The six-week Thursday series, starting January 26, picks up where Spotlight Cinema left off.
After the sudden shuttering of AMC Madison 6 at the beginning of December 2022, the future of theatrical exhibition in Madison is looking dimmer, and not just because there are fewer projectors in operation. Between 2007 to 2017, before AMC took over the space at Hilldale Mall (430 N Midvale Blvd.), it was home to Sundance Cinemas 608. The theater served as a premiere space to discover art-house, international, and documentary titles in a more expanded capacity than the one-time screenings at downtown venues.
Those films off the beaten path so often landed in the laps of regular campus area programmers—including those at the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). From 2006 through 2021, they featured Spotlight Cinema on Wednesdays and Thursdays during the autumn months. The auditorium at 227 State St. became a notable destination for that brand of adventurous cinema from the curatorial eye of Tom Yoshikami (who moved away in 2015) and longtime UW Cinematheque and Wisconsin Film Festival programmer Mike King. But Spotlight suddenly stopped in 2022 as the Cinematheque initiated a spiritually similar fall premiere series on Thursdays at 4070 Vilas Hall.
This week, on January 26, cinema at MMoCA is making a notable return, kicking off a revamped Thursday evening series that runs every week at 7 p.m. through March 2. The screenings largely focus on new and cutting-edge documentaries—Riotsville USA (2022), De Humani Corporis Fabrica (2022), małni—towards the ocean towards the shore (2020), Stand By For Failure: A Documentary About Negativland (2022), and Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022)—supplemented by a lone narrative film, Leonor Will Never Die (2022), on February 2.
Local film programmer James Kreul, who took over MMoCA’s summer Rooftop Cinema series in 2018, moved into the vacated Spotlight position this past autumn. Working with former Director Of Education And Programs Charlotte Cummins as well as Director Of Communications Marni McEntee and Digital Content Coordinator Lucy Nguyen Pham, Kreul helped find a time frame in MMoCA’s calendar that would best coordinate with the Rooftop programming, which had shifted to Thursday nights in August after sunset. By dropping the “Spotlight” name and re-branding as the straightforward “MMoCA Cinema,” Kreul asserts that the museum could then theoretically move screenings to any time of year with ease, and then shed the established associations to a particular season.
“We want to do more film events that relate to exhibitions at the museum, like we did with Chloé Zhao’s The Rider back in February [of 2022], tied to the Kenneth Tam exhibition [Silent Spikes],” Kreul tells Tone Madison. For this new winter series, the February 16 screening of Sky Hopinka’s małni—towards the ocean towards the shore is cross-promoted with Wendy Red Star’s exhibition, Apsáalooke: Children Of The Large-Beaked Bird, that’s installed in the galleries through February 26. Hopinka (of Ho-Chunk Nation and Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians) is a filmmaker championed by Star, a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe. In the 2010s, MMoCA showed Hopinka’s short films several times at Rooftop Cinema (including a three-film program in June 2019), before he received a MacArthur Fellowship this past October. Star’s exhibition reexamines artifacts of American history through a Native perspective, while Hopinka’s małni offers a philosophically poetic tale on the origins of the death myth from the Chinookan people of Hopinka’s birthplace, the Pacific Northwest.
As this is one of Kreul’s main programming intentions moving forward, turbulent events of 2022, however, have cast some doubt on the museum’s leadership and its relationship to artists from marginalized communities. Following an Overture Center staff member’s verbal attack on artist Lilada Gee in March of 2022 that MMoCA staff tried to mitigate, months later a museum visitor defaced and even stole pieces of Gee’s installation “Black Girlhood Interrupted By Beth.” While unfinished, it was on display at MMoCA over the summer as part of the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial—an exhibit subtitled Ain’t I A Woman, explicitly centered around artwork from Black women, femmes, and gender non-conforming people. The museum board’s (mis)handling of this subsequent incident and its aftermath prompted an organized response from FWD: truth, a community of artists and their supporters.
Venues and artists also organized to boycott MMoCA’s Gallery Night in October and instead held an alternate event, “Artist’s Night.” A September panel discussion, “Black Women Artists Speak,” was held at Madison College’s south campus, hosted by the Madison Arts Commission, and moderated by Cummins. Cap Times reporter Nicholas Garton documented Black artists sharing traumatizing experiences there, and poet Fabu Phillis Carter alluding to the potential for the event to reach others in the community and platform younger voices.
These experiences were at the forefront of Kreul’s mind in reconfiguring not only this series, but MMoCA Cinema in general—to bolster diversity and films that reflect the artists’ inspirations and perspectives in their exhibitions. In the past, MMoCA had community advisory committees that facilitated outreach and educated staff on issues raised by exhibitions. And those roles have evolved into official advisory groups—First Nations Advisory Group and Latinx Advisory Group, to name a couple—to ensure perspectives of local and regional communities are represented. An official MMoCA statement provided to Tone Madison claims “these partnerships have been incredibly fruitful and have resulted in […] the cartonera workshop, lecture on labor migration, and poetry event for the [2021-2022] exhibition Caja De Visiones, with more in progress for current and upcoming exhibitions.”
Kreul took that approach with the December 2022 matinee screening of The Cry Of Jazz (1959) and Sapphire (1959), two films artist Faisal Abdu’Allah cited in a reading list that accompanies his exhibition Dark Matter. This continues into 2023 with the aforementioned Star and Hopinka connection as well as with the final feature in this MMoCA Cinema series, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. Nina Menkes’ feminist documentary, centered on abusive patriarchal coding in film, accompanies Christina Ramberg’s exhibition, Vertical Amnesia. The screening concludes the series on March 2, the same day as the exhibit opens. MMoCA calls the late Ramberg’s work “a gateway to discussing femininity, femme, and the gaze.”
To those who may glance at the lineup and immediately wonder about the saturation of documentaries, Kreul cites his “experience teaching an online documentary appreciation course through Arts + Literature Laboratory during the pandemic” invigorating his interest in the format. He especially prefers hybrid documentaries “that mix in techniques that are usually associated with narrative or experimental films.” To that end, the selected films speak to the range of experimentalism that can exist within what may be categorized as “documentary” for sake of convenience or promotion.
Kreul confesses that he’s trying to arc the programming to start with more general audience appeal in Riotsville USA on that first Thursday, January 26, before moving onto more experimental horizons in subsequent weeks. They encompass sensory ethnography (in De Humani by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor of Leviathan fame), lyrical personal essay (in małni), and collage (in Stand By For Failure, the portrait of American plunderphonics innovators Negativland). With the latter, Kreul adds, as an aside, “I think that will be the most fun screening, because Negativland has a strong following in Madison. Of all the films in the series, [the doc] had the most ‘likes’ when MMoCA posted the Facebook event page on its first day.”
Kreul also believes in the appeal of the outlying Leonor Will Never Die, the first narrative feature by Martika Ramirez Escobar, a postmodernist comedy about a retired Filipina filmmaker’s near-death experience that prompts her to become the heroine of her own unfinished screenplay. (Full disclosure: Last year, I actually pitched this film to Kreul due to my connections with Mills Folly Microcinema, which I help program.) Escobar’s film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for Best International Film by the Independent Spirit Awards in late November 2022. Some of the more intriguing appraisals of Leonor celebrate its style, with Robert Abele of The LA Times likening it to a comic version of By The Time It Gets Dark (2016), which combines elements of political drama, essay film, and surrealism. On the prospect of consciously programming more narrative features, Kreul says he’s “always happy to be a part of those.”
Time will tell whether the relationship between MMoCA and community members can be amended after 2022’s tumult. Representatives for the protesting FWD: truth do not believe so, including Emily Leach, who’s taken into account the full scope of their issues with leadership (and “not consultants, museum staff, or Kreul as a programmer,” they write). In response to a prompt about the film series’ connections, Leach asserts that “if the museum wants to rebuild trust and strengthen relationships through programming, it’s taking a deliberately indirect approach to our ongoing concerns. While I celebrate the visibility and support of fellow marginalized artists, I am concerned that the museum’s initiatives operate to salvage their reputation and cultural capital while denying our voices and experiences. These efforts aren’t just, fitting, or responsive without publicly acknowledging and engaging with the harms done.”
As the year progresses, without a more open dialogue that strives towards reconciliation, MMoCA may continue to weather blows to its standing as an artistic and artist-minded destination. But, as a programmer, Kreul wants to focus on providing an ample space for artistic and more underground films to complement a selection of exhibiting artists’ perspectives and foster further community dialogue. “I’m confident that the series will be a positive and rewarding experience for those who attend. I look forward to a range of responses after each screening,” he says.
As we move into 2023, the more subversive corners of the world cinema landscape are being represented in Madison, even if the films aren’t seeing multiple screenings in commercial theatrical venues. Kreul is already examining Rooftop Cinema options for August, forging ahead with the luminous curiosity that he hopes MMoCA has been (and still can be) known for, in prioritizing “the shared experience of watching great films together.”