The People’s Cinema

The Microcinema Movement

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14 mins read

As the lights went up in the small Berkeley auditorium, there was a stunned moment of silence, then several hands rose in the air: “Will this be on PBS?”

It was a question I had been asked at almost every stop on my tour through California in 2003, during the weeks following the US invasion of Iraq. From the community centers, university classrooms, churches, and living rooms of small towns festooned with American flags and yellow ribbons, my film The Friendship Village about Vietnam veteran George Mizo’s efforts to build a reconciliation project out of the ashes of the Vietnam War resonated with local audiences.

I shook my head and explained that the PBS affiliate, at first interested in the project, had informed me that, “as long as we have American men and women in the field, it would be a tough sell to American audiences.”

The organizer of our event, a spry 86-year old radical named Hal Carlstadt leapt from his chair: “If you want to see films like this, come down to the KQED building this Friday where we’ll be screening it on the side of the building!” And so, I understand, The Friendship Village has indeed screened on a PBS affiliate.

My experience in Berkeley was repeated everywhere I went with the organizers of the Vietnam Friendship Village Project’s U.S. Committee. As the embedded journalists of network television toured the public relations camps of Iraq, we found ourselves touring our anti-war film through the trenches of California’s microcinema movement.

Driving our ad hoc ‘mobile home microcinema’ through California’s vineyards, desert, Sierras and coast, we came upon town after town of audiences desperate for alternative content. Donations to the listener-based radio and community television stations we talked to had quadrupled in the months leading up to the war and many towns had begun organizing monthly microcinema screenings. In keeping with the spirit of the film, at a time of incredibly dark reality in Iraq and Afghanistan, our California venture offered a light on the possibility of creating alternatives: to war, to media, and to community.

While I was on the road, the experiences with The Friendship Village and a growing interest in alternative distribution had prompted the film’s editor, Mandy Leith, to initiate a microcinema in Victoria, BC called Open Cinema (www.vifpa.com/opencinema.php). “I was helping get these films off the ground,” she noted, “and seeing them not be found through their traditional channels. The broadcast community seemed to bring people to a dead end. That grew into an idea to create screenings focused on bringing people together as a catalyst for grass roots actions and community conversation.”

In communities around the globe, microcinema is bringing independent films to the basements, cafes, galleries and rooftops of the world—places where people can gather informally, with a beer, to see and talk about life from another perspective.

“As the media becomes more balkanized, things like Open Cinema remind us that the media’s role is to be a facilitator, to get us all having face to face discussions,” says Bill Weaver. As a founder of Media That Matters, an annual conference that fosters community bridge-building and responsible dialogue between conventional and independent media, Weaver knows the problems facing documentary and indie filmmakers. (Check out their websitewww.mediathatmatters.org for more information on how they’re responding to these issues.)

At a time of great social importance and uncertainty in the documentary industry, microcinema is helping independent filmmakers take film back to its roots. The very first public film screening in 1895, when the Lumière Brothers showed their shorts, was at the Salon Indien, the basement lounge of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.

While Europe may have a longstanding art-house and salon tradition, the US’s recent embrace of microcinemas has grown out of the underground film movement of the 60s, when filmmakers began holding screenings of alternative films in cafes, porn theatres, community centres. 30 years later, Rebecca Barten and David Sherman coined the term when they started the “Total Mobile Home Microcinema” in the basement of their San Francisco apartment. Since then, the microcinema movement has been gaining momentum around the world, as growing numbers of people become disenchanted with the “reality” of mainstream, globalized programming.

In Canada, the microcinema, like so many things, was invented by the government, through the National Film Board (NFB). Back in the 1940s and 50s, the Board toured projectionists with films into churches, community centres, and schools. Canada’s growing microcinema movement recently inspired an NFB-supported study recommending the creation of a national E-Cinema network. The theatre venues would be created and modified to exhibit digital content in order to broaden the range of films offered to Canadians, a trend that has already taken hold in Europe.

The study states that “rapid rollout of E-Cinemais crucial to the development of the Canadian cinema and to the international visibility of Canadian films. We must seize this opportunity to give new impetus to independent films from Canada and abroad, and to improve accessibility for Canadian audiences.”

For the time being, Canada’s microcinema movement will continue to support small cinemas and venues that show a diverse range of filmmaking that gives voice to a large body of work by local and national filmmakers. Unlike the claustrophobic, booming fare of Cineplex screenings, the thrill of sitting in a dark, unconventional space full of strangers is augmented with a beer and a participatory audience after the show. It is this dialogue between audience and filmmaker that is the hallmark of the microcinema experience.

“I’m not really interested in film as an end in itself. I see it as a catalyst for community, for conversation,” says Mandy Leith. “Film is only 100 years old. There is so much to explore in terms of its function. Film takes you on a journey to a time and place. What hasn’t really been explored is what we can do with the emotions, ideas and energy evoked by films, to help us as individuals or as a society. Open Cinema is a way to start that conversation.”

Since its opening night screening in September 2003, Open Cinema’s average audience has grown to 120 people, 70 percent of whom are unique to each event. Open Cinema is also experimenting with interactive technologies. During a recent screening of Aerlyn Weissman’s Webcam Girls, co-presenters Vancouver’s CineClix installed a public chat room as part of a screening discussion with a webcam girl in Minneapolis. “It was fantastic. You had this webcam girl on screen, talking with Aerlyn, deconstructing the film and politics of women and representation,” says Leith.

Filmmakers, like documentary veteran Weissman, are increasingly turning to alternative or multiple platforms to reach new audiences. Using broadcast platforms to drive viewers to the Internet, they use new downloading technology like that at CineClix to expand the interactive components of the film for a small fee.(CineClix’s mandate is to “to help independent filmmakers reach their audience, a feat generally not possible in the traditional distribution chain.” They work with filmmakers, offering a profit-sharing plan. Check www.CineClix.comfor details.)

During the recent The Corporation DVD House Party launch, Hello Cool World organiser Kat Dodds used the Internet and microcinema network to expand the distribution of the film to tens of thousands of people through a web-based campaign. “A climate of fear inhibits risk-taking by broadcasters…[You can do much more] if you want the film used as a tool for social issues. Grassroots media takes the message directly to the audience, and repeats and repeats,” says Dodds.

Through his experiences co-directing Manufacturing Consent, which built an audience slowly from the grassroots, Mark Achbar learned that ‘no media is too small.’ Bringing Dodds on board from the early stages of his latest project, The Corporation, Achbar was able to build with her a vast list-serve which has aided immensely in their out-reach process. “We need to get films in the hands of people. The DVD release was a way for us to experiment with alternative retailing, aka the Tupperware for the millennium house party. This is guerilla distribution coming of age,” says Dodds. (Check out the websites www.thecorporation.comand www.hellocoolworld.com for additional information on Achbar’s and Dodd’s wildly successful strategies.)

Distribution isn’t the only alternative path being forged through the Internet and microcinema. In the U.S., where public money has long-been elusive, filmmakers like Robert Greenwald have been able to raise financing for their films through niche marketing. For Greenwald’s Outfoxed, Move On (www.moveon.org) helped turn his film about Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire into a campaign that brought in donations and nationwide support from activists. Hundreds of volunteers watched everything on Fox Television during production, making notes and sending reports. Now the film sells direct to consumers, avoiding clearance fees through “fair use” loopholes.

With the Internet becoming a source of alternative financing and distribution for socially conscious docs, there is also the possibility that sites like CineClix will eventually enable filmmakers to pre-sell content to those disenfranchised audiences leaving the television market. It’s an option that Harry Sutherland, co-producer of Scared Sacred and Webcam Girls is exploring.

“In the last several months, issue has become king,” comments Sutherland, “but doc producers have traditionally been tied into broadcast models. Most products aren’t suitable for TV. In a changing world, doc producers can start to deal with audiences worldwide. They can by-pass the broadcasters and become self-organized and self-financed. It’s the most exciting time for documentary production ever.”

More than one hundred years after the Lumière brothers first screened their films in a salon, the microcinema movement is helping to start a new chapter in the history of cinema. As the bombs continue to fall over Iraq, numerous small projectors scattered across the public and private salons of the world are helping to shine a light on reality in a way that fittingly recalls the Lumière’s documentary recordings of everyday life (actualités). Back then a scene with a train pulling into a station seemed so real, it sent the audience screaming into the street. People have been talking about movies ever since.

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