This past July a friend invited me to Spectacle Theater to see a screening of work entitled “Sequence 01” by a traveling micro-cinema called NO EVIL EYE, which originated in Columbus, Ohio. According to the Spectacle description of the screening, they are “a radical micro-cinema that aims to redefine the creative and social parameters of non-metropolitan film scenes.” Being from Ohio myself, and spending more and more time these days thinking about what it might mean to live in a part of the country that isn’t New York City, I was intrigued. The screening exceeded all of my expectations.
“Sequence 01,” NO EVIL EYE’S inaugural program, is an extremely intuitive collection of work. The films are organized around common themes (issues of diaspora, immigration, landscape, and memory) but the program also transcends those themes through the ways in which the different films employ the camera, text, superimposition, and visual contrast. “Sequence 01” also presents the rarified experience of seeing work from established filmmakers, like Nuotama Bodomo’s Afronauts (2014), screening alongside work from lesser and even unknown filmmakers from the Midwest, like Claudia Owusu and Natasha Woods.
The founders and programmers of NO EVIL EYE, Ingrid Raphael and Rooney Elmi, actively looked towards underexposed corners of the internet, as well as the festival circuit, to create the program, with each screening featuring a hands-on political activity that reflects the issues present in the films. Raphael and Elmi’s idea of what a micro-cinema can be is an evolving one that changes and grows with each screening they put on. A few weeks after the Spectacle screening, I had a phone call with them to discuss NO EVIL EYE, curating political films, and cinema’s likely shift to regionality, among other things.
Rail: You talked about the origins of NO EVIL EYE at your recent Spectacle screening but I was wondering if you could start by sharing how and where and why the project came together, and a little bit about how you envision it living in both physical and online spaces.
Raphael: We came up with NO EVIL EYE out of a need to create a kind of space that wasn’t available to us in Columbus, Ohio. When people think of filmmaking, and the industry, they think of the big metropolitan cities, New York and LA, and we really wanted to make something more niche, something that reflected our experiences in Columbus.
Elmi: Ingrid and I both had a love-hate relationship with the Columbus creative scene. There was so much happening but there still wasn’t really any community around it. It was very disenfranchised. What we are trying to do with NO EVIL EYE is to create a hub, a radical underground scene, for people who don’t necessarily feel represented, and to create that in a physical space. And it’s really important for us that we take that experience on the road because when it comes to film you go into movie theaters and you have an experience that is ninety minutes long and then you leave and there is no connectivity, no conversation or discourse at all. So, creating physical spaces where people can connect is a massive objective of our mission.
Rail: I’ve been thinking so much, as a filmmaker myself, about how New York is too expensive and how hard it is to live here, and how ingrained all the institutions are and I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible for anything innovative and truly radical to come out of a place like this? It’s very interesting to hear you guys talking about how in Columbus it was that absence that allowed you to create NO EVIL EYE.
Elmi: Yeah, for sure.
Rail: You were talking about creating a space where people could be recognized that weren’t recognized before and I’m curious to know more about how your programming balances the art of cinema with representation and politics?
Raphael: Our first film program is all POC and we are pretty adamant about representing voices that haven’t been represented in traditional cinema. In our last call for films we specifically asked for films by Midwesterners because we understood that they might not have as many avenues as people living on the coasts or in bigger cities. It isn’t just identity-based though, it’s also based on the way the filmmakers have used the camera to tell their story. Another way that we do it is through a community component, where we partner up with a local political organization or activists. So, recently in New York we did a session on prison letter writing to refugee teens in a detention center in Upstate New York. It mirrored the film program, which was about immigration, diaspora, landscape, memory, and racial reckoning. That’s the way we are able to bridge the political and the personal, as well as the cinematic. I think in a lot of radical film spaces they talk about theory and not necessarily about practice and approach, there is no actual manifestation. And with NO EVIL EYE we are completely flipping that on its head.
Elmi: Ingrid and I met as political organizers, so we had that as the basis of our friendship. We relate on that level and we built NO EVIL EYE on that structure and that’s the blueprint for our manifesto. We are actively trying to create something that isn’t a scene or isn’t brandable. So, with the touring series, we are trying to connect with different cities and to create that physical space, even if it’s just for a day or a couple of hours, and having a local filmmaker there in the theater to talk with the audience. So much of what we are about is regionality. And so many people don’t know what Columbus is about and they don’t know about Milwaukee or St. Louis or similar cities. There is talent everywhere and we want to be able to hand the mic to the filmmakers, as well as the audience, and establish an equilibrium in different cities.
Rail: Rooney, you are still living in Columbus and Ingrid, you just moved to Harlem. Those were also the locations of your first two screenings of “Sequence 01.” Do you think you’ll be working with people in different parts of the country to host screenings themselves or will both of you physically be travelling to all of the screenings? Is something like this sustainable?
Elmi: Right now we think that it’s important for us to be present at screenings to contextualize what this micro-cinema is so we can adapt as time goes on. We are open to new ideas. But what we are most excited about is that there is no set definition. So, with every new city and every new event we are actively creating a space. With every iteration of the “Sequence,” we are trying to reflect the city that we are in. So, in Columbus or any city for that matter, we are reflecting the growing transnational communities and changing landscapes according to the theme of our inaugural program.
Raphael: Rooney and I are very intentional with the space that we create as we figure out the identity of NO EVIL EYE and how it will work in different spaces. It’s important for us to see how the audience engages with it and the feedback we get. It’s like a living body. So many people see a film and they have no idea how a film gets to the screen, and we want to talk about that and make that known. Traveling with the program is a good experiment and a way for us to learn from all the different micro-cinemas working outside of the industry.
Rail: I imagine part of the reason that NO EVIL EYE is possible is because of social media. On one hand, social media allows you to connect with people in so many different places, but at the same time when you tweet or put up a Facebook or Instagram post you are also supplying content to these truly evil and oppressive companies. Do you have any thoughts about the contradictions of a political community like NO EVIL EYE needing to use these kind of tools?
Elmi: Social media is very much like the language of the people. Or at least it is a mechanism to express your language to people. And, that contradiction—I don’t want to say it’s a fallacy but it’s something that we all live with constantly. I mean there’s that whole debate, how are you anti-capitalist and you have an iPhone? For us, we just use social media as a platform to connect with people and answer questions and to be transparent about the work that we are doing. But I don’t see an inherent contradiction, at least not now.
Raphael: I think it’s a touchy subject and I’ve thought about it before and I don’t like that I don’t get to control where the data is going. And on the other hand it’s the only form of communication that lives outside of physical communication. You can find out about other entities that are doing this kind of work, different individuals and groups. What I think we are doing differently with Instagram is that we are very real. We all want to divest from these very capitalistic structures. I mean, we are both very anti-capitalist but right now it’s the only thing that’s available to use.
Rail: Exactly. I feel very conflicted about it. Because, on one hand if you have huge institutional support then you don’t have to be on these platforms, but if you don’t have that institutional support and you want to connect with people and be independent you have to get on these platforms, which just kind of makes you dependent on a different institution, one which you don’t have any control over and, worse, is profiting from your participation.
Elmi: I know that Ingrid and I have these conversations where we’re like, “The goal is just to log off and never log back on, right? Just to divest from social media. Get on that Beyoncé or Frank Ocean level of permanently not giving a shit.” But the other part is that so much of the audience that we are trying to link up with are people who sort of live online, people who do not really have a space elsewhere, and so they make the Internet their home, whether Instagram or Twitter or these micro-blogging sites like Tumblr. There are people who really don’t have a physical space in their hometown, especially in non-metropolitan cities like Columbus. That’s a major part of what we are trying to cultivate in the years to come. And us not being on social media is us not reaching out to that audience, you know?
Raphael: Rooney met one of the filmmakers in our first program on Tumblr and a lot of our work comes from scoping out the internet. Our programming is a mix of “established and emerging, and underrepresented” filmmakers. But many of them are completely outside of the film circuit—they live on Vimeo, some of them only have private links, some of them are on Tumblr.
Rail: I love that so much, the fact that you guys are making that physical space for people. I keep thinking about the freedom of that, because everything you just said shows how you don’t have to be in a major city. And the political value of being in a different part of the country seems so important right now, especially in terms of elections and organizing. It’s really incredible to see someone creating a cinematic space that allows filmmakers to live regionally.
Elmi: Yeah, I feel the Midwest and the South, these are going to be the new centers. It’s kind of untenable to be living in New York or to be living in London or any of these other big metropolitan cities. If you are a micro, or no-budget film maker, or if you are a painter or a musician, it’s just not livable. And so people are going to be coming to Detroit or Houston or Columbus, they are going to be in these kinds of cities and over the next 20 to 30 years they’ll become the new centers. It’s just a matter of time.
Rail: I would love to hear more about this first program that you have been touring around the country, about some of the films and what you love about them.
Elmi: Ingrid was saying earlier that I met one of the filmmakers, Weeda Azim, on Tumblr. I remember when I first saw that short film, it was just a two-and-a-half minute video she linked me via Vimeo—it’s called Herat, in my head in my heart (2016)—and I was really blown away. At that time she was a teenager making art in her bedroom in Toronto, and I was like, “this is the future!” NO EVIL EYE wasn’t even a figment of my imagination yet but I knew I wanted to put her film somewhere, and that audiences needed to see not only that work but to be exposed to filmmakers like Azim. So, it’s cool that, you know, years later we get to do this program, “Sequence 01,” which is about diasporic reckoning through the prism of landscapes, memory, and legacy.
I know Ingrid can talk more about a lot of the curating and how we looked at the shorts, but there are so many brilliant filmmakers that a lot of people just do not know, and to be able to put their shorts in conversation with each other is such an honor.
Raphael: The way that we curated the films, the order in which we put them in, was very intentional. It’s like a conversation. The narrative doesn’t move in a linear fashion, it bounces back and forth with different themes and different styles. At one of the screenings of “Sequence 01,” someone in the audience pointed out that it felt like the first film and the last film closed a loop and were speaking to each other even though they weren’t next to each other in the lineup. It was such a great perspective in terms of thinking about the way that we interact with film. I felt really emotional about that because it reminded me of when you go into a movie theater and you walk away feeling something, you know, feeling something more than you can express. It also educates those who have no idea of what it’s like to live as an immigrant. For Rooney and me this is also a personal program. We are both immigrants and come from immigrant families that have dealt with very difficult things and those issues are also mirrored in the films. So, it’s a reflection of ourselves or maybe a projection of ourselves onto the screen, and therefore a projection of others.