime for me..."
Latesha "Livewire" Miller picked up where Christy left off.
"I'm another of the single parents," she said. "I have three kids—11, 10, and 9—and they got to see that I'm not afraid to go do a career that fulfills my heart. I did other work for 10 years. Then I got a chance. Not everyone's gonna get a chance."