Ever been to a protest at a University of California campus? It's a confusing if colorful scene. There's the underpaid worker, the broke undergrad, the nostalgic professor, the token communist and the student senator practicing leadership on her megaphone.

All are passionate, but it's noise confined to the choir.

Self-taught filmmaker Rico Chavez — a sharp, darkly dressed 36-year-old who grew up tough in Inglewood and Hawthorne — has never called a UC campus home. In fact, he decided against UCLA because of the price tag.

But sometimes it takes an outsider to get to the heart of an inside mess. Chavez is a bit of a dreamer: He puts off an interview for days, delayed by his various art projects. A description of his self-made job lies somewhere beneath a pile of graphic prints, Web projects, half-finished music videos and film scripts.

After hearing some UCLA friends complain about rising tuition when budget cuts began to noticeably gut California's most prestigious public-university system, though, the multimedia man spotted a niche.

Now he's got a 10-minute film making the rounds, grounding both himself and a movement. Hanging by a Thread, which screened at all 10 UC campuses and was mailed to the university's governing body, the Board of Regents, is described on its website as “an independent film … about the University of California's misplaced priorities and how they are hurting the people who learn, teach and work” there.

The short film practically threw itself together when administrators at a Board of Regents meeting told Chavez he couldn't bring in his camera. In the documentarian's words: “It was as if no one had tried to film a regents' meeting before.” The San Francisco Chronicle, always hot on UC scandal, spread word of the censorship, and Chavez snagged an interview with state Sen. Leland Yee.

“The regents are totally out of touch,” Yee says in the film. “I bet you if a regent were to visit a service-worker home … they would be ashamed. They cannot imagine that people live like that under a UC system.”

Hanging by a Thread tells the stories of three UC workers who can barely afford to live while executive staff luxuriate on the public dime. UC President Mark Yudof, paid more than $1 million with bonuses, just moved to an $11,500-a-month apartment for which UC pays the tab, along with $40,000 in moving costs. Meanwhile, UC Santa Cruz food-service worker Maria Romero earns $30,000 and works a second job.

It's a classic capitalist tragedy, magnified within the bubble of a taxpayer-funded minicity where the great minds of the future are on the hurting end. Chavez's film editing is rhythmic, wise to the world and hinting at his youth engaged in semi-illegal street art.

After noticing Hanging, Chavez says, UC workers' unions offered to help fund a sequel; he accepted.

With an eye for injustice, Chavez is a godsend for higher education in California — and for his native Los Angeles, whose streets gave him a perspective somehow lost on thousands inside the collegiate cesspool.

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LA Weekly