Ethnic studies documentary premiers at the right time

An image from an online promotional advertisement for the Agents of Change documentary. (Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg)

An image from an online promotional advertisement for the “Agents of Change” documentary. (Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg)

Black and white archival footage of students marching, with fists held high, captures the racially-charged conditions on college campuses in the late 1960s in a new documentary that made its Bay Area premiere at Castro Theatre May 15. The film focuses on the student-led demonstrations that sparked the creation of numerous Ethnic Studies programs across the nation.

“Agents of Change” was co-directed and co-produced by filmmakers Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson, both graduates of Cornell University who were present at the protests in the film. After attending the same college but never meeting, Ginzberg and Dawson were introduced in 2009 and decided to create a documentary together, initially about the black-led student movements at Cornell in 1969.

“Early on, it became clear we needed to make it a bigger story – it couldn’t just be about Cornell alone, and that’s where the idea for San Francisco State came from,” Ginzberg said.

In November of 1968, SF State’s Black Student Union and a coalition known as the Third World Liberation Front went on strike in response to the lack of minority presence, both on campus and in college curriculum. The strike lasted five months, making it the longest running student-led strike in the history of American higher education. This strike ultimately led to the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies.

Ginzberg said “Agents of Change” was seven years in-the-making and a difficult film to get funding for. However, today she is thankful that it was released at this time in history.

“Ultimately what happened was, the world had changed around it, and issues of racism on college campuses and issues of different things that students were protesting for suddenly became national news,” Ginzberg said. “Once that happened, a film that started as being a historical treatment of some issues became relevant all over again in a different context.”

SF State students have been striking once again in response to proposed budget cuts to the College of Ethnic Studies. Most recently, students led a 10-day hunger strike that resulted in an agreement between the strikers and SF State administration. One of the four strikers, Julia Retzlaff, served on the panel at the Agents of Change screening at SF State on May 4.

“The film is so fantastic because I think it emphasizes the necessity of education and ethnic studies,” Retzlaff said. “Watching that movie is why we need ethnic studies, because it’s apart of understanding the history of the US and struggle in the US.”

Among the original strikers featured in the film is Dr. Ramona Tascoe, the secretary for SF State’s Black Student Union and student leader in the strike during the time the footage was recorded. Ginzberg and Tascoe both attended the SF State screening and recalled the room being packed with both students and faculty, fully engaged by the panel of current and original strikers. Tascoe said she noticed the students shift: from observers of history to activists trying to learn from the original strike at SF State.

“What we’re seeing out at San Francisco (today) is natural, students are confident in finding their voice and expressing their voice and they’re refining their message, they’re refining their issues,” Tascoe said.

An image from an online promotional advertisement for the "Agents of Change" documentary. (Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg)
An image from an online promotional advertisement for the “Agents of Change” documentary. (Photo courtesy of Abby Ginzberg)

Tascoe noted she has confidence in where the College of Ethnic Studies is headed.

“I think Ethnic Studies is going to be fine,” Tascoe said. “I don’t have any concern that it will disappear, I think it will thrive, but I think getting to that point is going to require everyone taking a step back, and putting their collective heads together around a common goal.”

Ginzberg added that the College of Ethnic Studies is an integral part of the University.

“One of the things about having the College of Ethnic Studies within the DNA of SF State- it had to be fought for,” Ginzberg said. “But it’s here, it exists, and it has a long and honorable tradition.”

Agents of Change also features footage from numerous student demonstrations across the country in recent years, in response to both Ethnic and Black studies cutbacks and police brutality.

“One of the positive aspects of being the filmmaker on this film is that I’ve had the opportunity to go to a bunch of different college campuses and listen to the stories from the students on these campuses who are dealing with very challenging situations,” Ginzberg said.

“Agents of Change” premiered at Castro Theatre on May 15 at 1 p.m.

“Anyone who goes to university, needs to see this movie in order to understand student power,” Retzlaff said.