It’s a Feature, Not a Bug, That Some Folks Don’t Like the Name “Save RTVF”

La battaglia di Algeri (1966, Pontecorvo)

We launched the campaign website yesterday, and so now, RTVF alumni who weren’t privy to the original organizing discussions in the secret Facebook group have gotten their first taste of Save RTVF’s zesty agitprop flavor. I got a text last night from one alum who said “some people are a little uncomfortable with the name and the alarmist nature of the group.” lol, good. I’m glad the branding is strong.

I’m happy to own up to the fact that I, alone, thought Save RTVF was a good name for this thing. I am fully aware it has a weird, polarizing quality to it; I chose it because of that quality, not in spite of it.

This is how I explain it on the campaign’s homepage:

We take our name from the original Save RTVF campaign, the last large-scale, student-led RTVF mobilization effort in 2002. It was an energetic time of petitions and protests. In the cramped basement of a Ridge Avenue apartment, over a hundred students showed up to the first organizing meeting. Performance Studies majors signaled their solidarity by staging a mock funeral outside of Frances Searle. The issue back then was the same as now: the administration wanted to restructure the RTVF department to shift the focus away from filmmaking, and students responded with a show of force. While the name is alarmist by design, our intent is to pay tribute to the legacy of RTVF students advocating for themselves, protecting what’s important to them, and being proactive about the future they want to see.

The original Save RTVF was before my time. I first heard about it as an undergrad, through the whispered legends of the upperclassmen who lived it. Its DNA was laced into every defiant, anti-establishment film project or student initiative that came after. It also gave birth to the first URSA, which originally had no executive board and no community-building mandate, just two student reps relentlessly pushing for more undergraduate input in departmental decision-making.

And the truly ironic thing is that back in college, I thought Save RTVF sounded so dumb.

I openly mocked it in the September 2005 issue of URSA Quarterly (an RTVF student magazine the club published for awhile). In my first letter-from-the-editor, I called the campaign “empty, wasteful student activism” and said “the faculty was never hell-bent on destroying production at this school. If it was, it did a pretty poor job of it, considering the HD cameras we just bought and Studio 22’s unprecedented $27,500 budget.” (P.S. hahahaaha)

Jeremy Latcham (C ’03), leader of the original Save RTVF, found my dickish little op-ed in 2009 and wrote to me,

Mike, I think you missed the point. We did a lot to help the cause — why do you think you got the new cameras? And for what you were paying, there should have been more production classes.

Jeremy, wherever you are, it turns out you were right all along. My bad! Consider this my penance. I’m proud to take up your banner anew.

But questions of taste aside, let’s talk about substance. Is the alarm even justified? Is the adversarial, confrontational tone I’ve been using unnecessary or unwise? And is RTVF really in need of “saving?”

It’s true that the introduction of the MAG structure doesn’t affect all RTVF students equally. Not everyone makes movies. And certainly not everyone wins grants or serves on executive boards. Many RTVF and RTVF-adjacent groups, like Applause for a Cause, The Blackout, NSTV, NU Channel 1, and WNUR don’t award grants at all. (Although there are other issues to consider, like cage access for groups that want to use the equipment, or the reliability of continuous departmental support in light of other groups losing theirs.)

And sure, all the groups that lost grants could settle for a scaled-down reality, where MultiCulti does speaker panels and Women Filmmakers Alliance runs résumé workshops and the only films getting made are $1,500 class projects greenlit by the faculty. I don’t know why a high school senior would want to apply to a third-rate film studies program like that, nor why alumni donors would find any of this appealing. And I have yet to talk to a current student who isn’t furious about what has happened over the past few years. But technically, yeah, RTVF will keep chugging along whether we fight this or not.

My personal view is that we’re seeing a needless existential threat to something like 80% of what made the RTVF experience important and valuable. The set experience, the pitch process, the board deliberations, the tough choices, the festival runs and Student Emmys, the wrangling of large student crews and complex budgets and organizational leadership—where, exactly, does the department think our professional development was coming from? or where our identities as artists were being cultivated? or where the so-called “Purple Mafia” bonds were getting forged?

To me, the self-initiated, peer-driven, project-based learning that independent student film has enabled for decades is invaluable and irreplaceable. Honestly, when I first heard about the end of the grants, I thought it was CRAZY that the department would try to end a healthy, reciprocal relationship that Northwestern tangibly benefits from. Like, what faculty member wants to construct an educational project as complicated as one of our student organizations, let alone try to convince students to take it dead seriously — especially when students voluntarily build it for themselves for free.

Anyway, I think too much is at stake to downplay the alarm. I think it’s entirely appropriate to claim that RTVF is “endangered” and that all of us — alumni, students, faculty—should jump in and “save” it.

But I will say this. If someone doesn’t like the name “Save RTVF” because they think we should affect a more sober, measured, conciliatory tone to get things done, I’ve got some bad news for them:

The students have tried that for three years.

And things have only been getting progressively worse.

I’ll give you some examples in my next post tomorrow.