Harris Smith just wanted to make people laugh. Last spring, the senior Media Communications major saw his chance when he was given an opportunity to produce a short film for a class. He never guessed the controversy that would follow.
Smith’s film, “Last Resort,” is a 17-minute comedy that follows the exploits of a ragtag crew of students (based on the real filmmakers) and its last ditch effort to finish a film (based on the real project). It was publicly screened for the first time at the PLNU Film and Television Awards last April.
The response in the theatre was electric. During the screening, the audience was in a collective fit of laughter and after the festival, the feedback from other students was overwhelmingly positive. But all of this came at a price — censorship.
Those who saw “Last Resort” may not understand what makes it controversial. But that’s because they didn’t see the film in its entirety. In the pre-screening process before the festival, the filmmakers were instructed by members in the Department of Communication and Theatre to cut out a particularly edgy scene. The scene in question focused on the forbidden love of two homosexual gardeners — played by Smith and co-producer Eric Hill.
Upon initial viewing, Dr. Alan Hueth, who teaches the film production course, said that he felt “very, very, very uncomfortable” with the content. He took his concern to Dr. Paul Bassett, chair of the Department of Communication and Theatre.
“Dr. Bassett has been here forever,” Hueth said. “He has a consistent position on Nazarene theology, doctrine and mission.”
Bassett had the final say in the decision to edit the film and limit its distribution. Ultimately, he decided the film would be a poor representation of PLNU’s identity and beliefs.
“I do not want censorship,” Bassett said. “People should be talking about these issues, especially in a university setting. But because we are associated with the Nazarene Church, we are in a delicate position.”
Bassett told the filmmakers they cannot exhibit the film off-campus, and it has been restricted from display on any school media outlets. The decision was made not only because the content clashed with the university’s beliefs, but also because the filmmakers produced the film for a class project.
PLNU also reserves the rights to any student-produced film that is made with school equipment. The filmmakers used a variety of items from the school’s TV studio to shoot their film, and it is therefore a property of PLNU.
Smith had hoped to send his film to compete in other festivals, and, although he was disappointed with the decision, he holds no grudges against the department.
“The film is the school’s property, and they have the right to do what they want with it,” Smith said.
Some students who worked on the project are not as understanding as Smith. Current senior Josh Vandermeer, the film’s editor and director of photography, feels the issue of homosexuality was unfairly targeted.
“Films showing murder, drunkenness, premarital sex and drug abuse are made on campus without any criticism from the school,” Vandermeer said. “PLNU is stating that homosexuality is a greater sin and is unsuitable to screen.”
Hueth and Bassett both responded that it wasn’t about the subject matter, but the treatment of the topic. While the other films were corrective in their treatment, “Last Resort” was celebratory. However, both professors agreed that, although it contains inappropriate content, ”Last Resort” is comedic and displays impressive film techniques.
“This would be hilarious to people watching Saturday Night Live,” Hueth said. “The problem is that we are not SNL, and we can’t be SNL. We are a Nazarene university, and our messages must remain in line with that identity.”
The decision to censor the film still stands. Smith could have appealed to the university Provost, but decided to let it go and focus on future endeavors.
“Just because I couldn’t make the film I wanted, doesn’t mean I can’t try and make another,” Smith said