When Zoom was just a kids' film festival: A look back at Wex Film/Video in 2020

David Filipi, Director, Film/Video

Dec 22, 2020

A still from the short film created by Tony Buba for Cinetracts '20

Our Residency Award project Cinetracts ’20, which debuted on October 8, was conceived in early 2019. We invited 20 filmmakers from around the world to make short films we hoped would reflect the zeitgeist in their respective backyards, in what we assumed would be a turbulent year with the 2020 US presidential election looming in November. We like to joke, “little did we know.” But, wow, little did we know. 

We are not typically given to producing lengthy year-in-review pieces about our program, but thought it might be interesting, even revealing, to see how we continued to support artists and serve our audience during this unprecedented year.

It seems like a distant memory, but we did present more than two months of in-person events to start the year. 

Esteemed critic J. Hoberman visited in January around the publication of his book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. Hoberman curated a series of related films over the course of a weekend including First Blood (1982), Gremlins (1984), River’s Edge (1986, which he introduced during his visit), and more. The new 3D documentary Cunningham (2019), about the iconic dancer and choreographer, was also a highlight from the beginning of the year. It was accompanied by a panel from members of Ohio State’s Dance department who worked with Cunningham. 

As it has for the last five years, our film restoration festival Cinema Revival closed February with visits and presentations by artist/archivist Ina Archer, The Film Foundation’s Margaret Bodde, Mike Pogorzelski of The Academy Film Archive, Sony Pictures’ Grover Crisp, Janice Simpson (then of NBCUniversal), and Tim Lanza of the Cohen Film Collection. Highlights included Muna Moto (1975), a night of Hollywood home movies, the restoration world premiere of Mae West in I’m No Angel (1933), and Speed (1994) on the Wex’s big screen. 

Wexner Center for the Arts Film/Video Director David Filipi with Margaret Bodde from the Film Foundation, during a 2020 roundtable discussion about film preservation

Filipi with Margaret Bodde from The Film Foundation during a February 29 film restoration roundtable discussion held as part of Cinema Revival 2020; photo: Brooke LaValley

A partnership with Ohio State’s Migration, Mobility, and Immobility Project the following week brought director Ramin Bahrani to campus for a screening of his first feature Man Push Cart (2005). We screened the film from a 35mm print that the Wex had come to possess, only to later discovered  it was actually a quite rare print. In doing so, we agreed to donate it to MoMA after it was screened at another event with Bahrani at the BAMcinematek. 

Bahrani was the last filmmaker to visit the Wex in person in 2020, and the print still sits in our booth. 

On Tuesday, March 10, Ohio State’s Department of Theatre informed us they thought it was best to cancel the following week’s DigiEYE event, an evening of student work that we have cosponsored at the Wex for a number of years. Twenty-four hours later, in concert with the rest of the university, we decided to cancel the rest of our March schedule which included the remainder of an Agnes Varda retrospective and a visit by author Namwali Serpell, who had curated the series Speculative Africa for us. Moving quickly, we created a guide for people to catch as much of Namwali’s proposed series and the Varda retrospective across various platforms available from home.

As COVID-19 spread, we were also forced to cancel a visit by film prop designer Annie Atkins around the publication of her new book Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps, along with our incredibly popular annual presentation of the Banff Centre Mountain Festival Tour. The last stops on the Wex-organized Julia Reichert retrospective at the AFI Silver Theatre and the National Gallery of Art were canceled, as was a Fellini at 100 retrospective slated for the summer.

It’s striking to look back at email exchanges from this period, when, collectively, we were coming to grips with what lay ahead with the spread of COVID-19 across the country. At the beginning of that week, we were still arranging travel for visiting filmmakers and booking films. By the end of the week our schedule for the foreseeable future was wiped out or on hold.  Like everyone, we had no idea what might happen next, but we began to prepare to work from home. 

Film distributors quickly scrambled to make new releases available via streaming. We were among the very first wave of venues around the country to present Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau, and it marked the first “virtual cinema” presentation in the city. We streamed newly released films over the summer including Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela and Luca Marinelli’s Martin Eden, and we continue to do so, but as a department we came to the conclusion that we should focus most of our efforts on presenting programming that was unique to the center. 

At the end of our first week of shutdown, we began to explore the possibility of presenting our annual Ohio Shorts program online and for free. One of our most popular events for more than two decades, Ohio Shorts is our annual showcase of new short films from across the Buckeye state, made by filmmakers young and old, seasoned and iPhone amateurs. To cancel would have been incredibly disappointing to all of the filmmakers and to us as well. It took a true team effort between the Wex’s Film/Video, Tech Services, and Marketing/Communications departments to make it happen, but it ended up being a success beyond our wildest imagination. The event typically draws sell-out audiences of 300; nearly 2,000 viewed the event on our website from around the world. Almost 2,000 more watched an interview with Jury Prize winner Catalina Jordan Alvarez and actress Clare Gundersen and the announcement of awards by Film/Video Studio Curator Jennifer Lange. 

To be sure, our virtual Ohio Shorts could not match the energy of a full house at the Wex, but the response did get us excited about the potential for reaching new audiences locally and even around the world.

Still from Lewis Klahr's Circumstantial Pleasures

Lewis Klahr's Circumstantial Pleasures; image courtesy of the artist

In May, we were proud to host the online premiere of Lewis Klahr’s six-part experimental feature Circumstantial Pleasures, a free virtual event that received coverage in the New York Times and Bomb magazine. The film, along with and online Q&A between Lewis, filmmaker Courtney Stephens, and Wex Associate Curator Chris Stults, attracted more than 1600 viewers to the Wex website. 

The flexibility and reach of online programming were never more apparent to us than our free presentation of the documentary Cincinnati Goddamn (2015) over the summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. Directed by April Martin and Paul Hill, the documentary chronicles the history and legacy of police violence in Cincinnati. It received extensive support through the Wex’s Film/Video Studio, and it’s a film we have screened a number of times in the past. Beginning on June 1, more than 3,700 people viewed the film which, tragically, remains ever-relevant as 2020 winds to a close.  

The Box is the Wex’s dedicated video space, adjacent to our first gallery and the Wex Store. Modest in physical size, its impact became even mightier in adapting to the virtual realm. Programmed by Jennifer Lange, The (virtual) Box continued to feature one work each month, including Studio-supported films by Columbus artists such as Xan Palay (Last American Summer), Alison Crocetta (Bear in Mind (The Bill of Rights)), and Vera Brunner-Sung (Character). In person, the space can only accommodate a handful of viewers at a time. More than 2,300 people have watched Box programs since March. 

On October 8, we premiered Cinetracts ’20, a program roughly 18 months in the making. As mentioned, we thought it would be fascinating for people to create cinematic snapshots of what was going on in their respective worlds in the lead-up to what was sure to be the most unhinged Presidential election in US history. Among the participants are Academy Award winner Charles Burnett, Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Columbus-based filmmakers Cameron Granger and Dani and Sheilah Restack. I know I speak for my colleagues Jennifer Lange and Chris Stults to say that it was a privilege to work with these 20 filmmakers over the course of a year-and-a-half, most of it after COVID had set in. 

Many of the filmmakers with whom we were working had to change the idea for their film because they couldn’t travel or collaborate. Some simply did not have the emotional energy to be creative given what was happening in the streets. That we could play even a modest role in helping these artists create anything in 2020 is something we will remember as much as the finished project. To date, more than 4,600 people have watched the project from all over the world, and our friends at Brooklyn’s Union Docs, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Le Cinema Club, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Harvard Film Archive have presented the project to their audiences.  Chris even appeared on a popular Australian radio show to discuss the participation of the Karrabing Film Collective! 

Still from the documentary Nardjes A

Karim Aïnouz's Nardjes A; image courtesy of Inflamavel

Our annual doc fest Unorthodocs had to be modified for online presentation as well. Last year’s fest offered some in-person and cinematically delirious gatherings of filmmakers, including Rosine Mbakam, Julia Reichert, Steve Bognar, Matt Wolf and Mike Leigh(!). This year, Chris Stults presented a host of inspired interviews around area premieres of The Inheritance (with Black Film Center/Archive Director Terri Francis and director Ephraim Asili), Nardjes A (with Dick Johnson is Dead director Kirsten Johnson and the doc’s director, Karim Ainouz), Landfall (with filmmaker Astra Taylor and director Cecilia Aldarondo), Collective (with critic and programmer K. Austin Collins and director Alexander Nanau), and more! Collective’s distributor Magnolia Pictures used that conversation for its national release of the film. It was a dizzying week of great films and conversations. 

Space prevents us from listing all of the online events we have presented this year, but we were honored to work once again with Cristyn Steward to present her annual Columbus Black International Film Festival in August and to move our annual Zoom: Family Film Festival online in a partnership with the Columbus Metropolitan Library. Also, filmmakers Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras graciously offered to let us stream their documentary about Columbus gentrification, Flag Wars (2003), which received support from our Studio, for free. And we recorded a new interview with Linda which is still available. Finally, we were touched by filmmaker Antonio Ferrera’s gracious gesture to allow us to premiere his COVID-inspired concert doc Erin Durant: Live at Proctors and to share it with our audience for free. 

This is just a bit of our public-facing work in 2020. We are especially proud of the support that our Film/Video Studio continued to provide filmmakers even during shutdown. As quickly as we closed down our offices and the studio in March, Studio Editors Paul Hill and Alexis McCrimmmon set up workstations at home and they have provided post-production support to artists, uninterrupted, since then. Normally, artists would be in the studio working side-by-side with Alexis or Paul on their respective projects for days and even weeks at a time. Studio Curator Jennifer Lange reconceived what support was even possible, virtually, to the point that they have provided vital postproduction time and resources from afar, including feedback sessions and equipment loans, to 13 now-finished or in-progress projects.

Among the artists we have supported during 2020 are Catalina Jordan Alvarez (Yellow Springs), Shimon Attie (New York), Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz (Georgia), Mary Jo Bole (Columbus), Baseera Khan (New York), Leslie Koren (Pittsburgh), Jaamil Olawale Kosoko (Philadelphia), Amy O’Neill (New York), Xan Palay (Columbus), Ingrid Rafael and Melissa Gira Grant (New York), Michelle Steinberg (Oakland), and Deborah Stratman (Chicago). The projects include a documentary about migrant farm workers in California; a multichannel installation shot in Salvador, Brazil; a short film about the closing of the last Kmart; an experimental doc on the history of Yellow Springs, OH; and a short doc about police violence in Columbus. 

Again, that we were able to sustain our support for artists, something so central to the mission of the Wex, during this time has been deeply meaningful and rewarding to our entire department. 

We were also excited to welcome our fabulous new projectionist Rachael Barbash and our amazing new Curatorial Assistant Layla Muchnik-Benali early in 2020. They quickly became valued and essential people in our department. 

But, we also said so long to two equally treasured parts of our department in 2020. Longtime Studio Editor (and Columbus thrift fashion icon and puzzle master) Mike Olenick moved from the editing station to the role of archiving our growing collection of work made by artists in the Studio. Needless to say, we could not have got that project off the ground without Mike, who moved on in June to more directly pursue his own work as a filmmaker and freelance editor. 

Also, in January, Bruce Bartoo projected the last of his roughly 5,000 films at the Wex during his 28 years in our projection booth. Bruce brought an unparalleled level of experience, dedication, expertise (and fun!) to our program, allowing us to screen fragile and rare film prints from archives around the world. We can’t wait to reopen so we can welcome him back to simply sit back and watch the show. 

We hope 2021 is just the reverse of 2020. We know we will begin the year online, but we are hoping along with everyone else that by the end of the year we will have worked with artists, in-person, in our studio, and that we will have welcomed back audiences to see a new film or to hear from a visiting filmmaker. 

On behalf of Jennifer, Chris, Paul, Alexis, Layla, and Rachael, we thank you for your support and encouragement in 2020 and look forward to SEEING you in 2021!

Top of page: from filmmaker Tony Buba's contribution to Cinetracts '20; image courtesy of the artist

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