Jon Kilik - Commencement Speech
May 18, 2003
I'm a little nervous so if you could please relax me by giving a cheer for the UVM basketball team and their great win against BU (applause) and thank you to all the student athletes, their coaches and supporters for adding to our experience here on campus.
President Fogel, members of the faculty, students, and honored guests. It is a great privilege for me to be with you today to address you at this commencement ceremony. Constantly returning to Vermont and this university remains one of the great joys of my life. I am honored to be sharing this moment with the illustrious UVM faculty. They have my respect for their continued commitment to the university and to teaching. But I will always be thankful that I experienced this occasion with the outstanding graduating class of 2003. Please applaud yourselves.
This is your day, thanks for sharing it with me. You have achieved your goal and now you are ready to begin a new chapter. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you safe travels on the journey ahead. And if it is alright with you, this is not a lecture, I just want to share my thoughts.
As I think back and ask myself how I managed to end up here today, I have to give special thanks to Professor Manchel, a teacher who certainly changed my life by sharing his knowledge and passion for film with me and many other students during his 35 years of inspired classes. Each of you has a teacher or a coach who as given you something invaluable that will stay with you forever and I hope you are able to thank them. But I also have to recognize the lesson that I learned from Professor Aaronson who flunked me in accounting. I had slept through an exam. I remember begging her for a pass but she wouldn't budge. I wonder what she thinks of the fact that today I am responsible for spending hundreds of millions of dollars making movies. Professor Aaronson, all is forgiven.
After graduation, I moved to New York City to begin what I hoped would be an exciting career in the film business. It took me a year to get my first job on a movie set but I finally did thanks to a UVM alumni named Yudi Bennett. She was one of the top assistant directors in New York. My first job was doing crowd control, many blocks from the action. So after four years of college and a year of odd jobs, there I was, standing on the corner of Bleecker and McDougal street at 3 o'clock in the morning, asking the denizens of Greenwhich Village to please cross to the other side of the street, we're making a movie. I could hear my poor mother's voice in my head saying, "It's not too late, you can still apply to law school."
Well, I hung in there and followed my heart and six years later I finally got to produce my first film. It was truly the lifelong break I had always dreamed of and I was ready to seize the moment. The movie opened at the Waverly Theater in New York, just a few blocks from where I worked that first day in the business. This is what the critics had to say; "Make no mistake, this story is preposterous! It is perfect for coffee-sipping, beret-wearing losers. I am afraid nothing can save this pathetic waste of film." There's more but that was the good part. The movie closed in one week. Needless to say, I've had to take a lot of criticism over the years and learned how to accept failure. There is a Tibetan saying, "Even if you have failed at something nine times, you have still given it effort nine times." I think it's important to remember that and to have patience and optimism and determination.
There are many obstacles that lie in our path as we weave our way through this complex, materialistic, technological society. As I stand before you, people throughout this nation are debating whether America is willing to let desire for national security overshadow our social conscience. We must recognize a history of crimes against the poor all done under the guise of progress. Making the discussion even more difficult is a widespread distrust in the very institutions we look to for help.
So what can we do? And what can I say to lessen your fears? How can I advise you on how to live a full and happy life so you can help improve our world?
All I can do is tell you honestly what I think is important and what I have discovered in the years since I sat where you are now. And if you want to know what I admire, I'm gonna tell you what I admire.
When I was growing up in New Jersey, my sister used to go to camp in Vermont every summer. She learned to be a good camper and she loved it. She later returned to Vermont and graduated from Castleton State College. She now lives in Rutland, just a few miles from that camp on Lake Dunmore and she teaches special needs children in the Rutland school system.
Here is her resume:
Jane is a good mother to her two children, Otis and Rachael. She never lets her work stand in the way of being a good parent.
She never considers herself the center of the universe.
She is a good friend to her friends and a good friend to her husband.
She makes her marriage vows mean what they say.
She calls our parents and grandmother often and she always shows up for family holidays.
She has a life, a real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. She has a life in which she can enjoy beautiful sunsets over the green mountains of Vermont. She keeps her side of the street clean and she knows how to live with other people and respect them. She is a good camper.
I learned a little about that here at what we fondly called Camp Catamount. I knew that would get a laugh but I mean it with the greatest respect for the university. Learning how to get along with people in the dorms and in the houses off campus was as important as anything I learned in the classroom. I learned how to be a good roommate and a good friend. My friends then are still my friends today and they're out there with you, you can ask them. And if you are really really lucky, these people around you today will be a part of your life for the rest of your life.
I am a filmmaker and my work is describing the human experience. Films put you in the shoes of other people. They can show us how we as a society are getting along with each other. Are we good campers?
When we made DO THE RIGHT THING, Spike Lee addressed this question brilliantly. He detailed what happens when people don't listen to each other, when they think their way is the only way. He showed us where arrogance and intolerance lead us. Yet at the time, many critics called Spike a racist and an anarchist. Thank heaven we didn't listen to the critics.
I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with Julian Schnabel as we set out to capture an individual's ordeal in his film, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS. He showed how painful it is to be different in a mindless world that understands neither compassion nor the rights of all people.
Tim Robbins brought us to the Angola prison as he captured the power of conscience over the self-defeating demons of revenge in DEAD MAN WALKING. He made the point that love and faith are more beneficial to healing our suffering and pain than are hate and depression.
I lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation thanks to Jennifer Lyne's powerful screenplay SKINS. She revealed the plight of far too many contemporary Native Americans in this, the richest country in the world. She painfully delineates how poverty, alcoholism and joblessness are the price disenfranchised people pay for progress.
Movies make the issues come alive. They get us to become emotionally involved in the experiences of others. These artists in film, like many artists in all the other arts, seek to engage our hearts and minds and enrich our souls. They appreciate the fact that before we can help others we need to reform ourselves.
But in times of transformation, like now, graduating from college, fear can take hold of us. Bruce Springsteen said in a recent interview, I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan. I'm from New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen said, "I'm always fighting that feeling of helplessness. We can be overwhelmed by ambivalence, by the despair of the day. But that's what people use music and film and art for; that's its purpose, to pull you out of that despair and shine a light on new possibilities." I think that's true.
One of the main values of art is to stimulate our imaginations and inspire us to reconsider just who we are and what we believe. To appreciate art requires not only imagination but also involvement.
I cannot tell you how much of my life is spent trying to convince people to do things they either do not want to do or think cannot be done. I daily face rejection, indifference and apathy about things dear to my heart. It is not a problem, because I believe in what I do. The reason I succeed is that I know the difference between compromise and capitulation. To move forward, we must be flexible but not give up our integrity.
As independent filmmakers we are often asked what it means to be independent. In this country, independent means we are supposed to have the right to voice our opinions and that right is protected in our constitution. We have a right to question our government and to question whether the motives of our leaders are just and humanitarian. We have a right to voice our concerns without being called anti-American. (applause) Thank you. Right now, my friend Sean Penn is being brought up on charges that imply treason for exercising his basic right to express himself. He has my respect and support. Independent means we are brave enough to stand alone, yet we are part of a multi cultural world. We should strive to be independent but not arrogant, brave but not reckless, self assured but not dogmatic. We will never find the world perfect as it is. There is no utopia. But we can go beyond our personal desires and make life for us and for others better than it is now. We need free thinkers, and we need to protect them so that their ideas are given a hearing on the world stage. I hope you will fight to protect those voices and to defend free speech everywhere. And in the end have faith in Benjamin Franklin's notion that on Judgment Day, we will be evaluated not by what we have learned and what we have achieved, but by what we have done with what we have learned and with what we have achieved.
I'd like to thank my father, who gave me the best advice I ever got, "You can do anything," he told me.
Finally, I just want to say, we are a family and UVM is my surrogate home. Those alumni who came before you have established a great tradition of caring and encouraging. What they made possible for people like me, they offer now to you. Don't forget each other, don't be a stranger, and whether your passion brings you to an elementary school in Rutland or a movie set in the Himalayas
Be a good camper. I have faith in you. Now go get 'em UVM Class of 2003!