The Echo Park Film Center: Microcinemas, Production Subcultures, and the Politics of Urban Space

Jasmine Nadua Trice

The public cinemagoing cultures specific to Los Angeles are often imagined along a spectrum, from urban and suburban multiplexes, to movie palaces converted into art house cinemas, to screenings at the LA County Museum of Art, or UCLA’s Hammer Museum. But the city also has a long history of experimental cinema; for these production subcultures, microcinemas have played a significant role, operating in purposeful opposition to their more mainstream counterparts. Often, they are intimately connected to the geography of the city— invested in local arts communities, while also welcoming translocal flows of artists, work, organizations, and audiences. 

 

Situated at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado in Echo Park, a predominantly Latino community in northeastern Los Angeles, the Echo Park Film Center (EPFC) is one such site. The Echo Park area was not new to film when the Center opened in 2001; silent film comic Mack Sennett opened Keystone Studios there in 1912. It later became a largely Latino, working-class space, before artists and “hipsters” began to move in over the past decade and a half. Over the course of these transitions, the Film Center has operated as a microcinema and community space, running screenings, workshops, and other film events. Microcinemas exist in dialectical tension with both commercially oriented, mainstream exhibition venues (e.g., the multiplex) and more institutionalized, capital-intensive spaces of art cinema circulation (e.g., museums, art house cinemas). They are defined by their small scale and ad hoc, “DIY” ethos. The EPFC’s longevity is unusual for art/film spaces like this, which are often characterized by their brief lifespans and peripheral status in the city. In the case of the EPFC, this longevity has allowed the center to bear witness to processes of urban transition that it is both implicated in and oppositional towards.

 

In this essay, I consider reflexive discourse about the EPFC’s history as a microcinema space. In this way, the term “production subculture” becomes an adaptation of what John Caldwell calls “production culture” in his ethnographic work on “industrial reflexivity.”[1] Analyzing the below-the-line workers in the Hollywood media industry, Caldwell argues that “production talk” works as “cultural sense-making and self-ethnography.”[2] Experimental and community media productions also operate as cultures, forming shared norms, values, and senses of history. For these production subcultures, the spaces of film circulation become particularly important, acting as hubs for both production and consumption. Moreover, as scholars of subculture contend, subcultures are often formed in opposition to a discursively imagined “mainstream.”[3] This is also the case for production subcultures, but as the sections below discuss, the importance of local space within these subcultures complicates this opposition—there are no easy binaries when ideals of community exist in tension with the political-economics of changing urban space. Thus, this dialectic between “mainstream” and “opposition” becomes especially fraught due to the politics of urban space in which these cultures are embedded. Such spaces are often implicated in processes of gentrification, and their identities are formed partly through how they establish their positions in relation to these processes. For microcinemas in a changing urban landscape, cultural sense-making becomes extremely complex. I aim to consider the reflexive discourses that contextualize the role of the microcinema within ongoing conflicts over art spaces and territory in a changing LA cityscape. Interviews with co-op members suggest that the center’s identity has much to do with its deep commitment to the specificity of its neighborhood, as well as its insertion into translocal networks of art and activism. It is a hub for specific kinds of local networks.

 

I have chosen the Echo Park Film Center as a case for elucidating some concerns that occupy cinema studies, particularly the subfield of exhibition and moviegoing histories: namely, the vexed role of the local in spaces of film circulation and the category of the microcinema as a means of examining it. As I describe below, there has been relatively little academic research on the semi-institutional screening spaces that have come to be called “microcinemas” in discussions of “small” media.[4] But such sites are important for the ways in which they articulate a politics of space in relation to the larger urban patterns that surround them. Like other art spaces, microcinemas are often ideologically resistant to gentrification, while being materially complicit with it. They are committed to ideals of community and invested in the live screening event as a mode of cinema consumption. Like all sites of film consumption, they are embedded in taste cultures, often playing host to a range of cult and paracinematic practices that align with particular levels of education.[5] And they are often connected, in various ways, to parallel film scenes both nationally and abroad, as the description above attests. In discussing EPFC as a hub for local and translocal networks of what David James calls “minor cinema” practice, I aim to expand James’s argument that minor cinemas “take place.” Comprising a wide range of filmic categories, such as underground films, political works, personal documentaries, pornography, and independent features that intersect with popular cinema, minor cinemas, James contends, exist “geographically as well as historically;” they “emerge from, occupy, and articulate specific spatialities.”[6]  Drawing from Deleuze and Guattari’s work on “minor literatures,” the term minor cinemas has been used in film studies to describe films that recognize their marginal status and are conscious about maintaining distance from “major cinematic languages.”[7] James favors minor cinema over terms like “avant-garde,” because it eschews the temporal notion of cinematic practices that are ahead of cultural norms. It also ties these practices to social and cultural identities. As he writes, after the 1970s, “minor cinemas based on cultural identities” dominated the experimental film field, before moving towards more mainstream cinematic practices.[8] 

 

I would also describe minor cinemas as comprising a paradox between their status as cinema activism and their role within a cultural economy. Minor cinemas exist in a constitutive dialectic between the “major cinemas” that they define themselves against. At the same time, this separation ascribes cultural value to them, indirectly situating such cinemas within a monetary economy they would, ostensibly, distance themselves from. This dynamic becomes a definitive feature of such cinemas, and in the case of the EPFC, space and location play key roles in how those tensions are negotiated. Here, the term “minor cinema” comprises a view of cinema not simply as text, but as a network of texts, audiences, events, and the spaces that they occupy and in some instances, transform. In the context of contemporary Los Angeles, these spatial politics take on a particular weight, as art spaces become complex sites of cultural conflict where race, class, and neighborhood identity play out.

 

My research is based on interviews with EPFC founder and director, Paolo Davanzo; Andrew Kim, an experimental filmmaker and EPFC staff member; Nerve Macaspac, an activist, PhD candidate in UCLA’s Geography department, and secretary of the Board of Directors; and Penelope Uribe-Abee, a former student who grew up in the neighborhood and participated in EPFC programs as a youth, before becoming a co-op member and teacher herself. The EPFC negotiates its local and translocal networks through both activism and art, and these tactics help negotiate its identity in a changing cityscape.

 

 

Microcinemas and Urban Space: Echo Park Film Center

 

I encountered the Echo Park Film Center for the first time in 2013 when I was a newcomer to the city, having moved to LA from Singapore. One of the first things I noticed about the Film Center was how its location placed it at the crossroads of a diverse range of Los Angeles communities. Parking near a homeless encampment around the corner on Liberty Street, I passed a church, its signage in Spanish and Korean. The Film Center itself occupied a building with a mixture of storefronts—a vintage clothing store, a coffee shop, an alternative art space called Machine Project, and a guitar store that would be replaced by a tattoo parlor and hipster barber some years later. Across the street, an unassuming print shop advertised its wares in English and Spanish, and a grocery called El Rancho Market shared its building with a Western Union and a boba tea cafe. Like most of LA, the Sunset and Alvarado area was an intersection of multiple diasporic cultures. The screening space was no different that night, catering to another diasporic community. It was small, with rows of old cinema seats and some couches provided seating for about thirty people. This particular screening had drawn a large crowd of LA’s Filipinx bohemia, which spilled onto the sidewalk outside. I had attended the event to support Shireen Seno, an artist friend from Manila who had just finished her first feature film, Big Boy. Set in the post-World-War-II province of Mindoro, Philippines, her mother’s home province, the experimental work was shot on Super 8. It was less a “period film” than a work that mimicked the media of its mid-century setting, its oneiric, home-movie-like images masquerading as artifacts of that time. The screening began with an introduction of the film and a photograph of the seated crowd, a ritual that allows the EPFC to create an image archive of its audience. A small table in the back informally offered snacks and drinks, and patrons milled around a space packed with DVDs, film equipment, books, posters, and reels of celluloid. That evening, it was a specific kind of diasporic space, its crowd comprised primarily of Angelenos of Filipinx descent.

 

To consider how the Echo Park Film Center fits into discussions of alternative cinema practice, it is integral to place it within a longer continuum of work on the microcinema. The few academic analyses that exist place them in a history of pre- or non-institutionalized forms of film circulation: the nickelodeon theater, European cinema clubs of the 1930s and U.S. film societies of the 1940s-50s, and public access television of the 1970s-80s. [9]  Inspired by Canyon Cinema and other experimental film hubs, Total Mobile Home microCINEMA founders Rebecca Barten and David Sherman coined the term in 1993, when they built a makeshift cinema in their San Francisco Mission District apartment.[10] They constructed ten pine benches seating two people each, cutting a hole in the wall to house a projector. Another room housed the apartment’s electricity meter and wine bar.

 

Rebecca Alvin locates microcinemas’ proliferation in the post-art-house period of the 1990s, when the spread of multiplexes and the intertwining of mainstream and “indie” cinemas led art house theaters to forego more “adventurous” programming in efforts to win more mainstream audiences.[11] As Alvin argues, microcinemas filled the spot in the taste hierarchy that art cinemas left open. Donna De Ville notes that they occupy the “fringe of the fringe,”[12] through riskier programming, an emphasis on community, and the promotion of cinephilia outside urban metros. De Ville expands the definition of microcinemas to include sites that are not just brick-and-mortar establishments, but encompass “outdoor screening series, roving series, also referred to as 'pop-up’ cinema, and consistent screenings at multipurpose sites like bars, community arts centers, and domestic loft spaces,” noting that this broad taxonomy shifts “the focus away from specific content and the idea of a dedicated space to exhibition mode and ethos.”[13] For De Ville, the microcinema is less about the films than about the social spaces in which they move and take on meaning.

 

There has been very little research on microcinemas in Cinema and Media Studies, and scholars have attributed this to a number of reasons. As De Ville describes, the venues usually last for less than five years, and because they are less institutionalized, there is often little documentation. CMS’s historical emphasis on textual analysis generally also contributes to this lack of research. This is an issue that concerns scholars of exhibition and moviegoing,[14] and it is particularly acute in work on experimental and avant-garde film. For example, in her work on screens as sites of critical inquiry into avant-garde film, Tess Takahashi points to the tendency in CMS and Art History to privilege the text.[15]  She proposes that a move from text to context reveals the democratic potentials of what could be seen as elite art objects: “In reaching out to far messier and more material questions of display and circulation, the idea of ‘experimental film’ also opens up: what was initially considered obscure, difficult, and hermetic instead emerges as a rich site of community, movement, and exchange.”[16]

 

To understand the microcinema’s social meanings, I would suggest that it becomes critical to understand not only the immediate context of screening sites and events, but also the politics of space in which they are embedded. For the Echo Park Film Center, this means acknowledging the conflicts over gentrification and art in contemporary Los Angeles. Over the past several years, protestors have tackled “artwashing” in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino, working-class neighborhood. Boyle Heights is across the river from the Downtown LA area developers have named the “Arts District,” and artists displaced from that newly affluent area have made their way across the river, to many locals’ chagrin. Activists have greeted the establishment of new art galleries and cafes with protests and graffiti. In May 2016 for example, the art gallery PSSST opened its doors in Boyle Heights; they were met with a crowd of protesters who played drums, held posters, and chanted in English (“We don’t need galleries, we need higher salaries!”) and Spanish (“¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!”).[17] Angel Luna of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) describes artwashing as “the use of art and artistic labor to perpetuate and enable gentrification.” Based on what has happened in neighborhoods like Downtown Los Angeles, Silver Lake, and Echo Park, the activists see art galleries as harbingers of the coffee shops, boutiques, and inflated property values that drive out long-term, often minority residents. 

 

The Echo Park Film Center has approached these issues directly, through its programming and partnerships. For example, one series, titled “Race and Space in Los Angeles,” examines the politics of space in the city through a series of programs curated by various partners. The program “focuses on community efforts to fight for greater control of neighborhoods before and in the aftermath of the 1992 civil unrest.”[18] Its most recent, ninth installment featured a series of grassroots films by Michael Zinzun, a founder of the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA). As the EPFC website describes,

CAPA linked rising poverty and unemployment with the growth of police forces and expansion of California’s prison system,
a strategy they viewed as a means to contain poor communities of color. Through organizing and mobilizing communities,
CAPA offered an alternative strategy to transform inner city neighborhoods from spaces targeted for control to spaces of
empowerment.[19]

The event was curated by Yusef Omowale and Michele Welsing of The Southern California Library, an organization that “documents and makes accessible histories of struggles that challenge racism and other systems of oppression so we can all imagine and sustain possibilities for freedom.” [20] In this way, the EPFC grounds its identity in local struggles for space, struggles which have become highly charged for art spaces in contemporary Los Angeles.

 

This kind of programming mirrors the EPFC’s other partnerships with activist organizations, some of which confront spatial politics as their primary mission. For example, in 2008 the Center worked with Movement for Justice in El Barrio, an “immigrant-led, grassroots organization” that works “against a voracious trend towards gentrification that is devouring affordable housing and displacing low-income families from their homes.”[21] Based in East Harlem, the organization toured the U.S., partnering with various community organizations. The Echo Park Film Center was involved in the tour’s southern California leg, which held dialogues with communities in South LA, Boyle Heights, Echo Park, MacArthur Park, and Oxnard. Many of these minority communities would face major cultural and economic transitions in the coming years, and EPFC was a part of the dialogue around resisting these trends, alongside LA organizations working on worker and immigrant issues.[22]

 

This is a specific kind of minor cinema practice, one in which the microcinema’s community-based activism tempers its complex position in urban space. If cinema operates as a network of texts, participants, and practices that transform the space onto which it is grafted, projects like these attempt to map a different future for these spaces and perhaps, a different role and trajectory for the art spaces occupying them.

 

 

 

Economies and Spaces

 

These interventions into art and activist networks stem from the EPFC’s long history in the Echo Park neighborhood. The organizers of the Echo Park Film Center are very aware of their complex relationship to the community in which they have worked for nearly two decades. The EPFC began in 2001. It was started by Paolo Davanzo, who moved to Orange County from Italy as a child. Davanzo spent his adult life going back and forth between southern California and the country he still considers his home.[23] His parents were activists. As a young adult in LA, he taught at a community college and worked in the industry, which he hated, having inherited his parents’ sense of political engagement.

 

Davanzo has lived in the neighborhood for two decades. His father died not long after he moved there, and his mother passed away three years later. At her funeral, he announced that he would open a film center; the pronouncement was a way of committing himself to the project, despite having neither funds nor a building.[24]  His friends were using the building at Sunset and Alvarado, so he set the small space up as a community drop-in center. As the Film Center took shape, he and his co-founders met with elementary schools and consulted with neighbors, asking about what they thought of the idea of a film center. The response was positive, and the Film Center began its 17-year tenure at an intersection that would change dramatically over the course of the following years. Eventually, Lisa Marr, a Canadian musician from the punk band Cub, took on a leadership role. They were joined by Rick Bahto, who ran programming. In 2014, the Center became a co-operative with a current membership of eighteen people, many of them former students or volunteers.

 

 

 

Economies of Activism

 

Part of the reason for microcinemas’ brevity is the lack of funding that often accompanies their informal structures. In this way, the Echo Park Film Center is more institutionalized than some of its counterparts, and consistent grant funding has enabled its continued operations. As Board secretary Nerve Macaspac describes, these funding measures have been strategic. Macaspac joined the Film Center after a long history as an academic and activist. In the Philippines, he started a film collective and made alternative media covering political actions such as protests, picketing, and strikes; later, in New York City, he helped found a political film collective called Red Channels.[25] When he moved to the Silver Lake area of LA, he took a Super 8 documentary class at the EPFC and became a regular attendee at screenings. Later, he was invited to become a co-op member and eventually joined the Board.

 

As Macaspac describes, the EPFC avoids partnering with funders who do not share their ideals. For example, they declined working with a home-sharing service known for driving up housing prices. Funding from the Oscars Foundation became a point of discussion during the 2015 “Oscars so white” campaign. Ultimately, the Board decided that such funding opportunities “work both ways.” As Macaspac puts it, for the Film Center, it allowed them to continue programming community cinema and training students who would not otherwise have access. But in addition, such partnerships also give funders opportunities to learn and “to broaden their imagination of the world.” Indeed, the EPFC discovered it had a devoted ally at the Academy when they realized that their contact for this particular grant had been donating to the Center individually for some time. Such partnerships complicate any easy binaries between “macro” and “micro” cinema cultures. The account above suggests the opportunities for individual agency within large-scale institutions, as well as the possibility of funding as exchange, rather than simply a one-way contribution.

 

The funding went towards a program titled “ACTION! Cinema as Sanctuary,” which brought activist filmmakers to Los Angeles to screen their work and teach a master class. Screenings included a documentary on the parallels between Palestine and Native American reservations from Macaspac’s former collective Red Channels. The Native and the Refugee. Filmmakers Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny then ran a workshop called “What is a political film?” Another installment brought in filmmaker Emily Hong, a Seoul-born and New York-raised feminist anthropologist, filmmaker, and co-founder of Rhiza Collective and EthnoCine Films. Hong screened her documentary, Nobel Nok Dah, about Karen women refugees in Thailand. As part of her visit, Hong conducted a workshop on social justice music videos. The idea behind the program was to consider the current political moment more broadly and to bring in filmmakers from around the country, contextualizing the question of politics and film through the local, questioning the role of the Film Center in Echo Park and in Los Angeles, examining the role of films, especially activist or community films in this particular political moment, and considering cinema as a process, a tool, and a space.[26] Strategically using the resources of an organization synonymous with the kind of cinema microcinemas often define themselves against, the EPFC was able to divert these macro-organizations’ resources to interrogate their own place within their local environment.[27] This economy of activism involves tactical forays into the realms of sponsorship that enable this work.  

 

 

 

Space and Time

 

While EPFC organizers emphasize that they want to avoid being “precious” about celluloid, many of their classes focus on film, and the Film Center’s walls are lined with film reels and projectors in various conditions. This was partly out of necessity. In its early years, students could not afford a computer or digital camera, but they could afford a $10.00 Super 8 camera from a thrift store, $5.00 film, and a $10-15 projector.  Andrew Kim, a co-op member and experimental filmmaker from Michigan, moved to Los Angeles to attend the California Institute of the Arts. Now a staff member at EPFC, he describes that even when the Film Center uses computers, they stress that students do not need to use the “fanciest, most up-to-date digital equipment and computer programs.”[28] In his own 16mm classes, he likes to show the film Madame Winger Makes a Film by Helen Hill, which describes filmmaking as a simple, affordable process. Kim sees the curriculum as working in the tradition of DIY, avant-garde filmmakers making personal work with the kind of technology that is available. As he describes, the process is also invigorating for students, many of whom have never worked with film: “There’s nothing like taking a group of young people to the park, shooting, processing it, and then projecting it within the same day, within a span of four or five hours. It is and remains a really magical process, that all of these little images recorded on a strip of film can become a movie.” In certain ways, this notion of salvaging what might be seen as an outmoded format parallels discourses about the Film Center’s relationship to its neighborhood, which many residents see as disappearing.

 

Over the course of the Center’s life, the Echo Park neighborhood changed dramatically. Penelope Uribe-Abee is an artist of Mexican descent who grew up in Echo Park. Recently graduated from her Arts major at UCLA, she is now an EPFC teacher and member of the co-operative. She describes how the neighborhood has changed:

There’s the public sphere that’s changed, where the actual people there are different. But also the establishments, the sort of
like physical features of the landscape are different. There aren’t the same stores that I grew up going to. But at the same time,
the social reproduction is different—like, there aren’t the same people there.  And that’s sort of what I mean when I say that it
just changed. Like this one place, where going to it kind of defines your identity, is gone. Like, some of the markets I grew up going
to, the people that you would see around the neighborhood, it’s different now. But that’s why I like the Film Center, it’s the one thing
that’s kind of stayed.[29]

Given the context of art and development in the city, this longevity is key. It establishes the Film Center as a part of the city’s film history. As the following section describes, the Center’s educational programming is crucial to this position, giving it a historiographic role through programs that document city space.

 

 

 

Local Cinema Networks

 

The problem of the local has been a key concern of research on exhibition and moviegoing. Scholars have pioneered a flourishing area of Cinema and Media Studies inquiry grounded in questions around locally specific histories of film consumption that operate at the level of the city and the neighborhood. [30] Much of this work deals with Hollywood, both in its classical and more contemporary variations; however, more work is being done on diasporic and other ethnic minority film cultures, whose relationships to the local takes on a particular valence as audiences use cinema to connect with distant home countries.[31] The microcinema format offers a hyper-localized variation on similar points of inquiry. Rather than operating within a center-periphery model, wherein film culture emanates from a cosmopolitan core (Hollywood, New York) towards a film-less fringe, microcinemas are often sites of both consumption and production. They act as venues for screening works made by artists from the city or the neighborhood, while often hosting visitors from abroad. The Echo Park Film Center acts as a hub for highly localized networks of film production and consumption. Moreover, as I describe below, much of their curriculum is oriented around documenting the Echo Park neighborhood, as well as other neighborhoods in the wider city. As such, they become a networked space of arrival and departure, a hub that produces, screens, distributes, and archives images of the city, most of them crafted by non-professional or semi-professional filmmaker-students. They cultivate an urban imaginary grounded in a version of the local that defines its practice and its role in the city in opposition to LA’s larger scale industries. The Center fosters its local networks in a number of ways: through facilitating film education for students in the neighborhood and through documenting the neighborhood itself through film programs.

 

It is important to note that this locality occurs in a translocal ways, as well. One ongoing program, The Sound We See, is billed as a “Global Slow Film Movement” inspired by the city symphony films of Dziga Vertov and Walter Ruttmann. Makers use analog filmmaking to document the city. The EPFC website describes the first iteration in Los Angeles:

 

Discovering and redefining techniques of past avant-garde urban documentarians, 37 teens with little or no prior filmmaking experience worked with 16mm cameras and black and white stock to create a stunning 24-hour cinematic journey with each hour of the day represented as one minute on film. The Sound We See: A Los Angeles City Symphony premiered with a bespoke live score performed by a talented ensemble of local musicians.[32]

 

Subsequent iterations of the program took place in Vietnam, India, Canada, Europe, Mexico, and Japan, with participants shooting, processing (in both traditional and eco-friendly ways), editing, and exhibiting their work in “non-traditional venues.”[33] For projects like this and others, the EPFC has collaborated with film centers such as Iris in Vancouver, Lift in Toronto, and Process Reversal in Denver. The Echo Park Film Center’s locality is of a specific sort, one in which cosmopolitan art networks and connections to foreign or transnational social movements link the space with likeminded counterparts abroad and in cities across the country.

 

In addition, artists from abroad visit the Center frequently for screenings and residencies. They have hosted international residents from Berlin, Paris, Cuba, Manila, and frequently from Mexico City. While multiplexes might be considered “global” spaces[34] and art houses connect to “global art cinemas,”[35] microcinemas are often translocal spaces. The EPFC is one such translocal space, “poor,” perhaps, in financial terms, but “rich” in both the cultural capital that fosters translocal taste cultures, as well as the political commitments that cultivate translocal activist bonds. For example, the screening of Shireen Seno’s Big Boy, discussed above, linked the EPFC to transnational networks of likeminded film spaces. Seno operates Los Otros, a microcinema run out of the Quezon City home she shares with filmmaker John Torres. EPFC had previously hosted one of her collaborators, Merv Espina, a Manila-based photographer and filmmaker.[36] The vision of locality the space provides is one in which microcinema exhibition practices exist not in isolated peripheries of mainstream film cultures, but in a translocal network of minor cinema communities.

 

I use the term “translocal” to account for the subcultural affiliations of many artists and activists, even those from outside the U.S., whose investments in experimental and community media place them on the fringes of their own, particular home contexts. As Arif Dirlik argues, ethnic and diasporic spaces are often described as “transnational,” a term he finds misleading.[37] Dirlik contends that such spaces preceded the emergence of nations, and they are “likely to outlast the nation as we know it.”[38] For him, “translocal” is a term that is both more grounded and more flexible: “it carries us from one conceptual realm—that of nations and civilizations—to another—that of places.”[39] The EPFC is one of those places, where commitment to certain kinds of artistic and political practice foster bonds across national borders.

 

The EPFC is, however, ultimately committed to its immediate surroundings. The international residency program raised questions among LA-based artists about their own residency opportunities, and the EPFC was very responsive, going on to create the LA AIR residency program for LA-based makers. Residents make work, teach workshops, and curate screening programs, while receiving a stipend and having access to the Center’s equipment and materials. The local exists in a privileged relation to translocal ties. Ultimately, it is this scale that forms the crux of the institution’s identity, purpose, and many of its projects.[40]

 

 

Neighborhood Film Education

 

 Film education is perhaps the Center’s primary mission, and it operates as a key film educational site in the city. Courses are free or low cost, and members who pay a small fee can access the Film Center’s cameras and equipment. Penelope Uribee-Abee was introduced to the Center at the age of thirteen, when her poet father encouraged her take a class. Uribee-Abee is a third-generation Angeleno, and her mother’s family is from Echo Park. They lived there until she was ten years old, before locating elsewhere. However, her father was a teacher at a middle school in Silver Lake, which she attended alongside other kids from Echo Park. For her, the first class at the EPFC was a bust. The students were making films that were written by 826 LA, another LA nonprofit that focuses on creative writing. As she describes, “They had written these scripts, which I’m sure were probably great. But I was thirteen years old, and I was like, ‘I don’t wanna fucking do this,’ [laughs] ‘Agh, my Dad made me come here, gross.’ So I didn’t really stay.” [41] However, the following year, in her freshman year of high school, she returned and was more open to the experience.

 

The project she made with this second class is indicative of many of the Echo Park Film Center’s projects, in that it was based on the neighborhood. The students were tasked with making a musical about the life of Sister Amy, who started the Angeles Temple, an enormous church around the corner from the Film Center, towards Echo Park Lake. The students researched her life, and then a co-op member, Shauna McGarry, helped them write the songs. They made sets out of cardboard and paint, and as Uribee-Abee recounts, “It just looked like a school production. But it was hilarious. It was crazy.” [42] After that, Uribee-Abee became a regular student at the Film Center. During college, after becoming an educator at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, she became one of the Film Center’s teachers.

 

While Uribee-Abee’s initial participation was due in part to her middle school’s proximity to the Center, members of the co-op have discussed how student profiles have changed with the neighborhood. The Film Center has always catered to a wide-ranging demographic. As Davanzo readily acknowledges, they were “early gentrifiers;” they were drawn to the area because of low rent and proximity to bus lines. He admits, “We weren’t aware. Maybe we were naive.” When the Center first opened its doors, it involved primarily middle-class kids interested in art, not necessarily people from the neighborhood. But due in part to outreach at local churches and schools, soon the neighborhood became the Center’s primary users, with most of the students living within a couple of blocks.

 

Since the Center’s early years, the students’ profiles have changed somewhat. While ethnicity has been somewhat consistent, more and more, the students are not necessarily from the local or surrounding neighborhoods.  In a recent class on the diary film, for example, six of the seven participants were students of color. In the Cinema as Sanctuary program, most of the students who came to the workshops on political film were queer young women of color. But more students are from outside the area. Many hear about the Center as professionals in the industry, who want to learn more about working with celluloid. Unlike previous generations, they may have other ways to access the Center’s offerings. For Cinema as Sanctuary, some students were working in the commercial film industry, while others had just moved to Los Angeles and were looking for artistic community. The students are more various and dispersed, reflecting the ways that the broader neighborhood has become less rooted in its longstanding ethnic and working-class identity.

 

Despite its participants’ growing geographic dissolution, the Film Center’s physical space remains an important factor in how it is used and in its educational ethos.  This ethos is not simply about production. Here, being a “film center” is not simply about cycling texts through the path of production, exhibition, consumption, and archiving. Cinema is not so much a text, but an assemblage of texts, production and consumption practices, taste cultures, and political values. The focus is not just on making and exhibiting films, but on creating an environment that is conducive to nurturing makers. For example, Lisa Marr, Operations Director and Youth Film Coordinator, is known for encouraging awardees in the EPFC’s residency programs to use their funding for paying their rent or visiting the spa.[43] While most of the residents do end up using the funding towards filmmaking, there is not a requirement for them to produce a body of work while in residence. 

 

So, the EPFC takes a broad, flexible approach to what constitutes artistic “practice.” As such, it is not just a site for production. It is also a site for non-production, a place where young people congregate to simply pass time. Laughing, Uribe-Abee describes her teenage relationship to the Center:

‘But even before [I started teaching there], I would just always hang around. Even when I wasn’t taking a class, I’d be like, ‘Hey,
what’s up guys! There’s nowhere for me to go!’ And yeah, also, in LA, it’s like there’s nowhere for people to go, in general. But
especially if you’re an ambitious young person. There are really hardly any spaces to just chill. And that’s why I loved the Film
Center, because I could just chill…I’d just show up and be like, ‘Who’s working? How’s it going? Let me talk to someone.’ [44]

She was not the only young person passing time at the Film Center; there was, as she puts it, “a whole brat pack” of youth who would come to the Film Center to spend idle time. Some are still involved, such as Chloe Reyes, another co-op member, while others still come by to say hello.  This informal, “drop-in” ethos is mirrored in the EFPC’s emphasis on the idea of family. Perhaps rooted in the Film Center’s origins in Davanzo’s familial losses, this ethos was featured on a sign across the Film Center’s logo, in Italian (“la famiglia”). At one point, “la famiglia” was the wifi password.

 

In a different kind of environment, this emphasis on co-op-as-kinfolk could take a dark, insular turn, as the scandal around the now-defunct LA cult cinema venue, the Cinefamily, attests.[45] But I would suggest that a part of the reason that art house venues like the Cinefamily and the Alamo Drafthouse[46] lend themselves to being environments of sexual harassment is that their version of “family” relies on being a tightly knit taste culture, aligning with certain strains of cinephilia that promote masculinist cultures of connoisseurship. Microcinemas like the Echo Park Film Center, on the other hand, are as invested in non-professional student cinema as they are in texts from the cult and experimental cinema canon. Functioning as community-based spaces, their ethos is not just about elevating certain kinds of cinematic texts, but about promoting the kinds of production and circulation processes that bring these and other kinds of texts into being. Such processes include the non-cinematic, non-production processes facilitated through the EPFC’s role as a local drop-in space for youth and a supportive space for artists’ self-care. Moreover, it is important to note that the artists they help fund through their residencies are not necessarily established filmmakers; they range widely, from those who have never made a film, to more established artists, to researchers. Their affiliations with the Film Center also vary, from those who are very involved, to those who have never stepped foot inside. Some remain involved with EPFC activities after their residencies, while others do not.

 

This emphasis on process is tied to the site’s local specificity; while not all the Center’s programs are related to documenting the city, many of them are.  Many students are both from the neighborhood and work within it to make films, and their works create an archive of a rapidly changing neighborhood. One of the first projects the EPFC made was a documentary named after its intersection location, Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado. Many years later, in 2008, students at the Film Center made another version of Sunset and Alvarado which focused on local responses to the changes, particularly from those who work in businesses in the area. In one sequence, a group of three Latina young women speak to a man working at El Rancho Market’s meat counter. They speak in Spanish about how Echo Park’s changes have mirrored those taking place in Downtown Los Angeles, where many small business owners have been pushed out. But at a beauty salon, a hairdresser from the neighborhood welcomes the changes, due to increased safety and policing. Speaking with the interviewers in Spanish, he recounts a period when the neighborhood was much more dangerous, due to gang violence.[47] In title cards and voice overs, the filmmakers express ambivalence about their findings. They are surprised that so many business owners viewed “the new Echo Park”’ changes as beneficial. They also express concern about gang injunction, which they see as both positive (decreased neighborhood violence) and negative (over-policing and discrimination against young, Latino men).[48]

 

In this way, the neighborhood itself becomes a part of the Film Center’s pedagogical process.  As Uribe-Abee notes,

 

There’s a difference between stepping into a commercial gallery, or a gallery in general, and being like, oh, this could exist
anywhere. I think that’s something that I always ask myself when I step into a space, ‘could this exist anywhere.’ And with the
Film Center, this couldn’t exist anywhere. It really takes into account where it is and what it’s doing, and how it’s influenced by
what’s around it. [49]

 

Incorporating the neighborhood into both the images produced and production process becomes a means of reflexively negotiating the EPFC’s complex role within the space.

 

 

 

Itinerant Futures

 

In 2019, the Echo Park Film Center’s lease will end, and its future remains unclear.  Many possibilities present themselves. Because of the more affluent demographics of the neighborhood, the co-op has discussed the possibility of moving to another area of the city where people have greater need for the Center’s resources. However, they are also aware of the problems this could cause for local residents, and they are reluctant to impose film as a “need” for a community. One possible solution is to move from a brick-and-mortar establishment to an entirely mobile microcinema. As Marr has said, the Echo Park Film Center is an ideal as much as it is a space. The EPFC has already experimented with this idea through its Filmmobile programs. Started in 2007, the Filmmobile is a former school bus, converted to operate as a space for shooting, processing, and screening films.[50] This itinerant model would create a new relationship between the microcinema and space, forgoing the need to inhabit any one neighborhood; but, this more portable model would also preclude the Center’s role as a drop-in site, a place for unplanned encounters and the unexpected relationships they might foster.

 

All cinemagoing is connected to space, as scholars have frequently observed.  As homes for production subcultures, microcinemas are particularly attuned to the politics of their broader surroundings. Radical in their aesthetics, practices, and intent, such spaces nevertheless bring particular kinds of cultural capital to the neighborhoods they occupy. The process of negotiating these tensions becomes a defining characteristic of minor cinema practices. Acknowledging such processes is critical for understanding the complexities of alternative film production and circulation.  In the case of the Echo Park Film Center, the microcinema has played an important role in creating, documenting, and archiving a shifting geography. As Cinema and Media Studies migrates from text to context, it is crucial to examine not only the sites in which cultures of exhibition and moviegoing take shape, but also the wider spatial contexts in which those sites take on meaning. 

 

 

 

End Notes

 

[1] John Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

 

[2] Caldwell, Production Culture, 14.

 

[3] Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (New York and London: Routledge, 2007); Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Wesleyan University Press, 1996); Michael Z. Newman, Indie: An American Film Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

 

[4] Kyle Conway, “Small Media, Global Media: Kino and the Microcinema Movement,” Journal of Film and Video 60, nos. 3-4 (2011): 60-71.

 

[5] Jeffrey Sconce discusses this, arguing that paracinema is an “elastic textual category.” As he describes, the “explicit manifesto of paracinematic culture is to valorize all forms of cinematic ‘trash,’ whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or ignored by legitimate film culture.” Jeffrey Sconce, '"Trashing" the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style',” Screen 36 no. 4 (1995): 371–393.

 

[6] David James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 16.

 

[7] Tom Gunning, “Towards a Minor Cinema: Fonoroff, Herwitz, Ahwesh, Lapore, Khlar and Solomon,” Motion Picture 3, nos. 1-2 (1989-90): 2-5.

 

[8] James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde, 13.

 

[9] Kyle Conway and Elizabeth Galewski. “Not the Voice Coppola Would Expect: Microcinema and Its Challenge to Public-ness.” Bad Subjects 74 (2005),  http://bad.eserver.org/ issues/2006/74/congalew.html; Taso Lagos, “Do Not Reveal the Ending: Technology and the Rise of Microcinemas as an Alternative Form of Movie Exhibition in the United States.” Thesis. University of Washington, 1999;  Kathryn Ramey, “DIY (Do It Yourself) Distribution and MicroCINEMA Exhibition Amongst Contemporary Experimental and Alternative Film and Video Makers.” Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference. Atlanta, GA. 7 Mar. 2004.

 

[10] Steve Anker,‎ Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid, Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010.

 

[11] Rebecca Alvin, “A Night at the Movies: From Art House to ‘Microcinema,’” Cinéaste 32, no. 3 (2007): 4-7 .

 

[12] Donna De Ville, “The Persistent Transience of Microcinema (in the United States and Canada).” Film History, 27, no.  3, pp. 104–136, 2015.

 

[13] Donna De Ville, The Persistent Transience of Microcinema (in the United States and Canada). Film History, 27, no. 3, pp. 104–136, 2015. See also De Ville’s dissertation, “The Microcinema Movement and Montreal,” Concordia University, 2014.

 

[14] Richard Maltby, “New Cinema History,” in Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies, Eds. Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst, Philippe Meers, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes, and Robert C. Allen, eds. Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social Experience of the Cinema. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

 

[15] Tess Takahashi, “Experimental Screens in the 1960s and 1970s: The Site of Community,” Cinema Journal 51, no. 2 (2012): 162-167.

 

[16] Takahashi, “Experimental Screens,” 167.

 

[17] Feed, “The Neighborhood That Went to War Against Gentrifiers,” City Lab, March 1, 2017, http://www.citylab.com%2Fequity%2F2017%2F03%2Fthe-neighborhood-that-went-to-war-against-gentrifiers%2F518181%2F&formCheck=11288b86bbffb17703708f8509d856f1.

 

[18] “Race and Space in Los Angeles IX,” Echo Park Film Center, http://www.echoparkfilmcenter.org/events/race-and-space-in-los-angeles-ix/.

 

[19] “Race and Space in Los Angeles,” ibid.

 

[20] The Southern California Library, “About Us,” http://www.socallib.org/scl-about/.

[21] “Movement for Justice in El Barrio,” Idealist, https://www.idealist.org/en/nonprofit/555b7e35a8824b30a349860894b95d83-movement-for-justice-in-el-barrio-new-york?.

 

[22] These included organizations such as Centro de Mujer, South Central Farm, Cassa Del Pueblo Housing Cooperative, and the LA Community Action Network.

 

[23] Interview, Paolo Davanzo, January 23, 2018.

[24] Davanzo wrote a guide titled “Sell Your TV and Come to the Cinema: How to Start a Film Center,” available here: http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/sell-your-tv-and-come-to-the-cinema-how-to-start-a-film-center/

 

[25] Interview, Nerve Macaspac, February 10, 2018.

 

[26] There are plans in place for Cinema as Sanctuary to continue as a series without funding, with future installments organized around similar frameworks such as “Cinema as Catalyst” and “Cinema as Process.”

 

[27] Marr and Macaspac hope to continue a version of the program without funding, including series such as “Cinema as Catalyst” and “Cinema as Process.”

 

[28] Andrew Kim, Interview, January 23, 2018.

 

[29] Interview, Penelope Uribe-Abee, March 6, 2018.

 

[30] Robert Allen, “Reimagining the History of the Experience of Cinema in a Post-Movie-Going Age,” Media International Australia 139, no. 1 (2011): 80-87; Katherine Fuller-Seeley, Hollywood in the Neighborhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008); Douglas Gomery, Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie Presentation in The United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992); Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes, and Robert Allen, eds. Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social Experience of Cinema (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2007); Gregory Waller, Gregory A. Waller (ed.), Moviegoing in America: A Sourcebook in the History of Film Exhibition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

 

[31] Jacqueline Stewart’s work was groundbreaking in this regard. See: Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005). More recent works include: Colin Gunckel, Mexico on Main Street: Transnational Film Culture in Los Angeles before World War II (Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 2015); Laura Isabel Serna, “Cinema on the US-Mexico border: American motion pictures and Mexican audiences, 1896–1930,” in Land of Necessity: Consumer Culture in the United States-Mexico Borderlands. ed. Alexis McCrossen, (Raleigh and Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 142-167.

 

[32] “The Sound We See,” Echo Park Film Center, http://www.echoparkfilmcenter.org/blog/sound-we-see/.

 

[33] Films from this program are available at https://vimeo.com/album/2839480 .

 

[34] See Charles Acland’s work on multiplexes and “felt cosmopolitanism” in Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture (Durham and London: Duke Univerity Press, 2003).

[35] Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover, “The Impurity of Art Cinema,” Global Art Cinemas, eds. Rosalind Galt and Karl Schoonover (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3-30.

 

[36] Seno and Espina co-curate The Kalampag Tracking Agency, a program of short, experimental, martial-law era films they have gathered from artists and embassies, which held workshops in Manila during this period. See: http://shireenseno.tumblr.com/post/126420704563/the-kalampag-tracking-agency.

 

[37] Arif Dirlik, “Performing the World: Reality and Representation in the Making of World Histor(ies),” Journal of World History 16, no. 4 (2005): 391-410.

 

[38] Dirlik, “Performing the World,” 397.

 

[39] Dirlik, ibid.

 

[40] Many programs also involve documenting the broader city. One project, City of Angels, involved students making films about LA itself. This was done in partnership with LA’s Skirball Museum in 2005. Other films often document the city. For example, in the Spring 2017 youth workshop, students made a film noir called “Chinatown Takeout,” shot on location in LA’s Chinatown neighborhood. It is available here: https://vimeo.com/225517651.

 

[41] Interview, Penelope Uribe-Abee, March 6, 2018.

 

[42] Interview, Penelope Uribe-Abee, March 6, 2018.

 

[43] Some local context may be in order here. Because of Asian diasporic communities in LA, “going to the spa” is not a costly luxury activity. For example, one can visit a Korean neighborhood spa for around $15.00.

 

[44] Interview, Penelope Uribe-Abee, March 6, 2018.

 

[45] Mark Olsen, “Following scandal and investigation, Cinefamily to shut down permanently,” LA Times, November 14, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-cinefamily-shuts-down-20171114-story.html.

 

[46] Seth Abramovich, “Alamo Drafthouse in Crisis: Allegations of Sexual Assault and Harassment Mount,” The Hollywood Reporter, September 26, 2017,

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/alamo-drafthouse-crisis-allegations-sexual-assault-harassment-mount-1043207

 

[47] For more on the history of transnational gang activity in the area, see: Kara Zugman Dellacioppa, “The Bridge Called Zapatismo: Transcultural and Transnational Activist Networks in Los Angeles and Beyond,” Latin American Perspectives 176, vol. 38 (2011): 120-137.

[48] See: Hailey Branson-Potts, ‘Gang injunction granted in Echo Park,” Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-gang-injunction-granted-in-echo-park-20130926-story.html.

 

[49] Interview, Penelope Uribe-Abee, March 6, 2018.

 

[50] This mobile cinema also has to deal with the limits of space; the EPFC is currently seeking a parking spot for it, which may be difficult to find in LA.  For more information, see: “Filmmobile,” Echo Park Film Center, http://www.echoparkfilmcenter.org/blog/filmmobile/.

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