By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Filmmakers’ Co-op on Facebook.
It all started over fifty years ago. The 1960s were in full swing, and emerging cinema began to reflect the newfound freedoms of creative expression that would come to define the decade. The avant-garde emerged as a force to be reckoned with, as directors like Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, and Alfred Leslie started to make serious waves in the scene.
A single yet considerable roadblock still stood in the way. No matter how much strength and influence these auteurs amassed with their output, their work was still largely considered controversial. Even the most edgy and artistically-savvy distribution centers of the time, such as New York City’s Cinema 16, were rejecting some of the more eye-opening productions.
Filmmaker Jonas Mekas took the reins. He phoned 20 of the most esteemed avant-garde/independent filmmakers and invited them to his Manhattan loft to discuss plans for creating their very own distribution center. Everybody from Salvador Dali to Allen Ginsberg, to Andy Warhol to Barbara Rubin became frequenters of the artistic haven.
Thus the Film-Makers’ Cooperative was born.
The co-op is currently the largest archive and distributor of independent and avant-garde cinema in the world. The organization boasts over 5,000 titles from more than 800 filmmakers–all carefully preserved in an inconspicuous high-rise located in East Midtown.
To say that the co-op has kept a meticulous eye for organization would be a gross understatement. Thumbing through the vaults, you could stumble across anything from filmmakers’ Con-Ed bills, the 1968 legal papers from the government trying to block Flaming Creatures, or a film reel smuggled out of Nazi Germany by Hans Reiter that still bears the iron cross.
They’ve even held onto every one of their bank receipts from the past fifty years.
It has been anything but an easy journey for the collective to reach the level of success that it enjoys today. Shoving all censorship battles aside, the co-op has long fought for its right to exist. For many years it made its headquarters out of an office on Lexington Avenue at 31st Street before it was forced to leave in 2000 due to redevelopment.
The Clocktower Building in TriBeCa became the organization’s next hub, in an arrangement brokered by the Museum of Modern Art. However, in 2009 a real estate dispute nearly toppled the organization which was already skating along some very dire financial fringes. Despite an ongoing battle, at the end of the day the Film-Makers’ Co-op was kicked to the curb.
A very important set of eyes was watching everything. Real estate developer Charles S. Cohen, a self-professed film lover and producer, came to the rescue. He signed a five year lease with the co-op that placed it in a new home at 475 Park Avenue South.
The financially-burdened organization can breathe a collective sigh of relief: rent is now only one dollar a year.
The new site has six floors and approximately 2000 square feet. There’s even a 20-seat theater, faithfully called the Charles S. Cohen Screening Room. The small operations run within are almost entirely comprised of volunteers. Due to a limited staff, the co-op permits mostly students and scholars to visit by appointment basis.
A crucial overseer of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Executive Director M.M. Serra, took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with BTR about the challenges and triumphs that made everything possible.
You’ve been the Executive Director of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative since 1991. What are some of the biggest changes that the Cooperative has undergone since?
One of the biggest challenges was trying to obtain a not for profit status. In order to do it I had to go back and get the original paperwork, which was lost, in order for us to change the by-laws. After a long ordeal they were eventually changed in 1993, with a new emphasis on the exhibition and promotion of independent media, experimental, documentary. Soon we were able to do film festivals, programs, and journals in order to promote and better inform the public knowledge.
That wasn’t the first time the organization faced legal opposition.
No, you’re right it wasn’t. The lease was passed to PS 1 in the 70s; eventually it got very complicated, very political. The city wouldn’t give us a sublease, even though we had requested it. But, believe it or not, some good press and social media actually helped save everything. One of the best things about the internet is social media, so we used it to ask a board of directors to help work with the city. One of our members is part of the New York Times, and he got a reporter and photographer and wrote about us in the cultural section.
Before long [Charles S.] Cohen called and told me he had property. He gave us a space as a benefactor. He gave us $100,000 to renovate, for climate control, for an air conditioned archive room. Now films are in the best place they can be right now. The city requires permits for everything, every door, sprinkler, air conditioner–it took us months to be able to make the space into what it is now.
So we’ve moved three times in ten years. It’s a challenge, but there’s just such a huge film community for support.
You’ve managed to maintain a real sense of positivism despite all of the struggle.
I have, and only because of the strength of everyone else. This is a cooperative that operates as a co-op–everyone works together for the common good. It is because of that that we have the ability to make a change for the positive. There will always be struggles for us, and it takes tremendous energy and effort, along with a light spirit. But the preservation is all worth it. It’s organic and dynamic. You can go see a film like Johnny Minotaur, newly preserved, which might have been a lost relic otherwise. What’s more is that using our library study center you can even inspect these films frame-by-frame.
Why do you think so many existing film distribution organizations have rejected the avant-garde and independent cinema?
The answer is simple enough, unfortunately, and it’s because the avant-garde and indy films don’t make as much money… but they change culture. It’s like poetry. Rimbaud didn’t make a fortune, but his voice is still powerful and it still affects us. Last year Patti Smith did a new intro for Rimbaud’s Season In Hell, which she read at St. Mark’s Book Store. It’s alternative, like her music, bands like the Velvet Underground–well, it takes time for it to be understood by mainstream culture. You take a film like Flaming Creatures; people were arrested just for watching it. It’s the underground, people who take risks to make change.
Your website says the following regarding the current state of film:
The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring. Even the seemingly worthwhile films, reveal the decay of the Product Film. The very slickness of their execution has become a perversion covering the falsity of their themes, their lack of sensibility, their lack of style.
This was written in the early 60s. Do you think these assessments still hold true for the current state of the Product film?
I think it has certainly changed. That statement has a lot to do with the Motion Picture Production Code which was becoming a thing in ’61. Sexuality was essentially illegal, drag was illegal, and there was all of this censorship mounting against it. It was meant to advocate every one to pick up a camera–and now they do. Those two worlds have become one. Someone in our co-op recently won an Academy Award, and I’ve worked with Hollywood and it was actually exquisite. I’ve seen James Franco as a student. I thought, now here’s a young man who loves reading, and he comes out with this extraordinary film My Own Private River, which was a tremendous achievement. He’s a very smart man, and reflects Hollywood, whether he considers himself to or not.
There are people like Franco who can make both experimental and Hollywood films. It’s just not as segregated. And I think the digital world has a lot to do with that too.
In what ways has the digital world come to shape the distribution of independent cinema?
It’s created a lot of opportunities for our co-op. By the middle of March we should have online-streaming set up on our site so that you may enjoy some of these incredible films remotely. We also have a searchable database and a website with a virtual theatre.
Unfortunately, many of these same freedoms have actually hindered us. It all goes back to censorship. Believe it or not, but the internet is still censored and monitored. Our first Facebook page, for instance, was taken down–only to be put back up four years later. So now there are two pages floating around, and no explanation from Facebook.
It seems a little ridiculous that an organization with such good intentions as yours could be censored.
Censorship stems from the government. “Oh yeah, sexual freedom,” sure, but I feel as though there is still a lot of fear. Another thing like that happened to us. I applied a little while back to get a credit card for the co-op. What happened? Chase declined to give us a card. I called them back and asked them why they had refused us. They told me that after searching through our databases they came to the conclusion that we hosted porn. I tried to explain to them that what we had was art – that we wouldn’t have what we do if we were concerned with that, but they still said no.
What can fans and filmmakers do to continue to support the world of the independent and avant-garde?
I search for truth. I search for what needs to be said. My name stands for Mary Magdalene, and I knew from very early on that I was different. As a child I was embarrassed, and subsequently learned to read very young, which shaped me. It was outside of the hetero-normative system, and I began searching for what was relevant within our culture. This is what artists do. I think people need to pick up cameras and shoot their own material.
I strongly believe that every person can make a film. Not everyone agrees with me, but I don’t care. It’s about having the tools, ability, and confidence to express yourself.