Documentary program getting a boost

As a counselor for the San Francisco Department of Public Health during the height of the AIDS crisis, Johnny Symons witnessed his fair share of emotional, heartbreaking moments. 

"I thought at the time, 'I wish I had a camera. I could share these stories,'" he said.

Today, Symons is a distinguished documentary filmmaker and one of SF State's newest assistant professors, and he's hoping to give a boost to the documentary program within the Department of Cinema.

A photo of Assistant Professor of Cinema Johnny Symons

Assistant Professor of Cinema Johnny Symons.

"I want to create a more established program for documentary at SF State, with collaboration across the University," Symons said. "Within the cinema department, I want to streamline the curriculum so that the courses build on each other, and do some work to find out exactly the kinds of classes our students want."

To that end, he held a town hall meeting in October about the future of the documentary program. Roughly 40 students attended, offering their ideas for the program and expressing a desire for a greater variety of courses. Symons said he is following up on that input and working on developing classes in advanced documentary production, social issue documentary studies and new media storytelling. He hopes to get those courses approved and ready to roll out in the next year or so.

Symons' own documentary career got off the ground at SF State when, while working for the city of San Francisco, he began taking classes through the College of Extended Learning. Moved by the experiences of those he was serving as a counselor, he decided to become a filmmaker.

"I realized that this was a powerful way to tell these stories," he said. "If I can make a film and hundreds of thousands of people can see it, think of the impact it could have."

Symons, who came out while in college, has focused on making eye-opening documentaries about issues within the LGBT community, something that fits well with the cinema department's goal to teach students to express themselves creatively, think critically and tackle issues of social justice and equity.

His first film, "Daddy & Papa," released in 2002, explored the personal, political and cultural impact of gay men raising children. It aired on PBS and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. "Beyond Conception," about the relationship between a lesbian surrogate and a gay male couple as they conceive and bear a child, was released in 2006 and aired on the Discovery Health Channel. Three years later, Symons released "Ask Not," which looked at the impact of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The film was screened for members of Congress, and when President Barack Obama signed the bill repealing the policy a year later, Symons was invited to the ceremony.

His next feature, "Out Run," is about LGBT politicians running for office in conservative parts of the developing world, particularly the Philippines. Funding from the Sundance Institute and the Tribeca Film Festival will help him complete the film, which he expects to do in about a year.

"Johnny has a world renowned track record in documentary production, and after just one semester of him leading our documentary education program, we are already seeing our students, faculty, the Documentary Film Institute at SF State and the wider Bay Area Film community energized by his vision, passion and collegiality," said Professor and Chair of Cinema Daniel Bernardi.

In addition to strengthening and streamlining the documentary curriculum in the cinema department, Symons also hopes to build connections and integrate with the Bay Area's documentary filmmaking community to help students get a leg up on their careers.

"There are so many things going on in this region," he said. "We're well positioned at SF State to become one of the top documentary film universities in the country."

-- Jonathan Morales