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Route Sharing: A Cinematic Garden

Miko Revereza talks with the Echo Park Film Collective about Chance Encounters and Aesthetics in Collective Making and Eco-Processing

By Miko Revereza

Since its founding in 2002, the Echo Park Film Center has become an integral entity within the LA and international experimental film ecosystem, hosting screenings and art residencies of some of the most prominent celluloid-based filmmakers of the past 20 years. Despite this substantial track record, EPFC shows little concern with the prestige of industry and academia. Their mission has remained clear since day one: advocating for community-grown film culture. With accessibility set into their primary incentive of serving the communities that surround them, EPFC has taken a multitude of forms: microcinema, equipment and video rental shop, film school, artist residency, traveling “filmmobile” and “filmcycle” mobile cinemas, telecine and tape digitization service, filmmaker co-op, and hand processing/eco-processing film laboratory.

Among the hundreds of EPFC-produced media from workshops, classes, residencies, and commissions throughout the years, the particular youth class films The Sound We See: A Los Angeles City Symphony (2010), and This is The LA River (2008?) are considered classics of the archive and prime examples of EPFC’s filmmaking politics, diffusing the notion of authorship into a collective learning experience about each other's environment. Dust, scratches, watermarks, permanent markers, light leaks, and digital noise are no strangers to these images. They are the artifacts of films that display their collective economic means and have passed through many hands and projectors and wear signs of use over pristine preservation.

After closing its doors at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado (amidst the ongoing development of unaffordable commercial establishments that have uprooted the community they’ve sought to serve) EPFC evolved into a more nomadic format, planting the seeds of Echo Park's community film culture around the globe. We caught up across various time zones between Los Angeles and Sweden to chat about eco-processing, a long-running staple of their educational workshops.

It has been over 10 years since I first walked through those EPFC doors, entering that cinematic rabbit hole that forever changed how I see film. Throughout that journey, I’ve been welcomed as an artist-in-residence (where I made my first film DROGA!), a programmer, a teacher, and an operations manager. They are dear friends who I have not seen since the start of the pandemic.

Miko Revereza: I’ve been thinking of the community garden as a metaphor for the Echo Park Film Collective: it’s where people go to make a collective plant, or film, and the results are shared with the community. Can you talk about the idea of nourishment, in the sense of a garden, in the way that a cinema can nourish a community?

Andrew Kim: That’s a really nice framework for the work that EPFC has done and will continue to do. The way I think of any community art-making endeavor is as nexuses of information and knowledge. Learning is nourishment for the brain. The EPFC is a place that makes cinema accessible. And eco-processing is a part of that, in that you can acquire everything you need to process a roll of film more or less at a drug store down the street. Provided you have film and a camera, you can develop some images. What we’d like to do is dismantle the systems that prohibit creative expression.

Karissa Hahn: It seems to spark something that’s been laying dormant in people. When we project the film at the end I see them light up and realize it’s possible to do something like this as a group. Especially after the pandemic, it’s been nice to see people make friends as they go out to shoot the film together.

It’s so nice to have the process of sharing and creating a collective roll of film inside the camera [the group “edits” the roll in-camera]. It’s not separated shots, because then they’re screened together.

Kim: Analog filmmaking, because it’s harder, gives you these constraints that you can think of as drawbacks but also as creative opportunities. The reason we only shoot one roll of film is that it’s expensive. To do a workshop of 10 people and give them each a roll of film would be hundreds of dollars. Super 8 is the cheapest form of analog film.

It’s like $20 [a roll] right?

Kim: At this point, it’s more like $30.00

Man, prices have gone up.

Kim: I try not to talk about the money stuff in the class until the end so I don’t bum people out. Lisa talks about this a lot—the constraints lead to opportunities to collaborate or slow down. It’d be very different if we were teaching a filmmaking workshop in which everyone shot something on their iPhones.

Hahn: There are always people who [come to the workshop as] directors and want to learn how to be in charge. In collaborating and shooting with other people, they see how magical that is—being on the same horizontal power plane.

Kim: We live in the shadow of Hollywood, so a lot of the people who come to the workshop either have a creative interest in film or have film industry jobs. Some people say they’re doing it just to get out of their heads— “I want to do something tangentially related to the industry and learn how to do something myself.”

Lisa Marr: The difference between the workshops that are being hosted in LA and the workshops that Paolo and I generally teach outside of LA these days, in international contexts, is that we work with really little kids and absolute first-time filmmakers. A lot of them have never made any sort of film, especially no analog film. But the results are the same: there’s that sense of wonder and that sense of collaboration, that you’re growing a community. Eco-processing opens up that metaphor even more in that you’re literally using plants from the garden. There are various brews and recipes for these eco-developers. Part of our workshop is just going out to see what’s growing around us right now. What is this community producing? So it’s making us mindful of place, land, and seasons. It’s a different relationship with time.

Film is really the only art form that started with commercial profit in mind from the very beginning, unlike painting or dance, or anything else. The early inventors of film wanted to make money, and film was made to be replicable. The cameras have gotten smaller. It has been made to sell more. But if we take that process back, and we become not only the makers, but the post-production entity—developing our own films, showing our own films, and hopefully starting our own exhibition spaces—we’re growing the next generation of analog filmmakers when we simply pick up the camera and walk into the garden together.

It’s like a self-distribution model as well. I’m thinking of all the amazing DVDs of every youth class that EPFC has produced and the archive that is living on Vimeo of all these amazing films. Without having to go too deep into the details of it, could you speak about the basic photochemical processes that can be replaced by plant-based home ingredients?

Hahn: We use instant coffee, which contains this phenolic caffeic acid. Commercial developers use oil refining byproducts, so this is a much friendlier way to start this developer. There’s also potassium bromide, washing soda, citric acid…

The citric acid can be lemon or any kind of citrus?

Hahn: We use vitamin C powder.

Kim: We make a very simple black-and-white film developer that develops photographic film as a black-and-white negative. The first hour of the workshop is tech instruction, the second hour is 8-12 people going out to shoot the Super 8 roll collectively, which equates to about three and a half minutes of screen time, and in the last hour of the class, we make this developer and process that roll of film. We then screen the film at the end, which is where you see the lightbulbs go on. The roundtrip process is really gratifying. The image is negative, but Karissa takes that, transfers it to video, and sends that to the class a little later to actually see the image.

The only ingredient you can’t get at the drugstore is potassium bromide, which is not totally necessary. We throw that out at the end of the workshop. That’s flushable—it’s not going to hurt any fish downstream. We do use a Kodak product, a fixer, to make the film no longer light-sensitive, and that is a fairly bad chemical. But the good thing about that one is that it can be reused. Since we started doing these workshops regularly month to month, I made a gallon of this chemistry and we’re still using it after more than a year.

Hahn: And we don’t always flush the developer out at the end, sometimes we give it to friends, like Lisa, to reuse it again.

You can reuse the instant coffee developer?

Marr: Yeah. I think different people have different views on it. Some people only use it once and pitch it. For me, I don’t care what kind of chemistry I’m using, I want to get the maximum out of it because it’s still product you’re getting rid of. I made a Caffenol brew the other day and I’ve run four rolls of Super 8 through it and four rolls of still film. I’m not just running black and white film through there, I’m running color film through it. If you’re doing color developing, the first developer in a color development is a black-and-white developer. So, we get a lot of donated film at EPFC; that’s the nice thing about So-Cal, everyone seems like they’re in the biz or they’re an amateur photographer.

There’s a reason Hollywood is where Hollywood is. It’s because there’s a lot of sunshine. It’s also because Thomas Edison owned the rights to the early film cameras and would send guys to beat people up if they were using his equipment or crossing his patent, so people tried to get as far away from Thomas Edison and New Jersey as they could, and that was Los Angeles, California.

So people give us their old film. We’re reusing something that would be considered industrial detritus. I’ve used film that’s from the 80s and the 70s. If I’m processing color film in this way, I’m not going to get full-color image, but I’m going to get either a beautiful black-and-white image or, in the case of Kodachrome, reds and yellows using this Caffenol process.

Caffenol is the original. This recipe came out of a class at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the mid-90s, and this secret amazing discovery didn’t really filter out to the larger film community until about 2010. That’s when I learned it from a filmmaker named Robert Schaller, and then Dagie Brundert, a well known Super 8 filmmaker in Berlin, took that recipe further.

Caffenol is the most reliable recipe there is. It always has high contrast. But then Dagie started experimenting with things like red wine, lavender tea, Coca-Cola, vodka with chili pepper in it, and potato juice, and what she started to realize is that every single thing worked. It didn’t work as well as Caffenol maybe, and by well I mean, a high-contrast black-and-white image. And sometimes you want a softer image, a more mysterious look. Some things like dandelions, or stinging nettles, or jamaica, are amazing developers. What is the active ingredient? It’s the phenols that Karissa mentioned, it's the tannins [naturally occurring water-soluble polyphenols], it’s certain internal chemistry—like the hyacinth flower, which contains hydroxylamine. If you’re making chemistry from scratch, hydroxylamine is one of the elements. Just like we get aspirin from willow, we can get our cinematic medicine from plants. Different plants give us different medicines.

At one point, we actually taught the people from Kodak and PhotoKem how to do this process. The people from Kodak embraced it. Then they worked with some local brewers to make a Super 8 Beer—beer is a great developer—so they ran with that gimmick. Again, it’s the artists and the community teaching the industry how they can continue to value a product that would be easier for them to get rid of from a technical and commercial standpoint. I think they’d actually love to get rid of Super 8, but we’re showing that it’s still viable, meaningful, and a great way to make films for people who don’t have a lot of gear. You can still find the cameras relatively cheaply. They’re going up, but it’s all out there.

If we can continue to use it in these new ways, it blows people's minds—especially digital babies, who did not know you could hold a film in your hands or develop it yourself. The lightbulb goes off, and people are hooked. It warms my heart because I know that’s what’s going to keep this medium going. We have to evolve, and we have to move it into the future. But we’re also time-traveling to the past because the process really hasn’t changed since the 1890s; one step forward, one step back.

The first batch of jamaica that I made a while ago for this party was undrinkable because it was way too strong; I’m thinking now that it would have made a really good developer. [laughs]

Kim: Just like when one person tells another person a recipe, maybe someone adds something to the recipe and augments it. It’s really amazing how this knowledge can evolve, change, or get better, take detours. There’s a cool community of people who do this and continue to develop the original recipe. There’s a Caffenol Facebook group.

Marr: Dagie puts up every roll she develops, with the recipe, so that you can see exactly what she used and what it looks like. People are really sharing this technology. It's kind of like a chili cook off—everyone’s making their own chili and we’re all sampling. I can be pretty much anywhere in the world, and if I have some sort of problem, I can just get on that Facebook group and somebody around the world will answer me within about 10 minutes. If I have a question or have a great result I wanna share, they’ll celebrate with me; if I have a disaster, people will commiserate with me and tell me some options for next time. We are not the inventors of these processes—we have had many teachers. We continue to be educated and supported by the larger community. EPFC’s job is to pass that knowledge along in a way that’s accessible, fun, and inclusive. Demystify the process and welcome everyone into it.

I learn as much from the students. I’ve seen people who did not consider themselves artists, let alone creative. Those people have gone on to win awards at festivals. Their whole life changes. They become enamored with this medium; it was the perfect match. They just had to have that moment to meet Super 8, and then they’re off on their own path. We’ve all walked through those doors at EPFC looking for something. And when you need it, you find it. And where you take it is anyone’s guess to discover.

I’m definitely a changed person since walking into EPFC. You’ve been a big influence on my work. Can you guys talk about how the notion of experimental or avant-garde aesthetics is also transformed by what the community brings into it? And was it always easy to sell people on weird films? Along these lines, I think there’s a pattern of support that EPFC has given filmmakers, whether first-time or residents, for personal documentaries. Can you speak to nurturing people’s voices and personal stories? Sorry that’s kind of a lot of questions rolled into one. [laughs]

Kim: When I was in high school, I went to Chicago with my family and I bought one of those Diana cameras at Urban Outfitters, one of those plastic cameras. I knew it was cool, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I ended up finding this photo lab who said it was going to be $200.00 to develop a roll of film. And I said fuck that! I’m never doing this kind of photography. If I had walked into the EPFC then and Lisa or Paolo was there, my life would have been different. I would have learned the stuff that I know now ten years ago. What I’m trying to say is,this stuff is easy. And if you have even just a little support, you can unlock a lot of creative possibilities. It was just a matter of walking into the right door or landing on the right website to demystify these processes that are for whatever reason kept secret. It’s totally within my ability to make a film with just a little bit of ingenuity. It’s great to give people that little push to do whatever they want with it.

Marr: Paolo, from the very beginning, wanted to make a space for experimental film, yes, but also documentary film, and films that shone a light on social justice issues. You don’t always see those things sitting side by side. You can have a very intense political doc one night, and an extremely esoteric Japanese animation the next night. And you could say that the audience for these things should be the same. We should care about the same things. We should care about experimental film because we want to support creative expression in all that it can be, and we also need to care for our communities and nurture them, and hear their stories, because they all inform each other. It started for youth, but then there were classes for elders and adults. Why? Because people would come in and say, what about me? I wanna be a part of it. So how do we keep growing the circle in a way that’s meaningful? Experimental films can be scary. I know for a lot of people, it can make them feel stupid because they don’t know what they’re supposed to think.

When you’re showing experimental films on street corners, with the filmmobile, our school bus, or our filmcycle, a bicycle, and people wander into the night and stick around and have an opinion, and we’re all excited to hear that opinion—that’s how we kind of demystify these circles. Experimental film has been very white and very male for a very long time, and things are finally starting to change, and it makes for a much more interesting feast. We can all nourish ourselves from this garden. We need more voices, more cinematic tools in the hands of people who can’t afford to go to film school, or [afford] the fancy camera that someone is touting as the necessary tool to make your film. You don’t need any of that. The best camera is the camera you have. The best community to make that film is the community that’s around you. What that looks like is constantly being reinvented.

Within the EPFC ethos of accessibility, there is an aspect of play that is always encouraged and celebrated—the accidents, mistakes, and rolls going bad but still looking interesting. That’s all part of the sort of formal aesthetic of this ethos that it produces. Within that sense, there’s also the element of chance encounters—who do you have a workshop with? Who are you making a film with that’s a stranger who wanders through the doors? What community do you travel to and share this process with? There’s a lot of connection and an element of randomness that produces beautiful films. Can you speak more about the experiences of encountering people, and mistakes,in a formal, aesthetic sense and also an interpersonal sense?

Hahn: During the processing portion of the workshop I stress the importance of play and embracing the mistakes that occur, especially when I see people trying to document every little thing and [replicate it exactly]. Fortunately, the rolls have always turned out at the end. We did one workshop outdoors in the park, and the leaves from the trees were falling into the solution while we were mixing it, and it ended up making these beautiful little scratches on the film—and we always remember that film being this special day at the park with this certain group of people. It’s never the same workshop, and that’s because the people who come are always so unique.

Marr: It’s maybe our most important work, spreading that subversive message. Who cares about perfection? It’s about being in the moment, taking that flying leap, and embracing all possibilities, which includes failures, accidents, disasters… I’m not sure what people think is going to happen if we don’t do it right. And it carries into everything in our lives. If we keep our hearts and our minds open and we’re willing to take a chance, we open ourselves up to beautiful things. Just showing up to things, you are already good enough, shining by just being a part of it. We could be the Echo Park pie-making club—we could be anything! Cinema is a vehicle for getting these messages across that we are beautiful, creative beings and we are welcome to step into this realm whenever and however we choose. You can learn how to do any of this online. Who cares. It really doesn’t matter. It’s the moment of connection and collective storytelling. That’s all we’re doing. You’ve got it already within yourselves, and here’s just one more way to share it with the world.

Leaves falling into the developer and creating these scratches as opposed to sending a roll-off to a lab and going through this cloaked process that is abstracted from you personally. You just get images back. Or going through an electronic process of expectation—there’s a lens on one side, and I don’t know how it works, but there’s a screen on this side showing me the images…

Marr: And [those leaves] can never happen again. Each situation is unique and we can never be in this way again. To recognize those small marks of the moment…

There’s such a deep archive of projects at EPFC, and I was wondering if you can highlight some that are memorable films or from memorable workshops.

Kim: Miko and I were part of the Echo Park Sound We See You Happen 2013 or 2014. I feel quite fondly about a lot of the youth projects. This was well before my time, but the film about Sister Aimee is really special—the musical that you all produced, built sets, wrote music for…

Marr: Anything that was collaborative—the film about the LA River where the youth traveled from the headwaters right down to Long Beach, and there were activists and artists along the way, talking about the river and the origins project, which looked at pre-contact LA, and having Tongva people share their culture and realities with kids who are 11-14 years old. It’s the kind of stuff that changes your life, for those who are involved and those who see it.

Also, Andrew and Karissa had some of their earliest dates at the film center, and now they’re married. Miko, you walked in and partnered up with Andrew and that’s beautiful. I walked in and met Paolo. We’re all friends and we’ve all collaborated. It’s hard to separate works because they’re all interconnected in a way. To see kids that were students become teachers and filmmakers and choose a life of service through community arts education… We’ve given up the brick-and-mortar space at 1200 North Alvarado after 20 years of being there, but there are lots of things still happening in LA, Vancouver, Brooklyn, and here in Sweden. The family continues to grow and move around the world. Who knows what the end of the story is, but the films are still being made every month,every day.

Four eco-processing innovators

Dagie Brundert (eco-developers with fruit, flowers, liquids, and leaves)

Ricardo Leite (caffenol, eco-bleach)

Adrian Cousins (eco-color; expired film stocks)

General Treegan, aka Andrés Pardo (herbal developers, "simple caveman" developers)

Miko Revereza (b. 1988. Manila) is a filmmaker who makes personal documentaries among other things. His upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and current exile from the United States informs a relationship towards moving images. Revereza’s titles include DROGA!, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan, Distancing, El Lado Quieto and Nowhere Near. Revereza is listed as Filmmaker Magazine’s 2018 25 New Faces of Independent Cinema, a 2019 Flaherty Seminar featured filmmaker, MFA graduate at Bard College Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts and recipient of the 2021 Vilcek Prize in Filmmaking.

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