Written by KJ Mohr
I never intended to be a film programmer. In fact, like most people, I had no idea what that was until I programmed my first film festival at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) in 1992. I grew up in Ripon, Wisconsin (pop. 7111, the Birthplace of the Republican Party), and my salvation in this tiny town was Ripon College, which offered lectures and concerts and other intellectually stimulating events, and the Ripon Public Library, which had all the requisite foreign and independent VHS tapes. Those films were my escape from small-town banality, and when I got to college in Madison, I continued that education, religiously attending screenings in the small art house theater on campus. One Friday night at a screening there during the first few weeks of my first semester, I overheard someone in the row in front of me talking about going to a meeting where they decided which films would be shown there. I asked him how I could get involved, and, a few days later, I went to my first meeting of the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) Film Committee. They were looking for volunteers to team up with Karin Wolf, who was putting together a festival of films by women directors and I signed up immediately. That opened a door to great filmmakers I’d never heard of or had access to before. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Cheryl Dunye, Su Friedrich, Camille Billops and others were making cutting-edge work unlike any I’d ever seen, and, through our programming research, Karin and I became disciples of Chicago media arts and activist organization Women in the Director’s Chair (WIDC) and traveled in a UW issued car to the film festival that year. Through the WIDC festival and touring programs, which we also worked to bring to UW, we were further introduced to the kinds of work we were craving to see.
A few years later I withdrew from school and followed my first love to San Francisco. The romance didn’t last, but I got a job at the Lumiere, a three-plex art house theater that allowed me free entrance to all the other theaters in the area, and that’s how I spent most of my time, sometimes seeing three films in a day (good practice for future scouting at film festivals). My coworkers at the Lumiere were an exciting group of filmmakers who introduced me to avant-garde film, and one of them, Timoleon Wilkins, encouraged me to pick up a camera myself. When I went home for Christmas that year, I got my parents’ super-8 camera and, with co-worker Rebecca Devlin, made my first super-8 film, BADASSASSIN’. It was a black and white film about a hired assassin, edited in camera, and we were pretty proud of it.
When I returned to the Midwest in fall of 1997 to finally finish college, I once again worked with Karin to bring the WIDC tour to campus. When I graduated in December, I thought it would be perfect timing to stick around the area for a few months and work as an intern on the 1998 WIDC Film Festival. Kelly Hayes, who Karin had introduced me to at WUD, invited me to stay with her and I went to work at WIDC, helping to prepare for the March festival. I remember being shocked at how shabby the WIDC offices were, what a grass-roots operation it was, far from my imaginings of a slick affluent non-profit. That was my first awakening to the reality of the inner-workings of film festivals and non-profit organizations in general, an important milestone, in retrospect. During those three months in Chicago preceding and through the WIDC festival I met so many amazing women, film professionals and community activists that I found it difficult to leave and go back to San Francisco. I was especially thriving under the tutelage of WIDC Programming Director Sabrina Craig and her socially minded approach to programming.
My burgeoning super-8 experience came in handy when, around this time, I started working on a film/video hybrid piece called ANNIE COMPLEX with fellow intern, Stacy Goldate. The idea came about when we discovered, over many hours of working on a bulk mailing in the WIDC office, that we’d both been obsessed with the child-stardom aspect of the musical and film Annie. The community we’d become a part of through WIDC came to serve as an integral part of this creative endeavor that was itself an enormous learning experience, in artistic collaboration more than anything. I ended up staying in Chicago for eight years, largely because of WIDC, where I first curated a salon series that Programming Director Sabrina entrusted me with and worked on the annual festival, serving on the programming committee and eventually joining the board and becoming Programming Director of the organization myself.
Once it became clear that I was going to stay in Chicago, I started volunteering at Reeling, the Chicago LGBT film festival and also working at the Music Box Theater, a large old art house. Through fellow WUD alumna and WIDC intern Amy Beste, I got a job in the marketing department at Facets Multimedia, and worked on promoting Facets’ distribution of Kieslowski’s Dekalog, a compilation of Barbara Hammer’s short films, four Harun Farocki titles, and Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany Pale Mother, as well as screenings in the Facets Cinematheque. During that time, Amy and I also curated a program of queer experimental Midwestern films for the innovative MIX Festival in New York, Heartland Homos!, a program which we subsequently toured extensively, and we went on to curate a second incarnation for MIX the next year, More Heartland Homos!.
In 2000 I had the opportunity to go to Brazil for several months, and there I sought out new film work from filmmakers for a WIDC series, taught English and did some translating work (I’d studied Portuguese and lived in São Paulo in college), and worked on a video with Kelly Hayes, who was in Rio writing her dissertation. It was based on a series of live performances I’d done back in Chicago and a character that loosely resembled Brazilian pop star Gal Costa. Kelly and I traveled all over Rio recording the performance live and gauging the reaction of our audience. The resulting video, MEU NOME É GAL, has since played at Anthology Film Archives in New York City, Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco and the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo, Brazil, among many other venues and festivals around the world, sometimes along with its companion piece I’M STRAIGHT, a black and white super-8 masculine counterpart to the colorful and hyper feminine video, GAL.
I returned to Chicago just in time to go to a week-long editing residency that Stacy and I had earned at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, thanks to a recommendation from WIDC friend, the extraordinary filmmaker and scholar, Yvonne Welbon. We spent a week completing our monster of a project, ANNIE COMPLEX (which had taken two years and many incarnations to complete), and went on to show that at festivals and other venues all over the place. That fall, Yvonne was producing Catherine Crouch’s feature film Stray Dogs, and they hired me to work on the film. It was my first time on a proper film set and it was a life-changing experience. I started out as a PA and ended up Art Director, and I’ve never had a job before or since where I learned so much or worked so hard. It also led to other creative endeavors. I subsequently produced Crouch’s Pretty Ladies and collaborated with DP MJ Rizk on some super 8 and video projects (and Rizk was the superb editor of GAL and I’M STRAIGHT).
In fall of 2001, thanks to Mickey Mahoney, another filmmaker I’d connected with through WIDC, I began working in the Film, Video and New Media Department (FVNM) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). There I met extraordinary artists, both faculty and students. A group of grads in the department had formed a microcinema called Discount Cinema, which they invited me to become a part of. With my co-producers Rhyne Piggott, Gabe Cyr, Chris Bravo and Kyle Harris, we put on nomadic and thematic screening events throughout Chicago. Over the course of several years, we drew great and loyal crowds and stimulated exciting conversation around the film and video work that we showcased. Around that time I started coordinating Conversations at the Edge, a weekly visiting artist series at the Gene Siskel Film Center and the brainchild of filmmaker and Department Chair Dan Eisenberg. Despite being tossed around through some restructuring hiccups at the school, Dan saw to it that I made my way back to the department and I became the Director of Public Programming in FVNM, bringing to SAIC such luminaries as Kenneth Anger, Zoe Beloff, Shari Frilot, Apichatpong Weerasathkul, Jennifer Mongomery and Bruce LaBruce. I also started teaching SAIC classes about alternative programming, distribution and exhibition with artist and Video Data Bank Distribution Manager, Dara Greenwald.
It was about this time that things started looking really bad for WIDC. A former Executive Director had kept important financial information from the board and had failed to pay employers’ taxes among other things, and the festival was in grave danger. By fall of 2003 the board had to lay-off all paid staff and the organization became entirely board-run. Despite an exciting fundraising event with Thirteen (and later Twilight) director Catherine Hardwicke in 2004 and a Festival opening night with Roger Ebert and Miranda July in 2005, it looked as though the organization did not have enough support to continue. We held several town hall meetings to get the word out and to try to muster support and ideas about how to make WIDC survive and thrive. But the response was underwhelming and the volunteer board was burned out after two years of pulling out all the tricks and trying to make it run on fumes. So in the fall of 2005, after 25 years as a key Chicago film institution, WIDC was shut down. Its legacy lives on in the collaborations and friendships that WIDC sparked, and WIDC’s singular archive of over 1000 titles of videos and films by and about women was given to Stanford University.
In the summer of 2005, I saw a call from the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC and I finally left Chicago, to become NMWA’s first full-time Film and Media Arts Programmer. I spent three years there, building a program that concentrated on trying to make indigenous DC communities feel welcome in the staid marble halls of NMWA in our transient and segregated national capital. These efforts included a monthly Sisters in Cinema series, based on the work of Yvonne Welbon, that celebrated women filmmakers of African descent and brought in ground-breaking filmmakers from across time and around the world, including Jesse Maple, Zeinabu irene Davis, Coquie Hughes, Camille Billops, Cheryl Dunye, Osvalde Lewat Hallade, Cauleen Smith, Kasi Lemmons and the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou and Euzhan Palcy. We also created workshops for kids and young people using super-8 (with Rebecca Devlin) and online media, for instance chapbooks (with Cheryl Coward). For a series I called Emerging Artists/Emerging Media, we brought in cutting-edge digital artists and worked with Embassies to bring to NMWA huge nighttime social events incorporating innovative media, like VJ/DJ with Finnish live cinema artist Solu and Spanish DJ Samantha Waldram. The job involved a lot of fun regular programming, too. For example, the challenge to come up with a film series to accompany an exhibition of women artists of the Italian Renaissance or Australian Aboriginal paintings. The tour de force of my tenure there was probably NMWA’s Festival of Film and Media Arts that I spearheaded in fall of 2007. In bringing together dozens of volunteers in various capacities, from programming committees to community collaborators to program note writers to DJ’s, it was something of an attempt to recreate the greatness of WIDC festivals past. Over the course of five days, we showed over a hundred amazing films by women, featured six installations in a gallery and had roaring parties to celebrate the work. Dozens of filmmakers came to town for the festival. Alas, a year later, with the beginning of the recession, the nascent Film and Media Arts Program was the first thing to leave NMWA, and me with it.
The suspension of the NMWA program was a huge blow, particularly following the extreme difficulty of dealing with the closure of WIDC just three years earlier. I couldn’t help but feel somehow personally connected to some sort of women’s film doom. But women’s media continues to be a major focus of my curatorial work, in addition to my focus on experimental work, documentary, LGBT directors and otherwise marginalized filmmakers. During a Goethe Institute fellowship for cultural workers in Berlin in January of 2009, I shared work with media curators and artists from around the globe. And in 2010, I served as Festival Manager for Outfest (the Los Angeles Lesbian and Gay Film Festival). During this time I have also presented programs at colleges and universities, such as a series of talks on experimental documentary at Syracuse University, presentations about women directors and about alternative media to classes at the University of Maryland, avant-garde cinema at Marymout College Manhattan, and a workshop on collaboration and filmmaking at Bangkok’s Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University. I’ve also been a consultant for filmmakers who need help getting their work out into the world, mostly dealing with festivals and art venues.
The most recent freelance curatorial project that I’m excited about has been for the Chicago Film Archive (CFA). When CFA invited me to curate a program, I got to delve into their 12,000+ title collection and create CFA Roadtrip: A North American Travelogue. The program features work ranging from educational films (selections from Castle Films from the 1940’s), industrial films (like a 1937 Ford Motor Company piece about Bryce Canyon), ethnographic works (such as the fascinating IN ESKIMO LAND from the Soucie Collection), and a lot of great home movie footage from the 1940’s-1960’s that creatively showcases travels to Cuba, the US south, Mexico and the American West. All but two of the films are silent, so I invited Chicago musician Kent Lambert to create a live soundtrack, a combination of an original electronic score and tracks selected by now Los Angeles-based filmmaker Timoleon Wilkins. The first presentation was at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago during a snow storm in December 2010.
In January 2011, I finally settled down again. I’m now the Director of Film and Video Programs at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore, curating regular screenings for the community arts organization, overseeing workshops and equipment rentals for Creative Alliance filmmakers and advocating for local filmmakers and media artists. This post is something of a return to my grassy community roots, the part of WIDC that I so loved. I am also the new Programmer for the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. I’m excited to be able to both grow my roots in my new home city of Baltimore and stay on top of the LGBT film scene with a job at one of the top queer film festivals in the country. If you leave yourself the freedom to follow it, you never know where the road will take you…
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