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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
Filmmakers to Watch