SFSU Magazine Fall 2006 Steve Ujalaki receives a Documentary Film Institute award

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The Director's ChairSteve Ujlaki holds an award in the shape of a film camera presented to him at an event sponsored by SF State’s International Center for the Arts

It's a gray afternoon on campus, but Cinema Department Chair Steve Ujlaki is getting heated. "This is one of the things I see is terribly wrong with our country," he says, sitting at his paper-strewn desk and bringing his hand to a thoughtfully lined brow. "Most people now get their information through audio-visual, and they don't know how to read images and make informed choices about what's real. It's an epidemic."

Above Ujlaki loom posters of movies he produced during a 25-year career in Hollywood. But today Ujlaki's mind is far from the glitz of celebrity and Los Angeles. He's worried about "visual literacy," the general public's ability to think critically about the images they're exposed to. And he's especially fired up after an SF State-hosted talk just two nights earlier in which acclaimed documentary maker Frederick Wiseman ("Titicut Follies," "Public Housing") screened clips from his films, grilling the audience on his editing choices and how they shaped the viewer's perceptions.

"Fred and I were talking a few months ago, and I brought up visual literacy and he lit up," Ujlaki remembers. "I said, 'Fred, you're so passionate about it, you have to come and talk.'"

The Cinema Department has benefited from many such invitations recently. In 2005, SF State's International Center for the Arts, made possible by a gift from alumni George and Judy Marcus, launched the Documentary Film Institute, essentially Ujlaki's invention. He drew on his Hollywood and indie film connections to net such famed advisory board members as directors Martin Scorsese ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull") and Errol Morris ("The Fog of War"). The "Doc Film Institute," as it's known, quickly made a splash with a "Green Screen" festival of environmental films and a tribute to master documentary makers Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker.

Now Ujlaki is gearing up for even higher-profile events. In March, the Doc Film Institute will host "Endless War," a weekend of war documentaries from Russia, England and beyond. The marquee attraction is a sneak peek at "World War II," the latest epic PBS documentary by renowned director Ken Burns.

Ujlaki came to the Cinema Department in 2001 as an industry veteran who would balance SF State's emphasis on experimental filmmaking with real-world experience and an insistence that cinema students develop practical skills. He added more screenwriting classes, started teaching a course on production and distribution, ordered new equipment for the lab and doubled the animation class offerings.

But Ujlaki has hardly turned the Cinema Department into a factory that mass-produces Hollywood hopefuls; his perspective on Los Angeles is too complex for that. Beneath his polished confidence is an air of European moodiness; the thoughtfulness in his blue eyes is more suggestive of a French intellectual than of a studio mogul. He's still got a hand in the Hollywood game; he's seeking distribution for his latest film, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel. But the Doc Film Institute "returns me to my roots in documentary, to my passion," he says.

That passion began in Washington, D.C., where Ujlaki was raised by European parents. His Hungarian father worked in intelligence during World War II; his mother's family fled Russia for France after the 1917 revolution. They spoke French during Ujlaki's childhood and exposed him to such films as Renoir's "Grand Illusion" and the work of Ingmar Bergman.

Ujlaki reconnected with these films as a history major at Harvard, where he began writing scripts and experimenting with an 8mm camera. He went on to attend the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, in Paris.

It was 1965 and Ujlaki was fleeing the draft, but he also turned toward political activism. He landed an internship with Jean-Luc Godard, got deported for his involvement in the Student Revolt of 1968, and left for Sweden, where he worked with Ingmar Bergman. But by 1971, Ujlaki felt he should do more to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and he moved to Boston, where he landed a teaching position at nearby Brandeis University.

At Brandeis, in addition to teaching, he made a dozen documentaries about the prison system and the environment, and an antiwar movie about the Concord Minutemen. He invited other documentary makers to a Documentary Film Symposium, which became the model for the new institute at SF State. Then, disillusioned with the possibilities for activism after the end of the war, he made an enormous shift: He moved to Los Angeles.

He was in his 30s -- old to be arriving in Los Angeles, he thinks -- and success did not strike overnight. He tried screenwriting but learned screenwriters were at the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole. "All of a sudden I was a peon," he remembers. "I was sick of not being invited to meetings. So I decided I should become a producer, but I didn't have any business background, so I spent a couple of years flailing about."

A gig as an executive for Mace Newfeld Productions led to a job as a buyer at fledgling HBO. From there, Ujlaki landed a dream position at Michael Douglas' production company, and produced "Courage Mountain" starring Charlie Sheen. Later, as an independent, he produced "Loch Ness" and "Hostile Intent" among other films. Still, after two decades in Southern California, Ujlaki jumped at the opportunity to come to SF State. "I didn't want to die in L.A.," he says bluntly.

His insider view brings what he calls a "reality principle" to the Cinema Department. "What I say is, you come to L.A. with your dreams, and if the machine finds a use for you, you'll succeed," he says. "I think students who want to have careers should at least try L.A. And if they find it's unbearable -- which it is -- they can come back and try a career up here. But the careers will be very different."
His students appreciate his straight-shooting nature. When 2005 M.F.A. grad Sirpa Nelson screened her thesis project, Ujlaki told her, "I don't know what that was, but it was not a movie."

"And he was right," Nelson says gratefully. "And he followed it up constructively." Later, when Nelson entered Ujlaki's office and said she wanted to become a motion picture literary agent, Ujlaki said just as candidly, "I think you have what it takes," and immediately made calls to get her into the business. She now has a thriving career in Los Angeles.

Other students find Ujlaki surprisingly accessible for a man at the helm of a bustling academic department. He helped undergrad Twojay Dhillon overhaul his politically allegorical screenplay -- and wrote letters to get him permits around the city to shoot it. "To have someone with his experience, his resources, and his honesty -- that's so rare," Dhillon says.

Ujlaki has joined a California State University-wide initiative to better prepare students for California's film industry, and recently secured $1.7 million of the CSU budget for computers, an expanded internship program and visiting artists. His top goals for SF State's Cinema Department: an endowment to fund graduate fellowships and assistantships and to hire more faculty so that students will be fully challenged intellectually.

"You want students to get a strong liberal arts education, to think critically about film so they can be alert citizens," he says. "You can get captivated by the digital equipment, by the toys, and not take time to think about who you are and what you have to say about the world."

Ujlaki's voice is heated again, as it is when he talks of visual literacy, or the resurgence of the documentary during another war era. Clearly, Hollywood is not his ultimate barometer of success -- for himself or for his students.

"After so many years working in Hollywood, where it's all about getting your project made, it's a great personal satisfaction to use what I've learned to improve the department here," he says. "That's more worthwhile than whether I get this or that film made."
For more on the Documentary Film Institute: www.docfilm.sfsu.edu

-- Rachel Howard

More: Filmmakers to Watch