This July marks the two-year anniversary of Filmfront, a cine club and artists’ studio in Pilsen. Located at 1740 W. 18th (just a block and a half from the 18th Street Pink Line station), the space offers free screenings, reading groups, and art exhibitions. Filmfront will commemorate its second birthday with the release of a 24-page monograph called Film Food Footnotes. The book, according to cofounder and programmer Malia Haines-Stewart, combines production stills, research notes, and excerpts of film dialogue that relate to instances in movies where people discuss food. Over the course of the month Filmfront will host screenings of three films discussed in the monograph: Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s Sicilia! (1999), Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life (2006), and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930). As usual for the space, the screenings will be followed by audience discussions.
The postshow conversation is central to Filmfront’s mission, as it promotes community engagement with the work on display. “We want to make everything as accessible as possible,” Haines-Stewart explains. “Not that everything is going to be comfortable for people—they might hate the film, they might walk out. But we want people to be able to walk in and check out what we’re doing.” Filmfront was started with the goal of being “community-based, collaborative, and open to dialogue. And since we [the founders] love movies, we wanted the space to involve them. I thought this would be an interesting, nonconventional way to do that.”
Haines-Stewart says she discovered her passion for film-related discussions as a student at Sarah Lawrence College. It was there that she met cofounder Alan Medina, a Pilsen native. They came together in a film studies course taught by the late scholar and critic Gilberto Perez. Inspired by his Socratic teaching approach, they took several of his courses, learning not only how to watch movies but how to promote conversations about them. “[Perez]’s mode of teaching was casual and conversational in style,” Haines-Stewart notes. “One thing that I do frequently that he used to do is, after a screening, I’ll ask a relatively simple question just so people have the space to respond. So I’ll ask, ‘Who didn’t like the film?’ And this gets people to open up for various reasons.”
Haines-Stewart recognized that her experience was not universal. “Sarah Lawrence is a small school, a space for thinking and exploration, where you can figure out yourself and your approach to art. But it’s limited, because only people who can afford to go to Sarah Lawrence get to go there. So we wanted to re-create that feel in a space where anyone could come into it.” For this reason Haines-Stewart and Medina—who founded Filmfront with Alyx Christensen and Medina’s brother Rudy—wanted to make sure that all events were free and as inviting as possible. The two take pride in the fact that many of their regular attendees discovered the space by coming in off the street. (They also promote their events through Facebook, word of mouth, and a monthly e-mail newsletter.) “I think one of my favorite audience members was someone who came in after buying Chinese food across the street because he saw something being projected,” Medina says. “He just walked in. Now he comes consistently.”
The audience has grown over the last two years to include not just customers from the local Chinese take-out restaurant, but a number of local artists. Chicago-based filmmaker Michael Wawzenek (who also programmed for the Pilsen-based cine club Little House) has organized screenings at Filmfront. It was publisher Imani Jackson, founder of the new local press Conjugation, who approached the founders about creating a monograph. On July 10, another local artist, Hani Moustafa, will host a one-day workshop about film production for area middle-school students; Medina and Haines-Stewart hope that the workshop will be the first in an ongoing series. “We’d like to get younger people involved in working in the space and hopefully coming to screenings as well,” Haines-Stewart says. “We don’t get a lot of people under 20 at our screenings, but I’d like to see more of them and find out what they’re thinking about films.”
This hope is consistent with Filmfront’s guiding principle that everyone’s opinion matters when it comes to interpreting movies. “One of my favorite screenings we hosted happened last year in January,” Medina remembers. “We showed a couple of John Ford films, Fort Apache and Judge Priest. We wanted to assess whether people interpreted a racially motivated intent behind them. Some people were enraged [by the films]. I like that.” The heated debate, which included people who’d never seen any Ford films before, opened new avenues for discussing the director’s work. Medina and Haines-Stewart fondly recall similar experiences in presenting the work of Chantal Akerman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Abbas Kiarostami, directors they both cherish and want to share with new viewers. Later this year they hope to present a series of films by Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa.
To date the founders have no plan to make Filmfront a nonprofit organization. “We like that it’s an undefined space,” Haines-Stewart says, emphasizing the group’s mission to make Filmfront as many things to as many people as possible. Medina adds, “You don’t leave films with a fixed idea about them. You get ideas that keep resurfacing based on what you read and experience later. We weren’t looking to start an institution.” Yet Filmfront is becoming an institution for its regular attendees, who approach each new screening as a chance to broaden their understanding of film and their ability to discuss art in general.