A satisfying plot twist for two film grads

Friends and colleagues Ben Schultz-Figueroa and Alex Johnston clicked immediately when they met six years ago during a prospective student mixer that the Film and Digital Media Department hosts each spring for newly admitted graduate students. Photo by Miranda Powell.

"I hate the word ‘bromance’ but I’m going to use it.”

Alex Johnston (Ph.D. ‘17, film and digital media) laughs as he describes his friendship with Ben Schultz-Figueroa (Ph.D. ‘18, film and digital media) on a sunny afternoon during the last week of spring quarter.

The two men, who met as graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, are about to embark on a highly coincidental journey—they will both begin as assistant professors of film at Seattle University in the fall.

What makes these friends’ serendipitous development even more surprising is the fact that the chances of it happening are so slim.

Alex and Ben immediately clicked when they met six years ago during a prospective student mixer that the Film and Digital Media Department hosts each spring for newly admitted graduate students. Their approach to filmmaking and desire to produce work with political and theoretical import forged the friendship.

Over the years, they’ve bonded over B-horror-movies and conversations about film theory. Ben has published gifs in Alex’s online journal, NOW! A Journal of Urgent Praxis.

“Ben’s had a big impact on my interests. He taught me that science fiction can influence how you think about history,” Alex said.

The two bring that intellectual synergy to their teaching. One quarter, Ben was teaching a course on animal studies, a deep dive into how humans and animals are represented in film, and Alex was teaching a course on the filmmaker Werner Herzog. Ben’s class visited Alex’s to watch a screening of Grizzly Man, a Herzog documentary film about a man who lived with grizzly bears in Alaska.

“I’m excited! We’re going to get to do so much more of that next year!” Alex said, laughing.

Like many Ph.D. candidates seeking academic careers, when Ben and Alex entered the job market, neither knew where they would end up. Only a handful of tenure-track jobs and postdocs open up each year within a discipline; hundreds of people may apply for the same position. It’s not uncommon for Ph.D. recipients to go through a few different cycles of job applications before landing a spot.

“In this market you have to apply everywhere,” Ben explained.

Despite the odds, Alex and Ben felt prepared the job market, for which they credit the Film and Digital Media Department, especially their advisors, Jonathan Kahana and Shelley Stamp (respectively). The department is one of the only film graduate programs in the nation that emphasizes both creating films and writing critically about them.

“When I saw jobs that required film theory and practice, my radar went off. I knew those would be a good fit,” said Ben.

“There are a lot of academic jobs that require theory and practice, but very few people can say they have a hybrid degree,” Alex added.

The film department at Seattle University falls within the English department. In many of the courses, films are treated like books or poems as objects for literary interpretation. With the addition of Alex and Ben, the department will be building out the film major, to incorporate filmmaking and film theory. The department will also have wider scope of the types of films a scholar might study. Ben, for instance, studies film footage of animal research in labs, not your typical Hollywood film. His work concerns the pairing of lab animal research and film to create scientific knowledge.  

“We are aware of the outstanding national reputation of the Film and Digital Media Department at UC Santa Cruz, especially for its quality work in producing scholars who work on social documentation in either the MFA or Ph.D. programs,” said Kirsten Thompson, a professor of film at Seattle University.

“We are excited for Johnston’s creative work on race and sports and masculinity as of particular interest to students interested in historical injustices,” Thompson continued. “Schultz-Figueroa’s work on science and animals on film, as well as the history of experimental non-theatrical film, will expand our curriculum in cutting-edge new directions.”

Ben and Alex aren’t the only Film and Digital Media graduates who have landed academic jobs. Anita Chang (Ph.D. ‘16, film and digital media) has a tenure-track position at CSU East Bay, Elaine Gan (Ph.D. ‘16, film and digital media) has a three-year postdoc at New York University, and Ian Alan Paul (Ph.D. ‘16, film and digital media) completed his first year in a tenure-track position at Stony Brook University in New York.

While some might find it daunting to begin a new job in a new city after years in Santa Cruz, Alex and Ben feel fortunate that they will have each other to depend on.

“The idea of having someone else there who I trust and who is also my friend, is very appealing,” said Alex.