Malia Haines-Stewart

The curator

Cofounder of filmfront and Inga in Pilsen (a microcinema and specialized bookstore, respectively), Malia Haines-Stewart has sought to bring her preferred modes of inquiry to a wider audience. Influenced by her college professor Gilberto Perez, head of the film history department at Sarah Lawrence College from 1983 to 2015, Haines-Stewart endeavors to create spaces where people from all backgrounds and levels of knowledge can engage in discussion about the questions put forth by these media. She’s also the associate film programmer at the Block Cinema in the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, where she assists in curating free film screenings and related events. 

Interview by Kathleen Sachs

Photos by Oilvia Obineme

It’s time to reveal to Chicago that I’m actually a southern Californian. Please forgive me. I grew up in San Diego, and I grew up on the beach. I was a beachgoing kid and a moviegoing kid. I lived near La Paloma, which was a movie house from the 20s, a single-screen movie house. It’s still running, thankfully.

I promptly left San Diego when I was college age, went to New York, and pretty much looked nowhere else. I went to Sarah Lawrence. I started as a creative writing and philosophy major and then diverted myself to film. I think that was just because I found myself going to all the screenings after my classes were out. I was showing up for the screenings from other people’s classes, and eventually I started getting into the group of filmgoers and film studies students at Sarah Lawrence, which was pretty small, honestly, and similarly to philosophy, it was mainly men. 

As I was graduating I came up with this plan. It was all based in starting filmfront, which we hadn’t quite named at the time, but we had myself, Alan [Medina]—who’s obviously been my partner in all things creative and in life since the very beginning of filmfront—and we wanted to work with three other people who are also close collaborators and friends and family. 

It felt like in Chicago, what I understood of artists working here and people going to movies here, is that people genuinely collaborated more and there was space for that. And that really appealed to me. 

Initially it was going to be a multiuse arts space, with private studios and public [space] for anything public-facing that people wanted to do. The film screenings were the portion that Alan and I wanted to contribute. I was maybe one of the only people who didn’t identify as having an individual artistic practice, but I said that’s going to be my contribution to the multiuse arts space, to do these community-oriented, free film screenings. 

Malia Haines-Stewart and Alan Medina Credit: Olivia Obineme for Chicago Reader

Alan had grown up here, mainly, and so moving back here wasn’t too challenging. He knew Chicago so well . . . [and] I’d been visiting him and his family for holidays and stuff like that, in Pilsen, specifically, for a handful of years at that point. And we would always have trouble finding a place to go see movies when we were here. Finding something local in Pilsen was really challenging then. 

[Filmfront had been going for] about five years, 2015 to 2020, when the pandemic slowed us down, and it was also my first five years in Chicago, so it was definitely the time when I was building community, being part of the community that was already there . . . just kind of reaching into these relationships, developing partnerships year by year, and they would always happen really organically. 

When I look back on it, it’s so much a quilt of relationships and some of the most incredible times. Some of my greatest joys are found in conversation, in a room of people who are open and excited about something. I feel like cinema is the perfect medium for that, and it’s what we try to do: unassumingly open up space for people to share whatever they are thinking, to work together toward thinking through ideas, to challenge one another in a way that’s never based on someone’s credentials or how many films they’ve seen. None of that really matters. Or at least we tried in as many ways as we could to decenter that type of value system. 

One of the specific blessings to be able to work for the Block is that it’s a space that’s also based in valuing free film screenings, so a lot of the values between filmfront and the Block Museum were transferable, and I think that felt like a natural fit when I was moving into that space. 

I think there are relationships between books and movies. I also just love them both. It’s kind of where I found myself.

Malia Haines-Stewart

Inga’s another partnership with Alan, myself, and Jacob Lingdren, who is a close friend of ours and a collaborator—he’s done a filmfront screening and we’ve done books together before—but we owe that to the Chicago Art Book Fair. We met through mutual friends in publishing who said that we should check out each other’s tables, and we just started chatting it up. We ended up . . . talking about how incredible it was to see what the Chicago Art Book Fair could create in terms of interest and community and reflecting on the vibrancy of Chicago’s response to that. 

But then seeing how the books just come and go and how there’s no actual stable space throughout the year to go and see all these things or connect with all these publishers. That just seemed like a blatant shame, because there’s so much desire for it in Chicago. And there are so many people in Chicago producing books that are so cool and so interesting, and we imagined what the bookstore would look like. Since we already had filmfront as a space and had always seen it as a flexible space, we decided to move it in and started small and grew and grew. It’s still small, by many measures, but we have over a thousand books. 

We built all these relationships with small publishers, we found out how networks of distribution were happening or not working in their favor, and pretty much through those relationships amassed all these books, and then started positioning them in front of people in a way that felt a little unconventional, too, but was hopefully very open and accessible, so it wouldn’t feel like there’s anything exclusive about the art book world in the same way that filmfront has that desire to not have something exclusive about entering a film space, which can be intimidating for people. 

I’ve always seen that, if you’re not necessarily entering it from an academic background, if you’re not necessarily entering it from a hardcore cinephile background, or bibliophile background, then where’s the space that’s open to everyone else? And I guess I hope that both of the projects meet people in those areas. Pairing different models to hopefully support one another has always been something that we hope will work in supporting both but also to create dialogue across them. I think there are relationships between books and movies. I also just love them both. It’s kind of where I found myself. It’s not exclusively film related, but it’s definitely an interrelated journey. I’ve worked at many bookstores . . . books and film have always been my nodes of career. 

I see now, having had a certain number of years under my belt of living in the city, of knowing what I know about filmgoing, about community gathering around different types of art, and how I see these amazing layers of the film community in the exhibition spaces but also the artists producing work and then the people who are just insatiably excited about all that happens here, all that compounds to make this really rich soil that we exist in. So much could happen in Chicago and so much could happen potentially in this space.

Credit: Olivia Obineme for Chicago Reader