Wednesday, April 16, 2008


When Sean Uyehara spoke with Yerba Buena Center for the Art's film and video curator Joel Shepard for SF360 roughly a year ago, he described Joel as just "about as understated as it gets." Clearly, a healthy dose of humility helps Joel Shepard maintain perspective. But it only takes a cursory glance at YBCA's upcoming film programs to determine Joel's brave, exploratory if not downright edgy vision. I thought it was high time he and I had a talk so I was pleased when he accepted my invitation for Thai food at Cha'am.

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Michael Guillén: So Joel, you're going into your second decade of programming.

Joel Shepard: Oh God….

Guillén: That's remarkable! Roughly half of that time has been at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ("YBCA")? Where were you programming before YBCA?

Shepard: I moved to San Francisco in 1994. I worked for the San Francisco Cinematheque for three years. I wasn't the programmer there; I was the associate director. I moved from Minneapolis and I was programming there for two organizations for about five years.

Guillén: How did you score the position at YBCA?

Shepard: I was working at Cinematheque and I wasn't particularly happy there. I wanted to get back into more fulltime programming. Yerba Buena hired a new executive director who came from Minneapolis. I knew him from there. We had worked together on some projects. At that time, YBCA didn't have a developed film program. They had the screening room but they didn't really know what they were doing. They had someone who would organize a screening once in a while. When my friend from Minneapolis hired on as executive director, he decided he wanted to have a film program that would be on par with the visual and performing arts programs. So they opened up the job and I ended up getting it. I was very lucky. I got to pretty much build the program from scratch to get things the way I wanted them to be. They didn't even have the 35mm projector yet. It wasn't a proper screening room. You can't do a real film program without 35mm. That was something I had to make happen right away.

Guillén: That was luck! Curatorial and programming positions are in high demand. Your training at the Art Institute of Chicago was in film though, right? Did they offer curatorial training there?

Shepard: No. They didn't have it. CCA now has a curatorial studies department but it's more for visual arts than film. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago because I loved film. I have since I was a kid. My dad was a huge film buff and he passed it on to me, I think. He used to take us to movies all the time. He'd put us kids in pajamas and go to the drive-in, stuff like that. He was one of the first people in Minneapolis to buy a VCR when the BETAMax first came out and they cost $3,000. You could only record an hour at a time. So I studied film in Chicago but I didn't really feel that was where my talents were. I tried to make film but I was really terrible at it. [Chuckles.] But I loved watching film and writing about film and spreading enthusiasm about film.

Guillén: I would definitely call you a film enthusiast, which is a term that has come into its own recently with the advent of internet journalism and the opportunity to distinguish one's writing from more familiar consumer advocacy film criticism. You have certainly gained a name and a following in the Bay Area. You're one of my favorite programmers! You have an idiosyncratic style and vision. What is it you want to offer at YBCA that isn't being offered elsewhere?

Shepard: Well, that's what I want to do: offer what isn't being offered elsewhere. We never really repeat what any other venue in town is doing. I do a lot of detective work, looking under rocks and finding films that have been overlooked by other venues.

Guillén: How do you accomplish that gumshoe work? Do you study other venues' calendars?

Shepard: I do some of that. I go to two or three film festivals every year. I sometimes go to Toronto, though that doesn't tend to be where I discover things. I go to Rotterdam or Pusan where you have a much better chance of discovering something off the beaten track. It also comes from knowing a lot of film history. When I got started, what I wanted to do was celebrate a lot of film genres and areas of film that were considered disreputable. I did a lot of exploitation programming at first—stuff that people were kind of scared to do in the field—and looking at things like educational films, things that weren't considered serious film, but looking at them in a new way to see what the past reveals about the present. That's been a challenge. In my early programming years, I was doing a lot of that. That's all become much more popular but I was a pioneer! [Laughs.]

Guillén: It's got to start somewhere!

Shepard: And I think there are plenty of holes. Even though we have an amazing film culture here in the Bay Area, there's still a lot that has been forgotten in even high level film and major contemporary art cinema. The San Francisco International Film Festival can only do so much and they forget about things or there are things that slip through.

Guillén: Your attention to the careers of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas was where you caught my eye, especially through the residency programs where the filmmaker was present to discuss his films. How were those residencies financed?

Shepard: We used to have a grant from the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund for residencies. YBCA got a big grant of a million dollars so for a while there for a few years I was able to program more extended visits from filmmakers. We had other ones too before Apichatpong. We had Jim Hoberman from The Village Voice who came for a weeklong series of programs. We had a great South African filmmaker named Ian Kerkhof [now Aryan Kaganof]. Early on, we had a little more experimentally-oriented filmmakers, and a mix of critics and filmmakers, Jonathan Rosenbaum did a weeklong series.

Guillén: I wish I would have been more into film at that point. I regret missing those programs. I'm certainly looking forward to Hoberman attending this year's SF International.

Shepard: We've had a lot over the years; but, we lost the grant. We ran out of money on the grant and it wasn't renewed. Now I can only do one thing a year. One or two. I try to add an element that you can't get elsewhere; some "live" part of the screening, especially with the artist there, but one can't always do that. I looked at all these art venues around the country and it seemed like they were all doing the same things. They were all circulating the same film programs to each other. No one took any risks. That's what I want to do.

Guillén: And YBCA is a supportive atmosphere that honors your risk taking?

Shepard: Yeah. I'm very lucky in that regard. I'm not sure that the program that I do could work anywhere else.

Guillén: I love your blend of "high" and "low" art—if those categories even apply—and that you test your audiences regarding those categories. You admirably mix art films with genre and exploitation pieces.

Shepard: That's what I try to do. Not privilege one cinema over the other. Find value in all forms of cinema. I think it's there but you've got to pull it out. It makes a difference to be completely sincere and honest with people, with filmmakers. I've been able to get films that the San Francisco International Film Festival wanted by being completely honest with people and saying, "Yeah, you'll get a bigger audience if you show it in the International Film Festival; but, I can offer you something different. I can offer you an intimate screening that will have a bit more meaning to people and be much more interactive. You'll make contacts in a different way."

Guillén: I respect that you say you want to do your own thing; but, doesn't coalition work help in securing and circulating programs?

Shepard: When I was a little younger, I was like, "I'm doing totally my own thing. I'm a maverick!" [Chuckles.] But, actually, you want to share.

Guillén: Especially if you've put so much effort into curating a program and pulling it together?

Shepard: Yeah, and especially if you can help something get screened more. I do have respective colleagues so—if I do show something—it gives it a stamp of approval and people will look seriously at it elsewhere.

Guillén: By example, you've just finished up the Nikkatsu Action Cinema series—"No Borders, No Limits"—which was quite well-received here in the Bay Area. Kimberly Lindbergs provided a great overview at her site Cinebeats and Brian Darr followed through with a fun review of A Colt Is My Passport at Hell On Frisco Bay. I sampled the series via Red Handkerchief. The Nikkatsu Action Cinema series was, however, a program that had been generated elsewhere?

Shepard: Yeah. I chose highlights from a bigger series originally created by Mark Schilling for the Udine Far East Film Festival. I thought the series shouldn't play just in Udine; these films should be screened beyond that festival. So Schilling and I worked together to bring some of the films to San Francisco and the series is playing in a few cities throughout the country.

Guillén: And most of these films are not available on video?

Shepard: None of them are. Not even in Japan. This was your chance to see these films. A lot of what I do is like, "This is it!"

Guillén: Yet, you have done some encore programming, such as with Zidane, which you brought back due to popular demand, and which several folks are still clamoring to see.

Shepard: We still have the print sitting in my office. We had 16 sold-out screenings of Zidane so I thought, "That's enough." But, amazingly, people still want to see it. It's a beautiful film.

Guillén: Can we talk about your upcoming programs? You've got some amazing stuff coming up, not the least of which is Jia Zhang-ke's films Dong and Useless. Following closely on the San Francisco International screening of Still Life and its theatrical distribution at the Roxie, this will get San Franciscan audiences up to speed with Jia Zhang-ke's films.

Shepard: There's so much interest in China now.

Guillén: Absolutely. You're aware that the first film to sell out its screenings at the San Francisco International is Up the Yangtze?

Shepard: It's amazing too because there are so many films on that subject. It's just so timely. Actually, our next residency is a Chinese filmmaker.

Guillén: Really? May I ask who?

Shepard: He's not super well-known; it's Wang Bing.

Guillén: Oooooh! I caught his short Brutality Factory in the State of the World omnibus that Yerba Buena screened a while back. It was actually the most compelling of the batch.

Shepard: He has this amazing film called Fengming, A Chinese Memoir. Prior to the Cultural Revolution in China there was another movement called the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was a similar kind of movement. Basically, anybody with any power to spread intellectual ideas—teachers—were shuttled away and put into work camps. The whole film is very simple. He basically sets up a camera and this woman tells her whole story of getting involved in this. It shows an intellectual, an English teacher, her going to the work camps, losing her children because of this, and then the movement dissolves and these people finally go back into society. It's absolutely frightening.

Guillén: I was stunned by Brutality Factory. Not only did it look great; but, it was truly disturbing. I thought a lot about it afterwards.

Shepard: He's primarily a documentary filmmaker. His style is to stare at something until it reveals itself.

Guillén: That's certainly a residency to look forward to! Now, your program on Queer Satanists—"Homoccult and Other Esoterotica"—first of all, did you come up with that title? Are you creating language for us again? [Laughter.]

Shepard: No, that's somebody else. That's a guest-curated program by some crazy gay guys in New York. I like to do guest-curated programs. There's a lot of talent out there.

Guillén: But you've cautioned me that it's fairly challenging?

Shepard: It's pretty rough stuff, yeah. Some of it. Not the whole thing.

Guillén: There's a sold-out program right there!

Shepard: [Chuckles.] Probably. It's a good title they came up with; but, yeah, it's pretty esoteric; the dark side of male sexuality.

Guillén: It includes bloodletting?

Shepard: Yeah, some of those performance artists who cut themselves.

Guillén: And Asia Argento isn't around to lap it up or anything? [Laughter.]

Shepard: No. I'm not sure she'd like the real thing.

Guillén: One of my all-time favorite filmmakers is "Joe", of course, and so your programs of his short works is highly anticipated. Are these the same pieces that were shown at REDCAT in Los Angeles?

Shepard: Some of them. It's more than what they showed down there. This is two full programs. Three and a half hours of material that he's been making since early in his career. That's his prime inspiration: experimental filmmaking. Filmmakers like Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, and filmmakers like that were why he started making films. He actually went to the Art Institute of Chicago too. It's almost all non-narrative work and it's great to be able to see it together. Some of the films have floated through various film festivals but it's never been assembled all together. I'm not sure if any of them have been shown in San Francisco before.

Guillén: Being that your film programs are situated within an art facility, I imagine that has allowed you to indulge experimental film, which would be difficult to program elsewhere?

Shepard: It's tricky because it's so hard to get audiences. That's my orientation ultimately. Experimental film is the kind of film that's closest to my heart. That's what my education was in. That was the emphasis at the Art Institute of Chicago. That's what opened my eyes to the possibility of cinema and the non-narrative. It changed me forever to see these kinds of films. I remember the first film that changed things was Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls. I saw that in Minneapolis and it showed me that film could be totally different than what I thought it was.

Guillén: In the face of the parade of meaningless and uninteresting product coming out of Hollywood and Indiewood, experimental cinema offers the chance for something fresh. Admittedly, however, it's an acquired taste. I'm still developing my taste for it. I have several friends who have ushered me to programs of experimental shorts and have had to lash me down to the seat for fear that I didn't do harm to myself. [Laughter.]

Shepard: It takes a while. I know.

Guillén: But I'm getting there! Joe was the first experimental filmmaker who really spoke to me. I think the culture has matured as well in how experimental tropes—if that's the right word—have influenced mainstream film.

Shepard: Yeah, that's kind of what Joe's doing, using all these experimental techniques in feature filmmaking.

Guillén: So following the queer Satanists program is a weekend of witchcraft programming. What's going on? Halloween in mid-May?

Shepard: I guess so. I don't know where that came from. I'm not really sure. [Chuckles.] I think it was because I had picked up that Carl Dreyer box set and it had his Day of Wrath in it, which is just so stunning, it has so much weight. So the Witchcraft Weekend was just a little tossed-off series. I think Snow White will look great in that screening room, in an intimate space where you can study the whole frame. I think it's the first Disney film we've ever shown. [Also included in the Witchcraft Weekend will be Benjamin Christensen's Witchcraft Through the Ages and William O. Brown's The Witchmaker.]

Guillén: Another jewel in the upcoming program lineup is Ukranian director Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Shepard: It's never been very accessible and it's a masterpiece of world cinema. It's one of those films that has only been available on crummy 16mm prints over the years and there's now a new print of it that really some place like the Castro should be showing; but, they've gotten a little more conservative in their repertory programming. They passed on it.

Guillén: They're distracted by scoring the new Indiana Jones movie.

Shepard: I heard about that.

Guillén: Indiana Jones and Sex in the City.

Shepard: They're doing that too?

Guillén: Yup. I think Sex in the City is going to premiere in San Francisco at the Castro. It kind of makes sense though. We all know those female characters in Sex in the City are really gay men. I'm not as opposed to the Castro adjusting their programming to include blockbuster first runs as some are because, again, my focus is on the sociality of film culture and the Castro Theatre is one of the City's main social venues. Above all, I want the theater to survive and if red carpet events enable that, I'm okay with it. Yerba Buena is likewise one of the City's prime social watering holes. Along with your consummate film programming, the venue has a social cachet going for it.

Shepard: I wish we could make it moreso. I wish we could add a café or more of a socializing space that people could spend time in after the screenings to discuss them. It would be great. Some of the theaters in Europe have a little bar in the cinema where you can hang around afterwards. We don't really have that. Our institution's kind of cold. We try to do things to warm it up a little bit; but, it's tough.

Guillén: That being said, however, the fact that you have created a social circle that frequents and meets in the screening room has its warmth, which I personally appreciate. It's always fun to run into friends there. One of your past programs that was such a great evening—a memorable social event really—was The Wild Pussycat. That was such a hoot! The audience just ate it up. It was so much fun. Sure, it wasn't a masterpiece, but it had just enough schtick to it and enough cult history to it that it made it just a lot of fun to be in the YBCA screening room that night.

Shepard: There's a place for fun in cinema. That's another thing that bothered me when I first got started in this work; was just how sober and serious everything was these art theaters were doing. I felt there was room for other stuff.

Guillén: Absolutely! Kent Jones in his recent collection of critical essays has a great piece defending the summer blockbuster. It truly impressed me that someone of his stature would accommodate the public taste for the summer blockbuster. Continuing on with your program line-up, what's Yoga, Inc. about?

Shepard: There are no films about yoga that I'm aware of. Yoga, Inc. is a new documentary about the corporatization of yoga. It's about this guy Bikram Choudhury who's so popular. But there's a dark side to what he's doing. He's trying to copyright certain yoga poses. It's really a film about how yoga was initially a spiritual thing and how it's become a phenomenon where people are basically showing off difficult positions.

Guillén: The ongoing hazards of spiritual materialism.

Shepard: Yeah. It's another film that's sort of passed everyone by and I know there would be an audience for it.

Guillén: How about Mike Kelley's Day Is Done? I'm not familiar with him.

Shepard: That's more of a fine art type of film. He's more for an SFMoma type of audience. It's really quite an epic that he's made, nearly three hours. He's looked at hundreds of high school yearbooks and reconstructed many of the corny scenes from high school yearbooks of dress-up days, punk day, and various concerts and proms, stuff like that. He's turned this stuff around. It's a series of sketches and recreations from yearbooks; but, it's more of an SFMoma-prestige program. It's kind of difficult stuff.

Guillén: When you're finding out about these rare overlooked films and placing them in your programs, is the actual screening at YBCA the first time you've seen the films?

Shepard: You don't want to do that, no. You can't do that. I mean, sometimes you have to do that with certain films. Like there were a couple of these Japanese films that I couldn't see in advance, two of the six I couldn't see, but normally, no, you don't want to do that. It could get you into trouble. Sometimes it's necessary, especially if you're doing a whole retrospective of someone's work. There's going to be something that's not available.

Guillén: Philippe Garrel's films have been having a recent resurgence. J'entends plus la guitare (I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore) has been written up here and there lately. It's made me curious how people are accessing the film. Is it available on DVD?

Shepard: No.

Guillén: Is a new print traveling around?

Shepard: There's a guy working for the Brooklyn Academy of Music that has started this tiny company The Film Desk that's releasing two films, this one and Monsieur Verdoux. So he's making J'entends plus la guitare available. It opened in New York a couple of weeks ago for a meager one-week run there. Garrel is well-known for his long relationship with Nico from The Velvet Underground and that's what this film is about: his very traumatic relationship with Nico. She died of a heroin overdose during their relationship and J'entends plus la guitare is a retelling of that in an oblique way. We're going to pair it with Andy Warhol's film on The Velvet Underground, which is the only sync sound film ever recorded of that band. It's pretty raw.

Guillén: You're also bringing back Cinekink in its fourth year. That was a series that originated in New York?

Shepard: Yes. I had been looking at what they'd been doing for years and I thought, "San Francisco is a natural place for this." Kind of a needed film thing here in some ways. We worked with them to bring a version of it to San Francisco.

Guillén: As we were discussing earlier about mixing "high" and "low" art, I equally admire that you're bringing fringe cultures into a mainstream art space. Don't let YBCA be just for the snobs!

Shepard: That's a lot of what I do: challenging the idea of an art center and what's appropriate to show in the screening room.

Guillén: YBCA seems to have an overall philosophy that veers in that way. They tend to exhibit edgy installation work, performance pieces, musical performances. Almost everything they bring in is a little edgy.

Shepard: That's true. It is. So I'm always aware of that. I'm aware that some people would think, "Oh, a place like that will just show art films." So I'm always mixing that up.

Guillén: One issue that's become a bit controversial in the Bay Area, if not throughout the culture, is digital projection. My understanding is that—if you can—you always elect to show celluloid and not replace it with digital and—if you do screen in digital—you always inform your audiences.

Shepard: Yeah. We have a great digital projection system; but, I won't show something on digital if that's not its intended exhibition format. The only time we've done that is if there's been a shipping mistake. I consider, "Should we cancel the screening or show a DVD?"

Guillén: Kudos to you and YBCA for that policy. I don't mean to single anyone out, but, recently during the SFMoma screenings, they showed The Good, The Bad and The Ugly projected off of DVD. For me, that's unacceptable, especially if the audience isn't advised ahead of time and is assuming they're paying to watch a 35mm projection. It generates bad feeling and is, in effect, false advertising. One of the few times, if not the only time, that I came to YBCA expecting to see a film on 35mm and saw it digitally projected instead was the State of the World omnibus; however, YBCA posted a large sign at the base of the stairs advising that this was being done. It gave me the opportunity as a customer to decide whether or not I wanted to slap money down for a ticket. I become infuriated when I buy my ticket, come into the theater, and only afterwards discover the film will be projected on DVD. That's just not fair.

Shepard: You can't do that. Digital projection is for digitally-produced pieces that are intended to be distributed that way. Everything's leaning more that way; but, a lot of people don't understand that we have to keep both of the formats alive. Just because we have this newer digital technology doesn't mean we should do away with film. I love these new technologies but you can't forget about film. You can't just throw it out.

Guillén: I agree 100%. I'm of the opinion that seeing films projected in celluloid is going to go the way of the higher arts like the symphony or opera. In the future I think you're going to have to pay good money to see a film projected on celluloid, as it was intended. I could see such programming happening at YBCA and—hopefully—SFMoma, if they'd stop being so lazy.

Shepard: Projecting celluloid digitally cheapens the whole moviegoing experience. You can do that at home.

Guillén: Exactly. The Michael Haneke made-for-television films; what's going on there?

Shepard: That's how Haneke started out. Seventh Continent was his first theatrically-released film, but before that he made a lot of television films—10 of them or something like that—and they're just as ruthless as his theatrical films. But they've not been seen outside of Austria and Germany. So we put together a program of four of those made for television films. We could have done more but we chose the best four and condensed the program down. These are very special films. This is another instance where you're not going to see these films anywhere else. We've been working with the Goethe Institute—not the one in San Francisco but the one in Boston—to bring these films.

Guillén: Which leads me to ask: as film audiences are maturing and being educated by what's being made available in film culture, vintage television is becoming more and more attractive not only for their nostalgic entertainment value but for the historical comment on the development of our culture. Do you see the possibility of doing more programming of television product?

Shepard: I would like to, yeah.

Guillén: For example, I've been catching episodes of The Big Valley on the Encore Western Channel and they've been thoroughly entertaining me, not the least of which for having the opportunity to watch these actors at the beginning of their careers. You see them testing their chops in admittedly formulaic scripts and I find it fascinating.

Shepard: There's a whole world there to discover. A lot of that material, however, is very tricky because of the rights issues. The rights were made for television and so to show things in theaters, the rights aren't structured that way so a lot of times they're not allowed. They're only for broadcast. There's also a whole world of crazy made-for-TV movies that's a territory to be discovered. Access is really tough for that stuff. Another issue is that it's hard to get good prints. There's all kinds of stuff from the past that I would love to show but you can't get good prints because there's no economic incentive anymore for these companies to conserve these prints.

Guillén: You've talked about the detective work you do to put together your programs. Are there magazines or resources that advise curators and programmers what's available for exhibition that you review to know where the prints are? How do you find the prints and how do you determine what condition they're in?

Shepard: There's no central resource. There's a good Yahoo programmers group where we share information but even that's pretty limited.

Guillén: So you're saying it's pretty much word-of-mouth?

Shepard: Yeah. And over the years, over time, you develop your network. I'm pretty tied into a network of film collectors, archivists, people like that. That's something I'm actually pretty good at. That's part of the detective work I was talking about. I find things that nobody thought were available. You just keep at it.

Guillén: Thank you for those excavations. That's one of the reasons I feel so blessed here in the Bay Area. Your work at YBCA, Jesse Hawthorne Ficks' work for Midnights for Maniacs, Marc Huestis's stage extravaganzas, Stephen Parr's eclectic programs at Oddball Cinema, they all provide a rich tapesty of effort and outcome. Just the facility you guys have to locate prints!

Shepard: Every two years YBCA does a "Bay Area Now" exhibition that highlights the brightest Bay Area artists of the moment. It's a big deal. It's YBCA's most popular exhibition and I always do a film program. This year I decided—instead of having filmmakers—to do a showcase of film programmers because in some ways I think there's more interesting work going on with programmers. Jesse's going to do a show. Peaches Christ is going to do a show. A number of other programmers will be involved.

Guillén: That's great! I've long thought public programming can be an art form. And yet I know that one of the objectives of The Evening Class was to profile programmers because I feel they all too often are invisible people whose true work isn't acknowledged. It's been fascinating for me these last few years to talk to most of the programmers in the Bay Area to see how they go about creating their programs and—by extension—the sociality of film culture that I ardently believe in. We are a mediated culture and it behooves us to understand how we've been mediated.