Jeff Swimmer: From Mount Everest to Old Towne Orange

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“Where did I park the Jeep?” Note: Jeff Swimmer not pictured.

With his impish grin and unruly curly hair, it’s not hard to believe that Jeff Swimmer’s an adventurer. Whether it’s landing a helicopter on an active volcano in Hawaii, scaling parts of Mount Everest during its most dangerous season in recent history or surviving malaria in Africa, he’s done it all. So how’s he coping with a demure teaching job in quaint, quiet Old Towne Orange?

“This program is eating me up,” he said. “I wouldn’t say eating me up, that sounds wrong. It sounds like I’m being destroyed by it. It’s consuming all my time, I’d say.”

Swimmer joined the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts faculty last spring to set up and head Chapman’s newly created international documentary scholarship program. The program’s pilot period saw five students of various majors filming for three weeks in Cambodia, all sponsored by a private donor.

“It’s really unusual for someone to donate to that kind of endeavor: to take students to developing countries, do films about Non-governmental organizations and then to give them to those groups,” said Swimmer. “It was a great opportunity to combine a lot of interests that I had in a way that could hopefully do some good in these countries by creating really good-looking documentaries that hopefully these NGOs could use to raise funds or outreach.”

John Hall, a professor of the law school who specialized in Cambodia with many connections established there, was the first faculty member to be signed on to the program. He actually recommended that Swimmer be brought on board as well.

“We’re neighbors in Santa Monica,” said Hall with a smile.

But Swimmer has proved that he is more than qualified for the position. Having produced countless documentaries for National Geographic, The History Channel, CNN, Discovery channel and PBS among others, Swimmer now teaches three classes full-time and will be taking on six more next spring.

Swimmer is enthusiastic about expanding the documentary program at Dodge and believes that it’s something students have been wanting.

“There’s a real commitment here towards documentary and especially international documentaries,” he said. “There’s a hunger among students. Documentary’s not some poor step-child of the film world anymore.”

One of his students, senior Zara Ahmed, thinks Swimmer is already having a positive impact on the program.

“Documentary is an art form in understanding human nature and humanity,” said Ahmed. “More than the technical aspects, [Swimmer] emphasizes understanding people through our films, which is incredible. You learn so much more than just film, you learn about people.”

Focusing on the characters behind each story is what interested Swimmer about documentaries in the first place. He began working in broadcast journalism, but transitioned to documentary-making because he wanted to uncover more of each person’s story, he said.

“It just feels much more like telling a story,” said Swimmer, “rather than extracting that piece of information from your subject to advance your story.”

Teaching his students the importance of treating their subjects with sensitivity is important to Swimmer and he’s impressed with how quickly the crew that produced the documentary in Cambodia was able to learn.

“They came to see themselves less as invaders and more as storytellers,” he said.

For many students, an important strength of Swimmer’s as a teacher is his real-life experiences.

Ahmed had just returned from a semester abroad when she entered Swimmer’s class. She was unenthusiastic about returning to her studies and only wanted to continue traveling, she said. But learning from Swimmer made her realize she could combine her former and current passions.

“After knowing [Swimmer] and him showing me this spirit of being a bad-ass who can just travel wherever he wants and make films, I decided I’m just going to make movies abroad,” said Ahmed. “It’s absolutely what I want to do … and it’s what I’m going to do.”

Ironically, travelling less is what helped Swimmer decide to accept a full-time teaching position at Chapman.

“That’s one thing that’s attractive about teaching,” he said. “In the news business, you’re walking around and your phone rings and someone tells you to get to an airport, there’s a big story breaking. I got a little tired of that.”

These days, he is able to plan his trips months in advance and spend less time away from his wife and four children. Even then, he sometimes finds himself gone for longer than expected – especially at Marion Knott Studios.

“He’s incredibly dedicated,” said Ahmed. “I’ve seen him in the film school at all hours the couple weeks before [the] Cambodia [documentary] was screening.”

And it’s this dedication to his students that Ahmed most admires about Swimmer.

“He just really wants to not just see us succeed, but for us to go see the world and understand the importance of being a global citizen,” she said. “I was just re-awakened by how powerful the medium of film could be.”

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