At first glance, Filmfront may appear to be a microcinema. Located in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood just off the 18th station on the Pink Line, this venue offers free screenings of films throughout the year, yet its interest lies far beyond mere exhibition. Founded by four young artists who serve as the theater’s programmers, Filmfront is a “cine-club” that champions the communal experience of post-screening analysis.
“We didn’t want to be perceived as a space for people to just watch a movie and then leave,” said co-founder Alyx Christensen. “Conversation is a really big part of this space for all of us.”
Alyx and her partner, Rudy Medina, worked on fixing up the space, which formerly housed a hair salon, after renting it in October 2014. Rudy’s brother, Alan, was attending school in New York with Malia Haines-Stewart, and they both found that their most meaningful conversations about cinema took place in classrooms or through encounters with friends after screenings. Alan and Malia learned how to open these discussions in ways that were casual yet meaningful, courtesy of their teacher, Gilberto Perez.
Since this sort of interaction was largely lacking from the exhibition spaces they attended, they felt inspired to create a space of their own in which discussion was an essential part of the experience. After moving to Chicago last year, Alan and Malia joined Alyx and Rudy in getting the space ready for its first public program last June entitled, “In a New Light,” which was dedicated to expanding notions of fiction and nonfiction in the movies.
Rudy and Alan grew up in Pilsen, and felt that the area was an ideal place for a cine-club. With gentrification an ever-present issue in the diverse community, Rudy believes that the conversations at Filmfront can often be influenced by what’s unfolding on the streets outside. The location provides Rudy and his fellow programmers with a place to work on independent arts projects as well as hold screenings, and since each of the public events are free, attendance has never been scarce. Both Rudy and Alyx consider themselves outsiders in the world of film, and have been amazed by the “revelations” they have experienced during various programs. Rudy was particularly struck by the ideas explored by avant-garde maestro Fern Silva, whose work was showcased at Little House, a Pilsen microcinema run by Michael Wawzenek that closed last month after the renters moved out of the space.
“I’ve considered these ideas in some abstract world of thought, but sometimes films can open up whole new perspectives on them,” said Rudy.
Alyx fondly recalls renting the foreign movies from Blockbuster and watching them with friends in her youth. She loves to discover the work of filmmakers who she hadn’t heard of before, such as Hong Sang-soo or Kenji Mizoguchi, both of whom were highly recommended by Malia. Alan was recently impressed by Jia Zhanke’s “Still Life,” and cited it as the sort of picture that motivates him to embark on a project like Filmfront. Though the spirit of the programmers fill the space with a genial and inviting atmosphere, contentious topics are never shied away from in the discourse that follows.
“When you start mixing all these different forms, you occasionally get some angry responses,” said Alan. “But it’s good because you can’t leave here angry. You have to talk it out.”
One of the most memorable conversations at Filmfront took place after a screening of John Ford’s relatively obscure 1934 film, “Judge Priest.” Will Rogers stars as the titular judge, a Confederate veteran who defends a black man (Stepin Fetchit) accused of stealing chickens. Though the two men become friends, Fetchit ends up as a servant in Rogers’ house, working alongside his maid (played by—who else?—Hattie McDaniel). The picture ends with everyone breaking out into a dixie tune that reaffirms their nostalgia for the bygone Confederacy.
“When you watch a film like that in a room of this size, you can sense the unease,” said Rudy.
Though the film provoked some enraged responses from audience members, Malia finds tremendous worth in screening a film like this, and not just because Ford is one of her favorite filmmakers. Young cinephiles have often dismissed the work of a director like Ford for not being politically correct, yet his portrayal of antiquated roles based in racism and inequality expresses a great deal about American culture. If nothing else, interesting conversations were spawned by the film, which Malia found much more rewarding than a unanimous thumbs up from viewers.
“It’s a film made in the 1930s about the 1890s and we’re watching it in 2016,” said Malia. “These are levels of history and time that you have to consider and that are important in different ways.”
Though the venue has yet to purchase a lens adapter that would allow for film projection, Malia argues that there are considerable benefits to the digital projection offered at Filmfront. Little House focused exclusively on screening 16mm prints, and had partnered with Filmfront to program work that could only be shown digitally.
“There are so many spaces that are vehemently and passionately anti-digital,” said Malia. “Some people have politely withdrawn their interest in Filmfront upon realizing that we’re not a film space. There’s a lot of pretension around medium, and though I’m also a sucker for the magic of celluloid, I believe that digital projection opens us up to many more options in terms of what we can show.”
Another strength of Filmfront is the exquisite quality of its sound, which has earned acclaim from various filmmakers who have had their work screened there. Yet the highest praise of all has been the continuous stream of faces—both familiar and fresh—that have shown up for every screening and stuck around for the discussion afterward.
“We’re a year in and we still have screenings with all new people that we’ve never seen before,” said Alyx. “One of the most pleasant surprises for us has been the amount of people who are really hungry and excited for things like this to exist and are ready to support it in any way they can.”
All forms of cinema are welcome at Filmfront—from the innovative works of such masters as Chantal Ackerman, Bruno Dumont, Abbas Kiarostami and Fritz Lang, to the film and video gems from Chicago-based artists showcased in the series, Ripe Leeks. The programmers are always open to screening work recommended by the public, and some of the most audacious events occurred as a result of chance encounters with artists in attendance. That would include the local musicians who performed an improvised synth set as a live accompaniment to F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.” Equally magical was the cook-out that occurred last summer as a film by Palme d’Or-winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul was projected outdoors.
“There was one point in the film where there were fireflies onscreen at the same time they were surrounding us,” recalled Alan.
As far as Filmfront’s plans for the future are concerned, the sky is the limit. The programmers have purchased an in-house printer than would enable them to create their own books of film analysis, some of which may be comprised of transcribed discussions from past events. This would allow each conversation to extend far beyond the space itself.
“We’ve been talking about ways of programming altogether and changing the expectations in order to make each screening more meaningful or exciting, so it’s not just a fleeting experience,” said Malia.
If there is one thing Filmfront is assuredly guaranteed not to provide, it is a fleeting experience.