It’s Sunday night in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—the reigning annex of lower east side hipsterdom. Live jazz floats from the open windows of a Tiki bar, sidewalk cafes overflow with 20-somethings, and scads of the tragically hip mill around street corners as the summer sun retires. All the while, a dedicated audience heavy with filmmakers sits in a dark room watching short films with hopes of honing its craft.
The dark room is in Galapagos Art Space, a bar-slash-performance space known for its support of the burgeoning Williamsburg art scene since its infancy in the early 90s. And the short films are all those of New York filmmakers, brought to the screen by Ocularis, a not-for-profit dedicated to informing the public conscious with contemporary film and video work as well as “independent, avant-garde and repertory cinema.”
“We screen work that is often excluded from the commercial media,” explains Thomas Beard, Ocularis’ program director. “Experimental film, documentary, video work, artist-made film, and world cinema that is under-shown in the United States.”
Founded in 1996, Ocularis started as a rooftop film series in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It wasn’t long after it began that Robert Elmes, the owner of Galapagos, attended a screening. He liked what he saw, offered to host the event, and Sunday nights at Galapagos were born. During a time when Williamsburg overflows with creative outlets, “Ocularis keeps us awake and clever,” explains Elmes from his perch behind the bar. Since then, nearly a decade has passed, and Ocularis has grown markedly. The 501 (c) 3 nonprofit now encompasses curated screenings, one-man shows, and a host of collaborative efforts.
“When it began, Ocularis was very much a community affair. But over time what I’ve tried to do, and the people who held my position in the past have tried to do, is to bring in an audience from Manhattan and Brooklyn,” says Beard. “But since the work that we show typically has very few stewards, we have to reach out to institutes to work with us.”
And reach out, they have. This season, Ocularis in conjunction with the Goethe-Institut brought the new-wave German filmmaker, Werner Schroeter’s film, The Death of Maria Malibran (1971) to the screen. A few years ago, Tracy + The Plastics, a band created and performed by Wynne Greenwood, a feminist video artist, performed alongside work by the widely acclaimed filmmaker, Elisabeth Subrin. And this fall, the nonprofit plans to show Joe Gibbons’s dryly funny videos as well as the 1970s computer artist Lillian Schwartz’s A Beautiful Virus Inside the Machine. Williamsburg and ultimately New York audiences may be hard-pressed to come by any of these events without an outfit like Ocularis.
Though Ocularis screens films at Galapagos every Sunday night, Open Zone, the forum for short filmmakers that is in full swing on this particular Sunday night, occurs only four times a year. Technically, the work shown is chosen on a first-come-first-serve basis, but the show isn’t done in quite true open-mic fashion.
“Since they’re screened in advance, the audience doesn’t have to wait for the films to get cued up,” explains Beard.
To prepare for Open Zone, Kelly Shindler and Melissa Fowler, co-coordinators of the event, put feelers out to filmmakers who have screened before. They email bulletins to the local film schools and print flyers to post in lower Manhattan. They also rely heavily on Ocularis’ web presence as well as a host of other Internet resources such as Frameworks (www.hi-beam.net), an experimental film discussion board.
“As far as outreach goes, we’re kind of a small fish in a big pond,” says 25-year-old Shindler, who writes for an art nonprofit by day. “We see [Open Zone] as salon-like. People come in and out on a rotating basis.”
While Ocularis and its Open Zone program is funded mostly by the Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), the group isn’t rolling in dough, which though sometimes creates difficulties, according to Shindler, can also be extremely liberating artistically speaking.
“It seems the more money you get from sponsors the more accountable you are. Since we don’t get much money, we’re allowed to take more risks,” she explains. Essentially, Open Zone doesn’t turn anyone away, which, as one might imagine, can make for a rather eclectic selection of films.
“Unlike our other programming, [Open Zone] tends to be kind of a mixed bag,” says Beard, with just the right amount of creative diplomacy. By mixed bag, of course, he means that though many films are interesting and even well done, some can be extremely amateur to say the least. “But in a way, there’s something nice about how random it can be,” he adds.
Right now, in Galapagos’ spacious back room, a rotating cast of about 50 come and go as a woman in red runs through a 60-second “music video” (Marathon with Myself by Rolyn Hu); a pair of male legs, mirrored on the horizontal, pliés and kicks over and over for eight long minutes, until the climax when the man collapses (3/0 by Rotem Tashach); and a mock-tourism ad, “Go Williamsburg!” pokes fun at the so-cool-it’s-lame neighborhood of Williamsburg [Go Williamsburg (Texas Justice Mix) by Ben Coonley]. Every once in a while the rumble of the ice machine unloading, a rush of toilet water flushing, or a creaky protest from one of the folding chairs momentarily disrupts the quiet, but no one seems to mind. The focus is entirely on the films.
“This was my first time at Open Zone, and I really liked that people were trying to express different types of ideas with a different medium,” says filmmaker Fritz Donnelly, who showed three related shorts that ran about 7 minutes called Awkward Social Encounters. “It seems to me that there’s a lot that can be done with film, such a wide range of expression is possible. Films like these give you a new pair of eyes.”
The films ran a gamut between experimental and traditional, finely tuned and rough-around-the-edges. Some of the filmmakers had created their films that very day, and others finished their films only moments before they were screened. Rolyn Hu had a minor mishap with Annihilate, the film she had originally planned to screen, and so, in an effort not to miss the opportunity to screen, she hastily put together the minute-long “music video” which, actually, was very well received.
“So many films are made [through] a large process working with many people, which tends to lead to either a consensus work or something very authoritarian,” says Donnelly. “Interesting things happen when films are made more immediately, and there’s a faster decision process.”
And as far as Fowler is concerned, there couldn’t be a better time for filmmakers to be working on short films—whether experimental or traditional.
“Recently we’ve seen a resurgence of short film,” says Fowler, who is 44 and a full-time programmer of film festivals. “It’s to a filmmaker’s advantage to have a short because it’s their calling card.”
“Shorts have been embraced by complementary worlds,” adds Shindler. “The art world, for example, has lent their credence to the genre. The last Whitney Biennial included short films.”
Donnelly, whose series of action comedy shorts How to Fight and Win will screen at the new IFC theater in New York later this year, disagrees with the calling-card theory: “People don’t use them to get more work.” Though as he discusses short film in general, he lands on the reason most of the filmmakers are present at Galapagos that night in the first place, “[they use them] to work on their craft.”
“I chose to show what I feel are my B-list movies because, there, it’s safe,” he says. “People risk things there.”
This seems to be the attitude of the majority. After introducing her film, Concoctions, Caitlin Berrigan asked that anyone with comments approach her after the show. “I’m open to all your feedback,” she said. Which is the reason screenings of this size are so beneficial to filmmakers who are still finding their feet. Shindler stressed that, “Works in progress are encouraged,” because a dialog is opened up after the show. Rather than simply taking off after the screenings, most people congregate and discuss what they liked, didn’t like, and how they think certain films could be improved.
“At most screenings, people watch the film in the theater and then make their exit right afterward,” says Beard. “But, because the filmmakers are there—almost all of them always attend—they linger and conversations begin.”