Documentary Filmmaker Makes Case For Film Program at South Pas High

South Pasadena resident and documentary filmmaker David Zeiger has been lobbying for the creation of a film program at the city’s high school for the past few years. Creator and director of the 13-episode series Senior Year, which aired on PBS in 2002, the husband of SPHS AP Government teacher Maryann Nielsen has a history of involvement with student film production in South Pasadena.

Zeiger’s semi-autobiographical documentary “Sweet Old World” (2012), co-starring 2010 graduate Jacques Colimon, provided internship opportunities for multiple students, and was partly shot on campus. Asked what draws him to tell the stories of high school students, Zeiger said, “The teenage years are such a singular time. It can be difficult for kids. It is a cauldron period of life.”

Zeiger recently spoke to the School Board about his interest in launching a program and the services and resources he would be able and willing to provide.

In addition to offering to teach the program, Zieger can also help with “finding industry contacts for support, possibly funds and internships,” he told the Board.

What particularly irks Zeiger is that a thriving film program exists at neighboring San Marino High, though the community has a smaller film industry population than South Pas.

“It’s puzzling to me,” Zeiger said in a public comment, “that in a school that has such strong arts and performing arts, that we don’t have a film production program. The town of South Pasadena has more film production going on than almost anywhere in the United States.”

An independent filmmaker since the early 90s, with a pull toward documentaries and stories about teenagers, Zeiger says that it was during the shooting of “Sweet Old World’ that he realized there was a demand among students for serious film education.

Colimon, who is now working as an actor and dramatic artist in Los Angeles, feels that a comprehensive film program would be “invaluable” for South Pas students. His own exposure in high school to the field of cinema came about through the SPHS Theatre Company, for which Zeiger routinely filmed performances. “It wasn’t until halfway through college that I discovered my additional love for film from behind the camera,” said Colimon. “Had [a film program] been in place when I was in high school, who knows…I might have been producing documentaries years ago! What we need now more than ever are outlets for kids to express themselves.”

Colimon is a testament to the strength of certain performing arts programs at SPHS. He raves about his time under former drama teacher Donna Tucker, who provided a creative outlet for the Longhorn-bound dramatic and musical theatre major. “I am forever grateful for the inimitable Donna Tucker and her tremendous contributions to the drama program at SPHS.  With a film program, it might mean that many more students will similarly enjoy the privilege of looking back on their high school years having constructively engaged their passions in a lasting fashion.”

Zeiger has spent time speaking with the creator of San Marino’s film program, who, ironically, graduated from SPHS. “Those kids are preparing short pieces for a national video competition and submitting music videos,” Zeiger said.

South Pas High Principal Janet Anderson has worked with Zeiger throughout the past five or six years on trying to figure out a way to create some sort of program.

“The reason we don’t have a film program is not because we are not interested. Not at all,” said Anderson.

There are other obstacles, for example, space. However, Anderson added, “there’s a chance that maybe we can partner with the middle school to do something where we add to their equipment and maybe do a secondary filmmaking program.”

Another problem is lack of teacher allotments. “We don’t have FTE spaces; they are all filled up,” Anderson said.

A third problem, not the least, is cost. As Zeiger himself noted, “It costs a lot of money…to bring in high-end cameras and professional equipment.” However, he believes that the school can circumvent the financial obstacles by being creative to get “things going with a very minimal investment.” 

Anderson also noted that although “there are so many electives that the kids would love to take, the school has to prioritize.” And right now, the school is focused on bringing back a sports medicine program.

Anderson believes a film club “would be a perfect entry point” for students interested in filmmaking. “I do think a club is the perfect way to get some momentum and then once we have a critical mass of people who are interested, maybe then we can leverage things and make it happen.”

Colimon does not believe clubs alone provide the knowledge necessary to seriously explore the field of film, asking with skepticism, “To what degree are student-led ‘clubs’ on campus engaging with academic scholarship within the cinematic arts?”

But, as Anderson reiterated, she’s not ruling out a the creation of a film program in the future.

“We do have commitments to some electives but that doesn’t mean that we can’t shift over time and if some electives fall out of demand, then maybe we can [create a film program],” she said.