‘Crisis on Campus’ Doc From ‘Frontline’ Examines Recent College Protests Over Gaza War: ‘We Kept Following That Story as It Developed’

One of the first feature-length documentaries about the repercussions of the Israel-Hamas war, which began on Oct. 7, 2023, is being released today on “Frontline.”

Nonprofit news organization Retro Report and “Frontline” teamed up on “Crisis on Campus,” about America’s ongoing college campus conflict ignited by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. The doc, airing June 11 on PBS, traces how the polarizing debate over the war has led to a growing strain on U.S. campuses across the nation.

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Directed by James Jacoby, “Crisis on Campus” examines topics including: the controversial letter from Harvard student groups blaming Israel for violence in the region, the resignations of presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Columbia protests and arrests in May that made headlines after students took over a building that prompted action from the New York City Police Department.

Jacoby, “Frontine,” and Retro Report began working on the docu in 2023 soon after the violence in Israel and Gaza began and tensions on college campuses between Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian student groups across the U.S. erupted. Boston based WGBH produces “Frontline,” the documentary program that backed Oscar winning “20 Days in Mariupol.”

“From the start, we were on-the-ground at Harvard University, and kept following that story as it developed, along with the spreading tensions at other schools, especially Columbia University,” says “Frontline” executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath. “It quickly became clear that both Harvard and Columbia embodied so many of the issues at play, we kept going back to both schools over the months, speaking to students and faculty, to people on all sides of the divide, and that gave us a chance to really understand the debates, to look at accountability and motivations and the stakes, and to really see the evolution of story and its impact.”

“Crisis on Campus” features on-the-ground interviews with subjects including: pro-Palestinian Harvard students, UC Berkeley’s Chancellor Carol Christ; North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican who chaired congressional hearings over antisemitism on college campuses; Christopher Rufo, a conservative political activist who has been critical of the universities’ response to the conflict; and billionaire former Columbia donor Leon Cooperman.

“We decided early on to follow the story as it developed, and hopefully over time be able to offer some clarity on how and why it escalated and explore some of the underlying issues and questions of accountability,” says Jacoby. “One of the things we were able to show in the documentary is how the intensity of the conflict on campuses — the challenge that university officials faced — was also fueled by powerful political and financial interests, not just the war itself.”

For the doc Jacoby spoke to some of the Palestinian students at Harvard who wrote the controversial statement blaming Israel for Oct. 7. He also interviewed Jewish Harvard students who were part of the immediate outcry about the letter. Ultimately the director decided to focus the film primarily on the conflict happening at Harvard and Columbia universities.

“We really just stuck with the story as the protest movement and the allegations of antisemitism erupted (at Harvard), all the way up to the congressional testimony of Harvard president, Claudine Gay, and then her resignation,” says Jacoby. “In the same way we kept our eye on Columbia University, where of course the president ultimately called the NYPD twice to break-up student protests. Tracing what happened at both of these schools really helped illuminate some of the essential issues that were behind these past months of chaos on campuses.”

“Crisis on Campus” premieres on June 11 at 10/9c on PBS and on YouTube, and at 7/6c on pbs.org/frontline, the PBS App, and will also be available on the PBS Documentaries Prime Video Channel. The documentary is distributed internationally by PBS International.

See an exclusive clip from the doc below.

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