Notes from the Field: NO EVIL EYE CINEMA
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. For this edition, Matt speaks with Ingrid Raphael and Ruun Nuur, co-founders of NO EVIL EYE CINEMA.
NO EVIL EYE CINEMA is a nomadic micro-cinema that aims to redefine the creative and social parameters of film scene(s) by curating an eclectic mix of films and accessible educational workshops made for and by inclusive audiences. Since the launch in May 2019, they have toured their first programme, Sequence 01, in a variety of unique spaces and places including institutions, film festivals, underground theaters, and DIY organizations around the country. In June 2021, they launched Film Futura, an alternative satellite film school that takes a decolonizing approach to profiling the past, present, and future of film history, practice, and radical cinematic possibilities. The school ran online for seven weeks, connecting a team of forward thinking international film practitioners with an international cohort of students.
When did you form NO EVIL EYE and what sort of things were you thinking about when founding it? What sort of cultural or political conditions were you responding to, and what sort of needs were you hoping to meet?
Ruun: It started from a single phone call. Ingrid called me at the top of 2019 about an idea they had for exhibiting films. They thought a full festival would be a little too ambitious, but also too structured for a specific time and place. I thought something a little bit more free flowing would make more sense with what we were imagining, so we started shooting off ideas during that one phone call and it gave us a basis of what NO EVIL EYE CINEMA could become.
When we met up again at this French bistro here in Columbus, we basically came up with the entire structure of NO EVIL EYE CINEMA as it exists now. We came up with the name, the objectives of what the initiative would be, as well as our mission statement. We workshopped the manifesto that you can see now. Everything came from those two meetings. I think that really speaks to this deep desire that Ingrid and I had about curating a unique space, one that promotes physical interactions, one that is accessible, and one that is really tailored for people who have historically been marginalized within all aspects of the moving image. We also wanted to make something that was political without beating people over the head with it. Everything is political, so why not actually have that engagement within the work itself?
Ingrid: Another thing was that we felt really isolated as two people living in the Midwest. I wanted to talk about filmmaking and film form, but a lot of those conversations happen in metropolitan cities. So, being in the Midwest, there was just this sense of isolation. Ruun had her publication Sullywood and was also going to many film festivals, so she had experience of what the film industry was like, whereas I'm just an artist on the ground. I think combining our two worlds has helped our micro cinema to constantly evolve based on the needs of the audiences that we are attending to. When we toured our first shorts programme, all of the filmmakers were either folks who lived in the Midwest, or were non US Nationals, and they were all POC and Black folks. We were trying to include stories that people like us would like to see on screen.
That's kind of how it started out, but now, almost two years later and after Film Futura, we're finding that our community and audience has got much larger now. We're answering to people from all around the world so it's not just about representing folks in the Midwest.
How have you balanced that commitment to your local area with greater international reach? I presume you want to reach the whole world if you can, but maybe it is more difficult to speak to such a broad base all at once. How have you worked that out?
Ruun: I think that fits with the first line of our manifesto, which is the local is global. Ingrid pointed out that such an important part of NO EVIL EYE CINEMA was the fact that we felt isolated by the status quo of cinephilia. We really wanted to cater to people who also felt that way and make NO EVIL EYE CINEMA a home not only for us but also for them.
Film Futura was birthed from the fact that we all had the stay at home orders. NO EVIL EYE CINEMA was initially all about the physicality, about going to these locations, and making a space for people to actually meet each other, to speak, network, and build bonds that grow beyond what we had established. Obviously, when the pandemic happened we had a lot of ideas that we had to either put on pause or translate into a different shape. The reason why we are so thankful that we didn't give NO EVIL EYE CINEMA such strict definitions straight away was that it allowed for this nomadic micro cinema to transform into an online space. We created our own website and translated our mission to fit this online realm. I think it was very localized still, but also inherently International.
it's really important to state that Ingrid and I are also African immigrants from families of immigrants and refugees so it made sense that we would have a more international lens and a more diasporic gaze when it comes to curating spaces and building communities.
Ingrid: Our intention with Film Futura was to put on some amazing educational programming that we would love to see ourselves, and then watch what happens. We were incredibly floored by the response. We wanted to connect with people who themselves felt isolated within the cinephile space, and that's what happened. With Film Futura, people were able to bond through that common experience, whether they were based in the UK, Toronto, the Philippines, or Puerto Rico. There was this really nice sense of internationalism that happened because there were a lot of folks involved that don't live in the US or Europe who were able to talk about the struggles they were having locally with finding funding or with telling their stories. I think it allowed a dialogue to happen between what is going on elsewhere and what is going on here, which demonstrated perfectly that the local is global.
It seemed like it was incredibly well received. It was like it was something that people were calling out for, that they wanted but hadn't seen before. I suppose that also speaks to what you were saying about people being isolated or marginalized worldwide, as seeing something to congregate around can then be very powerful?
The other thing I wanted to ask about the foundation of NO EVIL EYE CINEMA was whether you think much has changed in the time since you founded the initiative? You said you still have the same manifesto and it's still pertinent and true, but you also mentioned some things, like the pandemic, that shifted your perspective on the need to be situated in a physical space?
Ingrid: We actually just updated our manifesto two weeks ago to better reflect this growth that we had never anticipated beyond our wildest dreams when founding NO EVIL EYE CINEMA. I think in that way something that has changed is maybe our relationship to the people we are working with. The responsibilities that we have to them have grown and deepened, which is something I'm really proud of and excited about. We’ve also been able to increase our team. This is a project that we need to cater to, and in order for it to be successful at scale, we need more people behind it. Developing team dynamics and a shared language has been a process that we've been working on over the past year and that we really want to continue in the future.
I also think the opportunity to do online activities would have not really come up prior to the pandemic, but now we're really looking at the possibilities of what this hybrid world looks like. Are people going to the theater? Do people want to congregate, and if so, what do workshops look like now? How do we exchange information in horizontal ways? It's not just practitioners in the film world who can come and teach something, it could also be the students too.
Ruun: I think the past two years of growth have given Ingrid and I space to pause and reflect around what the language around the micro cinema is and what can be adapted so that we can ensure that this growth is congruent to what we have been saying since the beginning.
Yeah, how do you grow while still honoring what you were? It must be difficult to bring new people in who haven't been with you over the last two years, and then have to ground them but not over explain things and still let them have a space to contribute.
Ingrid: I think that is what has been nice about us trying this form of horizontal power sharing and decision making. It's very difficult to find one person that you can build something with and everything remains good two years later. There are a lot of bad stories written about collaboration but we've always moved in a way that works for us. We have different tastes but they're still complementary to each other. It's been good bringing folks in too. A lot of our process has involved leading by example, having our new team members watch us in a space and see how we move, rather than telling them what to do. It is an ever-evolving process.
Ruun: When we brought new people onto the team, it was also reflective of what Ingrid and I always do when we go to a new space. We have the film screening and then we always host a link up workshop afterwards where we contextualize what NO EVIL EYE CINEMA is. We have to do that work of creating our own language within the space and making sure that everyone knows what NO EVIL EYE CINEMA is too. I’d rather spend all this time explaining to people what NO EVIL EYE CINEMA is than having a strict, set definition that we are then beholden to forever.
Yeah, it's interesting because whenever I've thought about launching something, I’ve always thought that it needs to be crystal clear what it is, or describable in a single line even. Now I'm realizing that if you do that, you have to live with the rigidity of that self-imposed limitation forever.
The other question I had about the foundation of NO EVIL EYE CINEMA was whether there were any inspirations that you had that informed the direction you wanted to take? Was there also things you wanted to avoid replicating?
Ruun: When we first came together, I wrote a document listing all these ideas and influences. I've always been inspired by the work of Ambulante Más Allá. I love what they did in terms of going into towns. democratizing cinematic resources, making videos with communities, and then taking that all on the road. It wasn't exploitation or extraction from communities, but rather this mutual exchange of knowledge and work.
Ingrid: I remember in the beginning we were sure that we didn’t want to be an exclusive space. One thing that we always wanted to let people know was that we are just in the room to offer a service to people. We're there to show some films and the attendees can then choose the direction that the conversation is going. We're facilitating, so sometimes we’ll jump in to raise political questions, but they’re in control of the situation.
Ruun: We also didn't want NO EVIL EYE CINEMA to be a hyper elitist, stuffy space. At some events, you walk in and it just sucks all the air out of you. Why are you at this screening? There's so many people who don't look like you. You just don't feel safe or seen there. That was one thing we definitely wanted to avoid, but I think the biggest thing was that we didn't want it to be this sort of private channel of networking where only a small number of people who all know each other are involved and able to to participate.
Ingrid: We wanted to democratize opportunities, and we’ll be launching a newsletter soon where we hope to be able to do that further.
As funding resources become scarce and as we learn the strategy of the industry at large, there's a lot of things that we want to continue. We want to collaborate with people who understand our political ethos, but also our personal way of moving through film and through people, which is with transparency, respect, and honesty.
How do you approach programming? Are you looking to bring works into alignment with each other or in contrast? What sort of filmmaking are you interested in supporting and how does that relate to some of the work you were just talking about in terms of making the space safe and inviting?
Ruun: I don't think we have an overarching mission when it comes to our programming, but again, I think it is very much parallel to the mission in general. I think the big thing for us in terms of film curating is having a mixed bag of emerging and established filmmakers. How can we as film viewers take all these different ways of seeing and storytelling made by people from various parts of the world and see a thorough line throughout all of them? I think the biggest thing for us in terms of curating is making sure that these films are not just in dialogue with each other, but in delicate communication. That was always our big thing: having a mixed bag of filmmakers and then making sure that, whatever the thematic model is, these films are still talking together and there is synergy between all the different projects.
Ingrid: Additionally, in terms of representation, both in terms of representation of filmmakers and representation of stories, we are very interested in films that take a non-traditional approach to storytelling. After Film Futura, I think we have new responsibilities to consider. We would like to see more Indigenous folks to the front, for one thing. We were also seeing lots of conversations about what is appropriate or good representation versus what is not. We also want to look towards people who are challenging the form and who are really exploring outside of this traditional space of what you may think film should look and sound like. I think we do a mix of art house, experimental, fiction, autobiographical, poetic, and melodic styles of filmmaking, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what our next sequence of shorts programming will be like next year and beyond.
Why is it important to you both that NO EVIL EYE CINEMA operates independently compared to being tethered to an institution or having a host venue?
Ruun: We have to be independent.
Ingrid: We have to be independent, but it's also very difficult to operate without money under capitalism.
Ruun: When we first started out, there was absolutely no funding behind NO EVIL EYE CINEMA. If you were to tell us then about how we have grown now, we would say you were lying. Thankfully, we have had some generous donations, but I think having some kind of independent spirit is paramount. If we ever felt like any part of NO EVIL EYE CINEMA had some kind of bottom line to it, someone crossing the T's and dotting the I’s, then that wouldn't work. We have to be free flowing. You have to have some kind of independence and we've been very lucky in that even when we have partnered with venues or institutions, or even when we’ve received grants, they have all seen our vision and they have supported that. I think that's really key. We can be independent and we can still get some support. It is possible. I would just say independence is paramount. I don't think NO EVIL EYE CINEMA could function if we felt like there was some kind of contractual obligation for our activities.
Ingrid: Honestly, I feel like that is the boundary between industry and independence. If you are answering to people who have their own agenda and their own idea of what they want you to do with your work, then you end up losing your project, you end up losing the force that you want to move through.
I think everybody you will have spoken to for this newsletter has probably already hit on that. It can be very difficult to sustain, especially when people expect you to grow and grow and not plateau, but then what does that look like when you are not the funding priority for that year. I think we have to be honest and have more conversations about what it takes to actually run these independent spaces we want to see, and about the kind of the invisible and sometimes unpaid labor that is required to create them. It's very important for people who have access to resources to fund these kinds of spaces because we're able to really dream up and beyond.
Ruun: When you don't have generational wealth or you're not benefiting from nepotism, or you’re from a more marginalized identity, or you have an organization with a mission that is not industrial or partnering with the status quo, being independent is like being set up to fail. There's no way that this work can be sustainable without falling victim to the powers that be.
I saw recently that Echo Park Film Club in Los Angeles recently closed down their doors and that was an organization that Ingrid and I always wanted to partner up with because it was more of a community space. They've been around for a while and so many emerging and independent voices have been through that space, but they had to shut down their venue because prices are high and I don't think they have those ties to the bigger grants that are needed to pay the rent in a place like LA. I've been sitting with that for the last couple of days and thinking about how it is almost like everything is designed to have these spaces fail.
Yeah, for sure. Sometimes it feels like there's like a shelf life on independence. You see so many places that have an initial burst of enthusiasm which gives them the motivation to not become exhausted for a while but they find that they can't sustain that over a longer time frame or when faced with unexpected circumstances.
Ingrid: I feel that collectively we want to see a different world where we these projects can be successful and grow and be plentiful and abundant and not have to compromise. It is an idealistic way to see things but I also think that if you don't put these kinds of energies or efforts into these spaces, whether they work or don't, then we will stall and be complacent.
I actually saw you wrote something about how with NO EVIL EYE CINEMA you wanted to create a “realistic yet utopian vision of cinema as a space of socio-political possibilities.” I wondered if you could speak to that because I thought that phrasing was really interesting because of the idea of the constant shift between the idea of a distant utopia and more immediate and realistic concerns.
Ruun: I think it fits exactly with what Ingrid was just saying. Ideally in the future NO EVIL EYE CINEMA is the complete norm. What we are creating in terms of our political ideologies, how we're organizing and building communal spaces with more horizontal ways of power sharing and transparency, these things will all be the norm. NO EVIL EYE CINEMA then doesn't really function in the way that it does now because we have this more utopian world that we're all working towards. So I think when it goes back to the phrasing of realistic and utopian, it's about trying to have something a little bit more hybrid. It is realistic because we are literally doing this work and people are showing up, so it is special, but in the future this will be completely average because everyone will be doing it.
Ingrid: The idea is also embedded in our programming. Some of the films we show have utopic elements, exploring worlds that aren't ours yet but we would love for them to be, but also have realistic elements that make us think about how we can apply what we see to what is actually going on right now. In the educational sphere, I feel this idea shows up by us having conversations about the realities of our current moment in terms of filmmaking, producing, writing etc, but we also have these utopic conversations about what we want to dream up. What do we want to see? Throw anything on the board. There's no wrong answers because in this space that we are building, anything is possible. If anything was truly possible, what would your film look like? That's a lot of this energy that we can bring to NO EVIL EYE CINEMA: this sense that while there may be limitations in the world, there are none here in this room.