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UW Tacoma students are using film to talk about social justice issues.

You won't find explosions, costumed superheroes or Hollywood celebrities in the films being made at UW Tacoma. The work done by students taking classes in film and media tends to be smaller scale and focused on social issues. "We wanted to make sure that this program wasn't just about learning to push buttons and turn knobs," said Associate Professor David Coon.

Coon teaches courses within Culture, Arts & Communication, including a class on video production. He came to campus in 2008 after completing his Ph.D. in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Prior to that he'd worked primarily in corporate video production. "I enjoyed the job but it never felt like I was contributing to anything significant besides helping companies make profits," said Coon.

While at Indiana University Coon developed an interest in how different media explore questions of social identity and social justice. He is currently researching how LGBTQ groups use film as a form of activism. "TheTran received an arts grant from the City of Renton to produce a film about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.re are a lot of ways that different organizations use storytelling to change people's views and to rewrite the stories that have been told incorrectly through mainstream media," said Coon.

Students in film classes at UW Tacoma aren't required to focus their work on social issues. "A lot of our students are already going that way before they set foot in the classroom," said Coon. "We just encourage them to create high quality work that means something."

Long Tran started making films while still in high school. “I was really into playing with the camera,” he said. “I experimented with making music videos and avant-garde projects.” During his senior year at Renton High School, one of Tran’s teachers encouraged him to produce a documentary about a fellow classmate. “I’d never done a documentary before so I had to learn on the job,” said Tran.

Trapped” tells the story of Brooklyn, a transgender woman who Tran has known since middle school. “During my senior year Brooklyn came out as transgender and a lot of people made fun of her for that,” said Tran. “I wanted to give Brooklyn a chance to tell her story and talk about her experience.”

The film garnered praise from Tran’s classmates and from local and national media outlets. “The reaction to “Trapped” was pretty incredible,” he said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve done something meaningful for maybe the first time in my life.’ ”

Tran brought his talents to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2015. He chose arts, media and culture as his major with a minor in gender studies. He’s also in the Global Honors program. “I feel pretty blessed to be at UW Tacoma because I’ve been able to make my own projects whereas at a traditional film school I might have played more of a sideline role.”

Tran has stayed active within the film community. He has worked on a number of projects including the TNT drama “The Librarians” as well as a music video for Ed Sheeran. This past spring Tran created “Trans” for Professor Bill Kunz’s documentary class. He also co-directed “Dinosaurs in the Hood” with UW Tacoma alumna Nikkia Atkinson. Both films were showcased in 2017’s Tacoma Film Festival.

UW Tacoma alumna Nikkia Atkinson. Tran and Atkinson are currently working together on their first feature film. Atkinson developed the script for the film during Dr. Joanne Clarke Dillman's class.Atkinson graduated from UW Tacoma in June of 2017 with a degree in Arts, Media and Culture. A native of Washington, D.C., Atkinson followed her father out west. He had recently retired from the military and took a job in Seattle. Atkinson transferred to UW Tacoma as a junior and quickly became involved on campus. She joined the Student Theater Actors Guild and took part in University sponsored plays. “I’ve been involved with theater since I could talk,” she said.

This interest in the performing arts led Atkinson to explore film. “I took screenwriting classes and directing classes at my community college,” she said. Atkinson deepened her understanding of the craft while at UW Tacoma. “I took a course about feminism in film from Dr. Joanne Clarke Dillman and she was passionate about the material and that carried over to me,” said Atkinson.

Tran and Atkinson created “Dinosaurs in the Hood” as a project for Coon’s class. The short film revolves around a poem of the same name written by Danez Smith. Both the poem and the film tackle issues of race and representation in movies. “The first time we showed it in class everyone was silent afterwards,” said Atkinson. “We weren’t sure what that meant, but then people started telling us how powerful it was.”

Both Tran and Atkinson plan to pursue a career in the film industry. Atkinson has since moved back to Washington, D.C. and is currently working on multiple scripts. Tran is busy developing multiple projects and has helped start a film club on campus. In addition to a love of movies, the pair are also excited about the chance to tell stories that haven’t been traditionally told in mainstream cinema. “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people who look like me on TV or in movies,” said Tran. “I want to change that and I feel like my experience here is going to make that possible.”

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 7, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu