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Microcinema Blues: What Happens When Corporations Sponsor Experimental Cinema?

The Mini Microcinema, in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine district, is perhaps the country’s only corporate-backed experimental microcinema. At least until today, when it has its final event in the subsidized pop-up location it has inhabited this summer. Screenings, at least for most citizens, have been held on the second floor of the former Globe Furniture building at 1805 Elm Street, a gorgeous structure that dates back to the 1890s. It sits across the street from Ohio’s oldest continually operating market. The first floor serves as a gallery and gathering space; adorned with old movie chairs, its white walls are covered with well-manicured posters for various programs that The Mini, as its supporters call it, has hosted in its inaugural season.

Over-the-Rhine, with the largest collection of Italianate architecture anywhere in America save Greenwich Village, has recently become a neighborhood of shiny boutiques and fancy restaurant-laden streets. The Globe Furniture building, along with many of the buildings near it, has been newly renovated at the behest of 3CDC, a private non-profit that is the constant target of the city’s gentrification critics, who bemoan the billion dollars of mostly private money that has gone into remaking the neighborhood to fit the imagination and sensibilities of the elite. James Pogue, writing in N+1, suggested that 3CDC has “the money to write the future” in this town where the job of city planning in the once riot-torn neighborhood just north of downtown has been largely taken over by corporate interests.

Sponsored by a grant from, and housed within, the property of The People’s Liberty, a self-described “philanthropic lab” that acquired the building from 3CDC and purports to bring together “civic-minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati,” the microcinema is really just a large room which was once a showcase for sofas and is now a glass-encased corporate headquarters. With a pulldown screen, some ineffective curtains to shutter its large windows and a hundred or so portable plastic chairs, the room is converted into a screening space.

The brainchild of C. Jacqueline Wood, a former staffer of the Ann Arbor Film Festival, one of the country’s premiere venues for avant-garde work, The Mini has some influential supporters. Eric Avner, the CEO of The People’s Liberty, has since 2008 been a Vice President of U.S. Bank’s Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation, one of the largest arts and culture-focused philanthropic organizations in the region. Their finger prints are all over almost every significant cultural institution in the city. They have clearly decided to put their resources, at least temporarily, behind experimental film exhibition.

This is surely unprecedented, at least in this town. Cincinnati, where I grew up and where I hope to continue making films, was once overflowing with cinemas, but by the time I came of age most of those had long closed. Even in its cinematic exhibition heyday, there was no place that catered to experimental movies; those types of pictures had rarely if ever reached the northern shores of the Ohio river, and when I shot my feature debut in parts of Over-the-Rhine, not far from The Mini five summers ago, the space was still pockmarked with blight and disinvestment. Although the 3CDC-powered Disneyification of the area was already underway then, The New York Times was typically obtuse when claiming Cincinnati was finding its “artsy swagger.” The city and the corporate proxies it had ceded authority to were in fact creating an environment in which a previous generation of low-rent gallery and exhibition spaces where one might encounter experimental film, such as Publico, would no longer exist.

Screenings at The Mini Microcinema this summer were free. So too were the popcorn, beer, wine and cookies that were served for a half hour before the screenings. I’d seen a lot of strange things in my days, but never experimental cinema hosted by major financial institutions. What, I wondered, could possibly come of this unlikeliest of partnerships?

The Mini Microcinema relied on outside curators for many of its screenings. Cincinnati-bred Film Comment columnist Nick Pinkerton unveiled a terrific program (“All Shook Down”) at The Mini that included several works, such as those of Scott Cummings and Terence Nance, which I have effusively praised in these very pages. University of Michigan professor Terri Sarris came to town a week later to screen a program dubbed “Screendance from the Fly-Over Zone” that focused on dance films from the region. It seemed, from the way she and Wood talked about the program, that part of its mission, and indeed that of the entire microcinema project, was to educate new audiences, people who had not been exposed to the aesthetics of experimental movies and would likely find them, given the conditioning of American television and mainstream film culture and our continued unwillingness to fund K-12 media literacy education, unreadable. To that end, after her thoughtful remarks, Sarris’ program began with a Maya Deren film, to give historical context to the development of dance filmmaking. The program then segued to more recent works. These included Lily Baldwin’s fantastic Juice Box Afternoon, which Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay found superb in a blog post last year, claiming that it was capable of “evoking not only the passive experience of reading but the imaginative flights literature unleashes in us.”

By the next time I visited the microcinema, the most talked about movie in Cincinnati was one none of us were allowed to see. The previous weekend, on July 19th, University of Cincinnati police officer Raymond Tensing shot and killed a motorist, Samuel DuBose, who he had pulled over because of a missing front license plate. The local prosecutor was withholding a body camera recording of the incident. Local news stations, in cahoots with the AP and The Cincinnati Enquirer, filed suit, claiming they, and by extension the citizenry, had a right to see the footage. Many, including some of the city’s most significant political players, were beginning to expect the worst. Cincinnati is a city prone to riots. Fourteen years ago, Over-the-Rhine’s streets had been consumed by the largest urban insurrection America has known in this young millennium, due to a rash of these types of violent episodes involving unarmed negro men and officers of the law.

While waiting for an ultimately underwhelming screening of Detroit-based experimental work at The Mini the following weekend, I discussed the DuBose affair with Peter van Hyning, a volunteer at the theater. While pouring me a glass of rosé, he went on about how he was withholding judgement on the matter until he could see the tape. If we ever had the chance. Censorship was in the air in more places than the prosecutor’s office.

Soon the screening started, and hackneyed Motor City experiments washed over us. One film late in the forgettable program, the most ambitious of the lot, focused its attention on the demolition and disrepair of various empty structures in Detroit interwoven with occasional tongue-in-cheek text detailing who or what we were seeing. The movie, like much of the program, strained for relevance, but what I do recall most from it was a wide shot that included a portion of Detroit’s skyline in the background left and in the midground right, a rooftop where a group of black men were congregated. The building that both they and the filmmaker were standing on was, we were led to believe, condemned. Two sets of text popped up at the top of the screening. “Detroit” with an arrow pointing toward the skyscrapers, appeared on screen left. “Gangbangers,” with an arrow pointing toward the young negroes congregated on the rooftop, appeared on screen right.

The three other black people besides yours truly who had come to the sparsely attended screening left during the Q&A. At the end of the talkback, Wood announced the screening to be held the following Tuesday, a program concerning the nearly 40-year effort to gentrify the very neighborhood The Mini was located in and curated by local documentarian and activist Erick Stoll, one of the key figures in New Left Media. It had attracted over 700 confirmed attendees according to Facebook. For The Mini’s biggest event yet, Wood planned to hold two screenings in the space which holds just 140, to accommodate at least a slightly larger portion of the demand. She then suggested that although gentrification was a hot-button topic in the city, the space she oversaw was one where the aesthetics of filmmaking were to be discussed, not their political content. “This isn’t the place to complain about 3CDC,” she said. No kidding; they used to own the building.

I was dumbfounded by this notion that the director of a cinema would tell her audience what they were allowed to discuss and not discuss in the space in advance of a screening. I spoke to Wood afterward and didn’t mention it; everyone was making nice. She was standing next to a local teacher and writer, Danielle Ervin, who also shared an interest in holding screenings and promoting film culture in the city. Ervin had a hand in a documentary film series that had taken root at a meeting space for young artists and activists, Chase Public; perhaps a partnership of some sort could be forged.

Before long however, three black pre-teens ambled up the stairs, into the space and began making their way around the room in some mixture of confusion and awe; just where the hell were they? I doubted they had ever seen an experimental microcinema. Wood’s attention drifted away from our conversation. She approached the children, who were somewhat aimlessly wandering around, and very brusquely told them that they were in a cinema and the screening was over before ushering them back down the stairs and out into the street. A man sitting at the desk on the first floor, gave them uninviting looks as they partook in some of the corporate-sponsored cookies that sat on a tray near the welcome desk. Following behind the spectacle in shock and shame, Ervin, who is white, and I made our way out in silence.

“Did you feel that?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

We were both upset about the disregard we had seen those children treated with, the presumption of their lack of innocence, the disinterest in “building new audiences” for experimental cinema that had clearly just been displayed. Ervin informed me that many in her local documentary and activist circles had given up on The Mini and said disparaging things about its proprietor and sponsors. Apparently Wood had offered a troubling anecdote at the space’s opening event. She had encountered a local family in front of the building who, after glimpsing the sign in front of The Mini, inquired about whether the neighborhood was getting a new movie theater. She told them that it was but it was one where they’d inevitably find the films “hoity toity.” You’d need advanced degrees, such as the one Wood holds from the University of Michigan, to understand them, she offered.

In the telling of Ervin and others, Wood went on to suggest during her opening comments that, in the wake of this encounter, she had decided to screen Aladdin for black Over-the-Rhine residents and their children like the family she had encountered. The insinuation was that such people couldn’t be expected to comprehend and engage with the work she planned to screen for the increasingly white, middle-to-upper-class Cincinnatians for whom Over-the-Rhine had recently become all the rage. Nothing like Light Industry’s recent program of radical black feminist shorts, Why Couldn’t She Have Two Lives?, would ever grace the screen at The Mini because experimental movies, in Wood’s mind, were ostensibly Stuff White People Like. When she did find some photogenic black children (and one lonely black mother) to invite into the space, she screened Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for them on the ground floor via flatscreen, not the cinema above. Let them eat cake!

The following Tuesday, the day before Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters finally unveiled the footage of DuBose’s murder, and the city’s streets were once again besieged with rage and state suppression, Stoll’s program drew crowds the Mini had never before seen. They had come because they were looking for a new ways of seeing and talking about what was happening all around them. Wood denied them that privilege, introducing the screening with the same call to refrain from criticism of or commentary about the organizations that were at the heart of Over-the-Rhine’s recent transformation and her cinema’s very existence. Stoll looked on grimly, before turning away from her, his head resting on the adjacent wall, arm wrapped around it as if to protect himself from the disrespect he, and his audience, were being shown. Surely Wood couldn’t have thought all those people had shown up to The Mini, which routinely hosted screenings for half-a-dozen people or less much of the summer, to discuss documentary aesthetics and movies as “cultural products.” Yet that’s exactly what she suggested conversation be limited to.

The movies were uniformly outstanding. The opener, Community Media Productions’ We Will Not Be Moved, provides some context for the current situation; efforts to push black and Appalachian residents out of Over-the-Rhine date back to the 1970s! The film consists only of stills of local residents and various Over-the-Rhine locales. Audio from remarkably candid interviews are overlaid on top of them. The testimony of local residents, mostly on fixed incomes, and the incoming development class that hoped to displace them, didn’t mince words back then; political correctness had yet to reign.  “The key really isn’t income, it isn’t even white or black, because I’ll tell you something, there are Appalachians in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati that are every bit as nasty as the blacks,” Aleman suggests in one interview. “He would buy houses because the people that lived in them were so wrong, so he would buy those buildings and throw them out,” a young Kathy Laker Schwab (nearly forty years later she now runs Local Initiative Support Corporation, ostensibly “the nation’s leading community development support organization”, and consults for 3CDC) says about Aleman, while driving through the neighborhood. “He didn’t purposefully buy buildings to throw people out,” adds Laker Schwab after a cool and genuine laugh, “I mean, there is something to be said for getting rid of people who just aren’t good for the neighborhood.”

Stoll’s own films anchored the program. Stoll and his collaborator Jerrod Welling-Cann’s work-in-progress documentary about the plight of former Over-the-Rhine convenience store owner and Karate Dojo operator Reginald Stroud followed a startlingly-edited short piece about the city’s Lumenocity festival, a semi-private end-of-summer light show that takes place in the same recently renovated park where police officers used to carelessly run over homeless women. In Stoll’s telling, the city’s new vision for the space (Private events! Corporate sponsors! Privatization of city services!) is more than troubling.

Despite this somber and somewhat incendiary program, there was some levity. Local artists Arthur Brum, Liz Cambron and Aalap Bommaraju truly had the last laugh. Their short experimental piece Pills seems to say, with great, penetrating humor, much about the compromised ethical position spaces like The Mini inhabit. Although Wood painfully admitted during the truncated post-screening Q&A that The Mini “was problematic, I guess,” the polite, city-planning term “gentrification” and its more sanguine cousins “urban renewal” and “revitalization” went unexamined in the galling talkback, one in which many of the filmmakers looked visibly strained. The ways in which we frame the creation and patronization of spaces such as The Mini, or the nearby Over-the-Rhine museum, a place where I can assure you We Will Not Be Moved will never screen, is actually what’s problematic. The museum and microcinema are dedicated to a different vision of the past and a future unburdened by the sins of the present so meaningfully documented in Stoll’s program. Pills suggests, with flourishes of hysterical candor that recall post-’68 Godard, the changing landscape of our inner cities, from Brooklyn to Birmingham, should really be called class warfare.

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