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Screen Presence

Kalamazoo Film Society has celebrated filmmaking for 35 years

Films. Even the word is outdated in the literal sense now that filmmakers are shooting feature-length movies on iPhones and editing them on laptops at a kitchen table. And viewing films no longer requires visiting a theater, since they can just as easily be viewed on websites, cable TV and streaming services.
So, where does that leave organizations like the Kalamazoo Film Society, whose whole reason for being is to celebrate the art of filmmaking?


“We realize that the industry is changing fast, and our mission continues to be to provide a diverse selection of films, ranging from the most recent winners at Cannes, Sundance and other film festivals to the best that the American independent film movement has to offer. But… the best place to watch a movie is still on the big screen,” says Dhera Strauss, current president of the Kalamazoo Film Society and retired Kalamazoo College media producer and instructor.


The Kalamazoo Film Society was founded in 1988, and its origin story plays out like an indie film from the ‘80s: A group of film aficionados decides that the show must go on after their beloved Le Bijou Theatre, in the lower level of what is now the Radisson Plaza Hotel, closes its doors, leaving the city without a venue for the screening of independent and foreign films.

Enter the Little Theatre


Dedicated to bringing independent and outside-the-norm films to Kalamazoo audiences that might otherwise not have access to them, KFS initially showed movies in a variety of venues before receiving an invitation from Diether Haenicke, then-president of Western Michigan University, to make its home base the Little Theatre, on WMU’s campus — a venue, by the way, that got its start as a movie theater back in the 1940s.


With the Little Theatre as a new home, KFS volunteers secured the films, ran the film projector, sold and took tickets, and handled the overall logistics of operating a movie theater. The downsides of such an endeavor were the limitations of the theater’s lone screen and dependence on a volunteer staff.


“Because we were doing everything ourselves, we could only showcase one film a month,” says Strauss. “We were limited on show times and funds, but we made the best of it, and people still talk about our time at the Little Theatre.”


Mike Marchak, KFS president at the time, recalls an incident that shows the importance and impact of film.


“Back when we were still at the Little Theatre, we received the rights to show the film Persepolis, a 2007 animated film about an Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution of 1979,” Marchak says.

“This film was actually banned from being shown in Iran, so we were very excited to be able to show it to our audience.


“Meanwhile, just down the road from us, Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner, was appearing at the Great Lakes PeaceJam Youth Conference at the WMU Bernhard Center. Somehow, she heard that we were showing Persepolis and she came to our viewing — first time she was able to see this incredible film. It was the biggest high for us that we were able to do that for her.”


But as more movies became digitally produced and film reels more antiquated, it became clear that KFS had outgrown the Little Theatre’s dated projection equipment, so the group started seeking alternate sites. Enter the Alamo Drafthouse.


A Texas-based cinema chain, the Alamo Drafthouse opened its only Michigan location at the corner of Portage Road and South Street in 2013. Alamo had not only 10 screens but also a unique-for-the-time option of offering food and alcoholic beverages, so patrons really could have “dinner and a movie.” With help from James Sanford, marketing manager at the theater, KFS found a new venue and an ideal partner. Unfortunately, after only three years, the Alamo Drafthouse closed, leaving KFS once again without a home for showing films.


But Eric Kuiper, director of alternative programming at Celebration Cinema Crossroads in Portage, was paying attention. Kuiper offered to partner with KFS and provide a home base for the organization — a partnership that continues to this day. It’s a deal KFS sees as being beneficial to both parties.

Celebration gets to sell more tickets and concessions, while KFS benefits from the number of screens available and the chain’s program that brings arthouse films to smaller cities that otherwise would never be able to see these films.


“It’s truly a win-win for everyone,” Strauss says. “We can now feature so many more films, and we’re no longer dependent on volunteers for the logistics of running the films. Last year we helped bring over 50 films to the Kalamazoo area. And, unlike with the limited show times at the Little Theatre, at Celebration Cinema we’re able to provide patrons with multiple show times and days, allowing people the flexibility to see the films around their schedules.”


“And let’s not forget the popcorn,” she adds with a laugh.


Online Options


Even with a secure home, the 150-member film society has faced challenges. With the devastating arrival of Covid-19, which brought business and organizational efforts to a standstill, KFS board members were forced to come up with movie viewing alternatives for its members, including watch parties for the Academy Awards and movies available on popular streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon Prime. One such watch party, a viewing of In This Family, a documentary short exploring a Filipino family’s reaction to having a gay son that won the audience selection in the PBS Short Film Festival, even netted the participation of the film’s director, writer and star Drama Del Rosario in the group’s Zoom session. These collective-viewing events were followed by discussion and reviews. And even though folks are again seeing movies in cinemas, the success of these online events has KFS planning to continue to offer them.


“We understand the importance of incorporating the online aspect that films now provide to us while also acknowledging that watching a great movie is still a special experience best enjoyed with others in the dark of a movie theater,” Strauss explains.


And the organization is not just about watching movies but also supports the making of movies. KFS partnered with Celebration Cinema Crossroads this past February for its first annual KFS Filmmakers Showcase, an evening celebrating local filmmakers who had the opportunity to have their short films shown on the big screen and to participate in a Q&A session with the audience.


The event was not a competition, Strauss emphasizes, but a showcase honoring all local filmmakers that participated.


“We’re not about ‘who’s best.’ Seeing your hard work up on the big screen is a gift,” she says. “You always want to feel like the film you created is a part of you, and we can help make it successful by inviting people to talk about the film and the process and story behind it.”


Marchak also emphasizes the significance of the big screen. “We understand that people today are watching movies on phones and laptops, but movies are meant to be viewed on the big screen at a movie theater for the full effect, with the sharpest of visuals and the best-quality sound. That is the greatest art form of the 21st century.”

Heidi McCrary

Heidi is a Kalamazoo writer whose novel, Chasing North Star, is available at Kazoo Books and This is a Bookstore and online. You can follow her at heidimccrary.net and facebook.com/HeidiMcCraryAuthor.

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