Size Matters:
Microcinemas and Alternative Exhibition Spaces

Scott Berry

Printed in MFJ No. 41 (Fall 2003) Lesbian and Gay Experimental Cinema/Stan Brakhage Remembrances


How many independent or experimental queer films did you see this year? Where did you view them? Is there currently greater availability of such projects than in the past? Are the current modes of exhibition allowing independent queer film and videomakers substantial screening opportunities? This article attempts to address these questions by exploring a variety of potentials for exhibition of queer independent film and video. The issues I’m most interested in as a filmmaker and curator are: What kinds of venues are currently exhibiting experimental queer films and videos? What models for exhibition exist either to be replicated and strengthened or shattered? How successful are the “mainstream” LGBT festivals at including such films and how do experimental festivals and microcinemas compare? Are these smaller and fiercely independent venues accessible? Above all, I hope this piece is practical: in these few pages, I hope to shed a bit of light on the strengths and weaknesses of screening opportunities for queer filmmakers who are struggling to get their films seen.

I will look at a variety of exhibitors, from a microcinema in a Greenwich Village apartment to larger and more established LGBT film festivals, such as MIX: the New York Lesbian/Gay Experimental Film and Video Festival, and experimental film festivals in Europe and Canada. While I hope to draw some preliminary conclusions about current exhibition opportunities, this is hardly an exhaustive survey of each and every festival. The reader should use the resources at the end of this piece to investigate opportunities for screening and starting his or her own microcinema. Please write to me at with your ideas about anything I’ve written about and/or missed in the process. For the sake of definitions: by experimental or independent I am focusing on short works (as opposed to features) that are produced independently, without commercial or broadcast funding, and films and videos that are handmade, selffunded, small-gauge, low or no-budget, and distinctly non-narrative. We’ll start with the beasts and move forward to the basements.... ready?

While there are hundreds of Lesbian and Gay film festivals worldwide, very few focus on short and/or experimental work. These “mainstream” festivals usually showcase feature films that reaffirm how good it is to be “gay.” Stories that mirror the love, romance, thriller, horror, fill-in-the-blank genres showing at the corner multiplex, only with gay characters—sometimes lesbians, but very rarely. These festivals have become behemoths which only reinforce binaries of gender and sexuality in a minority community that is much more complex than LGBT (most such festivals don’t even include the B or the T in their names, but most do in their mission statements.) Many of these large festivals such as Frameline in San Francisco, Outfest in Los Angeles, The New Festival in New York, and Inside Out in Toronto have been around since the 80s and have grown substantially since their inceptions.

With their growth in size has come parallel growth in budgets, staff, and the subsequent necessity to meet the bottom line through ticket sales. The (unfortunate) reality is that experimental shorts programs don’t sell tickets in the same way that romantic features do. While this is the sad economics of film presentation, what it means for these big festivals is that shorts are now guaranteed to be marginalized where they used to be the centerpiece. Fifteen years ago there weren’t budgets for queer feature films that are now churned out since the rise of the so-called “new queer cinema” of the early 90s. Instead of dedicating space for shorts, these festivals depreciate them in favor of appeasing the studios and productions that offer financial support to the festival for premiering their latest feature. To be fair, some of these festivals are better than others when it comes to presenting short and experimental works. Inside Out, held each May in Toronto, shows a large number of local and Canadian short films (due to government funding mandates) and these often include experimental works. However, they are often programmed at inopportune hours, and since two programs are usually presented at the same time, scheduling conflicts often prohibit more attendees from viewing these programs.

Perhaps the most egregious festival when it comes to presenting shorts is New York’s The New Festival, held each June in Manhattan. One of the more irritating programming decisions they make is to schedule experimental shorts programs by GENDER: “girls shorts turn left, boys shorts turn right!” The New Festival has, in the past, even gone one step further, scheduling these gendered programs at the exact same time! Incroyable. This is obviously a case of lazy programming and of segregation by gender. Each year the New Festival shows more features and fewer shorts, so be forewarned. Beware also of the fees involved. Most festivals charge submission fees between 15 and 25 US dollars per piece submitted and rarely pay a screening fee. If you use a distributor, you may receive an honorarium, but for those self-distributing their own works, it is difficult to get these festivals to do the right thing and pay a proper fee for showing your film. While these big-budgeted machines should pay more attention to the smaller films and videos that come their way each year, they are by and large stuck with the financial necessity of filling seats. Indeed, it’s possible to find small gems at such excessive fests, but things are more fertile around the corner with smaller folks who do right by prioritizing short film and video and who curate such work more creatively.

The MIX Festival is New York City’s oldest queer film festival. Its first venture took place in 1987 when filmmaker Jim Hubbard and writer Sarah Schulman wanted a venue to show films they loved (and made!) that weren’t getting screened anywhere else. Highlighting films ignored by experimental stalwarts such as Anthology Film Archives, the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival, as it was first known, started a trend: a festival that showcased new and emerging filmmakers alongside their queer foremothers and fathers.

Now in its 17th year—and presented at Anthology Film Archives!—MIX has matured into a festival that isn’t afraid to show young film and video makers, dig into vaults to present forgotten classics, continually show work about AIDS, present installations, and strive to push the boundaries of what is thought of as queer and/or experimental moving images. MIX has also spawned two sister-festivals: in 1993, MIX BRASIL launched the first gay and lesbian film festival in Brazil; and in 1997, MIX Mexico did the same for Mexico City. MIX continues to be vital because it emphasizes young makers, almost exclusively shows short works—although in recent years it has shown an increasing number of features—and is open to guest programmers. MIX has evolved over the years. The November 2002 festival included 29 programs, two presentations, and—for the first time—a pre-festival launch screening. Attending screenings at MIX is always inspiring; they cram over 150 very recent shorts into just over four days. There is a real sense of community at MIX: filmmakers such as Barbara Hammer, Tom Chomont, and Marguerite Paris show up year after year to support this unique gathering. Where else can you see a program about “size, fatness and queer bodies,” followed by a program of shorts interrogating gender and sexual identities, followed by a collection of hand-made films? While they have increasingly shown more international works and consistently feature guestcurated programs, there are some developments that make me nervous. A recent program of “new Dutch cinema” is falling prey to simple—and far too common—programming by region; and MIX is showing more and more feature-length works, many of which are experimental, but this takes away space for shorts, which have always been the primary focus. As a whole, MIX is an extremely motivating and always stimulating experience, but I often wish the individual programs themselves were curated more tightly. I also would like MIX to take a cue from some of the European festivals and create more opportunities to dialogue and interact outside of the screenings. Partly because of space constraints in lower Manhattan and the venue they use (Anthology Film Archives has no cafe), MIX attendees would benefit greatly if they had a nearby gathering spot. I hope that MIX continues to be vibrant and inspirational and spawn sister festivals far and wide. Among other distinctions, MIX is the only queer festival that not only exhibits but commissions super-8mm film.

While there are a plethora of festivals identified as queer or LGBT, consider prioritizing the queering of festivals and events that are organized around showing avant-garde, experimental, and/or underground films as these organizations tend to show mostly short works. On the experimental festival front, there are plenty of places to get your film shown that aren’t queer-oriented, but are open to showing experimental films made by or about queers. Each April the Images Festival in Toronto frequently programs such work, either in queer-themed programs or included in one of over twenty programs of shorts. In recent years they have pulled off a coup with closing-night queer programs that successfully combined commissioned new pieces and live components that packed the theater and tore up the house. Art Dyke 2001 and Art Fag 2000 brought together about a dozen local participants to shoot one roll of super-8 film edited in camera and presented each maker with various beauty pageant presentations to accentuate their celluloid creations. Images is a festival packed with screenings, installations, live performances, and symposia, and is the largest independent media festival in Canada. Most importantly, they pay screening fees for all works shown.

Also in Toronto, the year-round, collectively-programmed Pleasure Dome has been screening experimental film and performance for over ten years in a variety of non-cinematic venues, mostly the lovely Cinecycle carriage house, which doubles as a bicycle repair shop. Pleasure Dome represents a swell intersection of micro-cinema aesthetics and a small budget festival. While not queer by definition, Pleasure Dome consistently programs queer independent works either in group programs on a variety of unique themes, or solo shows. They accept film submissions year round and curatorial proposals from anyone who’d like to put together a show. Nicely egalitarian and eclectic, Pleasure Dome’s major fault remains its irregular screening schedule, although they do partner with a variety of festivals, such as the Super-8 Splice This! (in June) and Reel Asian (in November).

On the opposite coast, Vancouver, British Columbia’s Anti- Matter festival is “anti-censorship and anti-Hollywood” and shows short works in a variety of non-cinema venues each September. It is indeed possible to remain resolutely independent and still receive funding to exhibit non-commercial short films and videos (sadly, not in every country). Funding is nowhere near as strong in Canada as it is in Europe, where a plethora of alternative festivals exist solely to support short and/or experimental image making. The Impakt Festival held each fall in Utrecht, the Netherlands is a compact five-day whirlwind of tightly organized shorts programs, live performances, a cafe and a “couch-club”: an evening presentation and discussion each day for artists and audience to interact. This is such a strength: Impakt prioritizes dialogues and insists on physical space for regular rendezvous.

What better way to avoid leaving the screenings in silence. Similarly, at the Oberhausen Festival in Germany, held each May, the short film takes the center— and only—stage. Oberhausen is also very focussed on curating. They choose a variety of themes and welcome guest programmers to put together international shorts, with an emphasis, like Impakt, on showcasing work made in the host country. Both Impakt and Oberhausen program queer work into mixed programs. They aren’t self-identified queer festivals and do not curate programs as “queer” but tend to show a good number of experimental works by queer makers. These festivals are much better funded than counterparts elsewhere. They usually receive funding from multiple governmental sources as well as from private donors. As a result, they pay solid screening fees and support a strong staff accessible to any artist who desires more information about the selection process, curatorial guidelines, or hospitality. These independent and experimental festivals usually maintain staff year round as well as websites from past festivals so you can glean more information about the kinds of pieces they present. Suggest a program, send a tape, volunteer, you never know what may transpire, but they will definitely inspire, and as opposed to the LGBT festivals, they remain focused on short, experimental, and independent moving images.

Fortunately there also exists a growing number of microcinemas: basements, community centers, performance spaces, art collectives, living rooms, outdoor spots, back room bars and exploding cinemas that keep the underground alive. These venues are mostly NOT queer by definition, but most show work by queers either in uniquely “queer” programs, or by including them in various shorts collections. Keep in mind when communicating with these trailblazers that most work day jobs and do this as a labor of love. They are usually run by a small number of folks volunteering their time for their passion, so reach out early, often, and sweetly. The website is a great hub of information on this burgeoning network as it lists a roadmap of microcinemas and is even more useful for independent makers as they are also distributing short works and getting programs of films around to various venues as a means of encouraging both production AND exhibition.

Most micro-cinemas screen monthly or on an irregular schedule. Some like Boston’s Balagan at Coolidge Corner Cinema screen twice a month. While they have featured betterknown makers, such as Elisabeth Subrin, Abigail Child, Sadie Benning, Luther Price, and Matthias Muller, they haven’t done a distinctly “queer” program as such. This was the response I received from most of the micro-cinemas I sent questionnaires to: they occasionally or often showed queer makers and/or queer shorts, but do not program ‘queerly’ or look to such categories as a guide to what they show. Other Cinema in San Francisco, presented by Craig Baldwin at Artists Television Access, mentioned a bevy of queer makers that have been shown in their 20+ year history in “Sodom by the Sea,” but made a point that queerness isn’t a factor in their curating. 911 Media Center in Seattle programs weekly in their production facilities and often partners with other organizations when presenting queer films. Basement Films in Albuquerque, New Mexico has been screening monthly as a “mobile venue” in various locations for over 10 years. They usually host touring film and video makers and otherwise put together eclectic programs of shorts from submissions received.

Perhaps the most interesting micro-cinema configuration takes place most Wednesdays in Stephen Kent Jusick’s Greenwich Village apartment. While it’s seen as queer, the reality is that most weeks CineSalon shows non-queer works to a very queer audience. The whole shebang evolved by accident. He was doing research while friends dropped by, and they pushed him to share historical documentaries on homosexuality with others. In two years CineSalon has become quite a popular stop for locals and guest artists. Visiting makers, such as Carl Michael George, Lee Krist, and Ghen Zando-Dennis have all stopped by to share films, food, and frolic. And it’s all free!—although donations of time or money toward food are gladly accepted.

Jusick and I collaborated on a previous project, Brooklyn Babylon Cinema, which ran monthly for two years at Dumba, a queer collective art space near the Navy Yard. Like CineSalon, the BBC (yes, it was an accident!) was run without a budget. We paid guests off at the door in true do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion. We really wanted to fill voids that other cinemas AND micro-cinemas were missing: queer, young, political, short. For example, The Robert Beck Memorial Cinema on the Lower East Side of Manhattan has presented a weekly screening in a storefront performance space for five years now. Although it has shown an incredible number of innovative and resolutely independent makers over the years, it has largely seemed hesitant to program queer work.

After successfully—and barely—pulling off a 12-hour queer film screening at Dumba with a lot of help, we soon decided we wanted a more regular venue for the films we liked and to bring in guests to screen and curate; and we weren’t afraid to show any formats. Like most small collectives we were always scraping by and doing numerous projects at once, so publicity would sometimes be last minute. We always provided food and beverages for a donation, and always encouraged folks to stick around and chat, which would sometimes lead to rescreening films late into the night. We were influenced by the London Exploding Cinema collective, who have been running a DIY microcinema for over ten years, with “no stars no funding no taste” as their rally cry. Central to their manifesto is that articulate, vibrant, political cinema exists WHOLLY outside the maintream film production environment and should continue to do so. But as in most cities, there is a dearth of venues showing low budget, small gauge, independent, radical, underground film so they started one themselves and have spawned countless similar ventures. Their site is worth a visit and includes plenty of information about how to start your own micro-cinema.

As these spaces are truly community-based incubators for dialogue, skill-sharing, and interaction, I hope that the microcinema movement continues to multiply around the world.

For the festivals, my hope is for a continued commitment on their part, whether identified as queer or LGBT, not to remain static spaces relying on often redundant and homogenous notions of queer, but rather commit themselves to facilitating ongoing dialogue that ensures that “queer” remains an active and changing space, always complex and never fixed to confining labels. Queer can continue to be a form of political defiance not limited simply to ideas of gender and sexuality.