Faculty Feature: Zach Cheney PhD Enriches Film Students’ Lives Through Engaging Conversations

by Saundri Luippold

When stopping by Zach Cheney’s, PhD, office, small talk is not a norm. Cheney loves to get to the heart of a conversation, whether that’s through analyzing a pivotal scene of a classic film, exploring the dynamics of the entertainment industry as streaming services continue to rise, or discovering how faith plays a role in even the most unseemingly religious movies. His life exemplifies a main character’s journey of change. Through his dedication to equipping students to be deep thinkers, Cheney lives his story with his God-given talents in mind.

Born in San Jose, Calif., Cheney’s family moved to Tacoma, Wash. when he was 11-years-old. As a high schooler, Cheney studied a lot of church history, and decided to devote his life to serving God. At the time, Cheney thought doing so meant he had to be a pastor or missionary, potentially even a martyr. Cheney studied philosophy at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. to establish a good foundation upon entering seminary with a plan to earn his Master of Divinity. While attending Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Cheney met outstanding, faithful mentors who shared that serving God did not mean dying for one’s faith. “I realized that being a Christian also means living faithfully and it’s okay to do something other than theology and ministry. Through that I discovered how much I always loved meaningful cinema,” he said. Cheney ended up receiving an MA in Theological Studies before attending San Francisco State University for his MA in Cinema Studies, and then a PhD in Film and Media Studies from the University of Oregon.

When asked about his favorite films, Cheney pondered for a moment. “Cinema can be a very high type of art that tells stories with images and sounds in the most powerful of ways. But it can also just be a lot of fun and that’s okay,” he said. Cheney’s favorite movies to watch for enjoyment are comedies from the 1930s, such as the “Thin Man” series, “My Man Godfrey,” “The More the Merrier,” and “Easy Living.” “If we were in the chapter in Revelation where the kings of earth have to bring the best they have to offer to the king of kings, the films I would offer on that day would be ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘Andrei Rublev,’ because of the gravity that they hold concerning philosophical truths.”

Once Cheney changed vocations, he knew he wanted to be a teacher because of his passion for cinematic conversations and diving deep into the techniques that make truly great films emotionally impactful. In 2018, he began teaching at Azusa Pacific University. “I chose APU because of the idea of being able to teach film without hiding my foundational beliefs as a Christian. Integrating and intertwining my faith drew me in,” he said. Cheney admires the earnestness, eagerness, and purity of thought that he finds prevalent in APU students. “They come to the table hungry to learn and understand, but they aren’t pretentious about already having some knowledge. They are humble, and I end up learning a lot from them because of their excitement to engage in conversations.” Cheney is grateful that he gets to engage in such enriching discussions about something the students are all passionate about.

Creating a warming environment is important to Cheney, and he hopes to be there for students inside and outside the classroom. “I love discussing a film right after watching it together, while their thoughts are still fresh and raw, so we can process the movie as a group,” he said. Cheney deepens connections with his students by inviting them to his house and sharing a home cooked meal. “I hope to be someone who’s not just standing in front of a podium and leaving when class is done. I want the rapport between us to be strong.” He also takes students to his favorite movie theater, New Beverly Cinema, which only shows movies on 35mm film.

“There’s nothing quite like the immersive, embodied, and grand experience that comes from watching great movies together in a theater.”

Ranita Kwan ’25 shared about the positive impact Cheney has had throughout her experience studying cinematic arts. “Professor Cheney is an intentional person with his words and actions,” Kwan said. “He is such a hard worker who always makes sure his students feel special and heard. He takes time to prioritize his relationship with his students and is willing to take time out of his schedule to talk with us.”

As the chair of the Department of Cinematic Arts, and Interim Associate Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of the Arts, Cheney has a multitude of responsibilities on his plate, but you wouldn’t assume so upon meeting him. His enthusiasm to go on long film tangents, and overall warm demeanor make him someone you know you’ll have an enriching conversation with every time you see him. Walking out of his classroom and office, students feel fulfilled. Cheney serves as a reminder that living faithfully is an enactment of following what God has scripted for your life.

Saundri Luippold ’25 is a public relations intern in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement. Saundri is double majoring in Honors Humanities and English with a minor in Spanish. She serves as head copy editor of APU's literary journal, The West Wind, and writes on her personal blog, New Romanticism.