EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA is a passion project. There’s little hope of the dreamlike narratives of Maya Deren, or the dizzying color experiments of Stan Brakhage, or the haunting sociopolitical statements of Jean-Gabriel Périot reaching a wide audience—even if their efforts have influenced Hollywood filmmakers and countless ad agencies. In fact, without the support of museums and enthusiasts, these works might not be seen at all.
That’s what made the recent announcement that Cinema Project’s current season of screenings would be their last such a tough blow. Since 2003, the nonprofit has been dedicated to presenting Portlanders with new and vintage avant-garde films.
But last year, facing shrinking audiences and a lack of community support, the folks sharing the burden of programming and organizing—Mia Ferm, Michael McManus, Heather Lane, and Melinda Kowalska—decided to halt their regular operations.
“We’ve all been feeling it,” says Lane. “It’s a lot of work, and we’re not getting any younger. And I think we realize that maybe the model that we’ve done for these past 13 years just doesn’t fit into Portland anymore.”
The fact Cinema Project has survived over a decade is something that its staff still marvel at. “I don’t think any of us really expected to go on as long as it did,” says one of the group’s original founders, Pablo de Ocampo. “Even when I was involved, every year, we would think, ‘Oh, we’re still doing this thing?’”
From the start, the organization has had a shoestring budget, mostly cobbled together from grants and the support of local businesses. They’ve also never had a permanent home: Their first screenings took place at the old Disjecta space on NE Russell, and have bounced around ever since, stopping at bona fide theaters as well as art galleries and private homes.
What they were able to accomplish within those limitations is nothing short of wondrous. For their fifth anniversary in 2008, they held a five-day symposium that included lectures, an interview with Todd Haynes, and appearances by African American filmmakers Ina Archer and Kevin Jerome Everson. They’ve also worked closely with the NW Film Center and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art to highlight experimental film in the programs for the Portland International Film Festival and the Time-Based Art Festival.
Like the filmmakers whose work they present, the people behind Cinema Project view it as a labor of love. It simply became too laborious to do essentially a part-time job for free.
“We can find ways to write grants to bring two years’ worth of Asian filmmakers to Portland and buy equipment,” says Ferm, “but somehow we can’t get money to pay ourselves. That was always the hardest thing to make a case for.”
Disappointed as they may be at not being able to continue, the Cinema Project crew are deservedly proud of their work—and excited about their final season of screenings. This month, they have two events planned, including a rare look at an interview with civil rights leader Angela Davis in 1972 as she campaigned for Communist Party presidential candidates (part of their “Black Cinema 2: A Deep Responsibility To Live Up To” program, Friday, November 4 at Portland Community Media) and two nights of contemporary films from around the world chosen by former Ann Arbor Film Festival director David Dinnell (“Passages,” November 16-17, at NXT Industries). They’re also not ruling out the potential of doing one-off events in the future.
“We’re hanging on to our equipment and our nonprofit status,” Lane says. “I can see us saying no to things for a while. But maybe in a year, there will be something coming through town that we can’t say no to—if only so we can see it, too.”