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Editor's Letter: Stunting Terrariums

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Ryan Villamael’s Pulo is a paper sculpture of indigenous plants cut from archival maps of the Philippines. It sits inside a vitrine with sufficient head and arm room, the glass walls isolating and protecting the native flora, which has no more reason to grow. It’s content.

Before seeing Villamael’s beguiling map-plant sculptures as part of this year's "Shrines" exhibit, I had been imagining a similar but less optimistic visual metaphor to introduce this special edition SAF bulletin: plants bending against the walls of a too-tight display case and getting increasingly knotted in themselves. This was inspired by SAF’s Keisha Knight describing (in an early draft of her and Sophia Haid’s distribution manifesto) films as “seeds” that, due to the untenably profit-driven nature of the industry, rarely grow to their full potential. Films are traditionally released to theaters to be passively consumed, sparsely discussed, and moved on from. Distributors paywall films’ growth by seizing their “rights” to where, when, and how they are played. The seeds are malnourished; fed only garish projector light in a dark room, they grow strange and stunted.

Sentient Art Film’s release of Danilo do Carmo and Jakob Krese’s Lo Que Queda en el Camino, to community spaces across the US-Mexico border, was an attempt to better cultivate the film through post-screening discussions and active forms of engagement. For example, Entre Film Center, one of SAF’s partners for the release, coupled the screening with a supply drive for the Sidewalk School, an organization that provides schooling and teachers to children in migrant camps in Matamoros and Reynosa. Similarly, revolutionary mobile cinema collective cinemóvil nyc—whose founder Ali Jaffery was interviewed for this bulletin by Brixton Community Cinema founder Abiba Coulibaly—organizes film screenings with community partners, horizontal discussion, and a teach-in, skillshare, or fundraiser for the filmmaker or a cause relevant to the film. Rather than isolate the film’s post-screening life to a cinephilic echo chamber, these modes of exhibition encourage a film’s influence to reach beyond itself and affect other non-film conversations, expressions, work, and organizing. Through this, the medium is also necessarily humbled, as one sees where the extent of cinema’s influence in the real world ends, in real-time, in larger conversation. Back in the echo chamber, or the stuffed terrarium, or what have you, the post-film talk about film remains self-aggrandizing and bloats the medium’s import.

Adding to plant-based metaphors, filmmaker Miko Revereza compared the Echo Park Film Centre (EPFC) to a community garden whose healthy yield is the result of the spontaneous encounters it enables. He talked with old EPFC friends—Lisa Marr, Andrew Kim, and Karissa Hahn—about eco-processing recipes, which include ingredients like red wine, jamaica, and stinging nettles, and the collective’s DVD archive of films made by participants in workshops over the years.

Although the format catches flak for its shorter (albeit reproducible) lifespan and lower resolution, DVD archives continue to serve communities around the world. Before the Philippine government (pressured by the US) cracked down on the bootleg movie marketplace in Quiapo, it made a greater historical and cultural awareness available to the public through otherwise inaccessible films. Jason Tan Liwag references this time and place in his piece (coming soon in part II of the bulletin), which features screenwriting legend Ricky Lee (who wrote films for Philippine cinema legends like Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya) and writes about the compiling of extant materials of lost Filipino films into books as a way to recapture, reinterpret, and preserve their original spirit and memory.

Pirated DVDs still expand the cultural catalog in communities with less internet access. The Ajabu Ajabu (“peculiar”) collective in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania creates “informal" and "unauthorized” Kiswahili dubs that liberally reinterpret scripts and vocal performances to make international cinema more accessible to local audiences. As with many of the film groups who are referenced or are part of discussions in this bulletin, Ajabu Ajabu stimulates film preservation, exhibition, and production (through workshops)—engaging with cinema’s past, present, and future----all at once.

In 2019, another collective in this vein, “La Clef Revival,” began to occupy the La Clef cinema, which had recently been sold and closed by the banking group CSE (Caisse d’Epargne Île-de-France), with the aim of reviving the old theater and running it under a new democratic structure. For two and a half years, it was as much a free cinema as a living, organizing, and teaching space. But in March 2022, police raided the theater and evicted them. In a somewhat unlikely turn of events, the two reached a sales agreement, the latter crowdfunding enough money (plus a bank loan) to buy the building off the real estate market. Is this as doubtless a win for the collective and its cinema’s future as their infectious popularity (now promoted by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Céline Sciamma, and Léos Carax) would have us think? Only time will tell how much of La Clef Revival’s original freeform can be maintained as a re-legitimized and paid-for property.

Such developments have me wondering what healthy growth looks like for groups that are not contained to the industry vitrine. How would it look different from the linear “progress” that has beelined us toward certain doom? When I ran a follow-up question through Miko Revereza about the possibilities of eco-processing and the goals of those at the forefront of experimenting with it, I was still thinking naively about its growth—“One day, will it be more practical to eco-develop a color feature film?” It didn’t occur to me that that might not be anyone’s goal in the first place. Revereza wrote back to me, “Personally, I think it's definitely possible and cost-effective to process a feature-length with eco-processing but it will have a look that looks nothing like the normative clean image of industry films. I don't think EPFC is really interested in making box office features. The vibe is more like introducing people to the magic of making small films at home. I heard of someone developing their film with pee. Perhaps that's progress…”

At a certain point, maybe outside movement building becomes less about growth and more about direction. There are new alternative models in the works that are so clearly, to me, strides in the right direction: Prisms, a film non-profit based in Norway, is organizing an international coalition of nomadic cinema collectives that, with their powers unified, will offer filmmakers a way to screen their work across the world without selling their rights to distributors, and while directly pocketing nearly all funds (except the nominal overhead of itinerant cinemas) accrued from suggested donation tickets sold internationally. In the history of film distribution, such organizing is unprecedented and will affect and frighten the industry. We have seen studios smother other budding distribution models that buck the mold. As when Columbia Pictures came aboard and sunk the release of Countdown at Kusini, a feature film that was fully financed and once primed to release in four-walled theaters through the vast community and resources of the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta. But there are movements today that know better than to accept a lending hand in a velvet glove.

Finally, we arrive at the title of this bulletin, Route Sharing, inspired by the spirit and structure of Sentient Art Film’s release of Lo Que Queda En El Camino, itself channeling the work of past radical film collectives and Third Cinema. This first part of the bulletin contains 3 conversations. The second part, releasing the week of July 17, will contain three writings.

It helps to have a semblance of direction in a time when even a founder of a private equity fund is crunching numbers and concluding, “Given that the current model isn’t working, the least risky, most reasonable step is to learn from real data and to experiment radically and boldly to yield an as-yet-unimagined model that just might.”—in other words, the least financially risky model is now the one that feels riskiest, or least known and least traveled. So I hope sharing these routes can make maneuvering the industry feel a little less aimless and treacherous. Even if just for a beat, before, like Jean-Marie Straub once said, the industry dies and cinema can finally begin.

--A.E. Hunt

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