Resurrected club screens the unknown and unconventional

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The munch of kettle corn breaks the stillness. On the screen in Walker 233, a short silent film plays as the small audience of 12 sits, rapt in the storytelling. Minutes pass before the lights come on and the discussion begins. This is the revitalized and rebooted Films from the Margin. 

The organization is Emerson College’s only film screening club, dedicated to showing obscure but impactful movies from the 100 year-plus history of cinema. Alex Dishal, a junior visual and media arts major and current president, said he believes a group like this is important to the Emerson community. 

“The VMA department deserves an outlet for an intellectual discussion of movies,” said Dishal, who first got involved in the club last semester. “We want to do something more in-depth than just recommending a movie.”

Previous films screened include everything from Zardoz, a kooky 1974 science-fiction film starring Sean Connery, to Russian Ark, a 2002 historical drama filmed in one continuous 96-minute shot at the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. 

For Dishal, one of the goals for Films from the Margin is to educate and enhance Emerson’s film community with experimental and ambitious films, like Russian Ark. So he brought in his good friend, fellow junior visual and media arts major Tyler Gilbert, to be his vice president and help bring his vision to life.

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“A lot of people have different perspectives on film,” said Gilbert. “We can broaden their reach, whether that’s gay, black, arthouse, or experimental film.” 

According to Dishal, he first discovered the group via Facebook in 2013. However, he said its page had been defunct for over a year. 

Originally started in the 1990s, Films from the Margin was the premier film screening club on campus, said Gilbert. With near-weekly meetings and a well-maintained blog, the organization quickly became SGA recognized, according to Dishal.

But as the pioneers of the organization graduated, leadership faded. In the mid-2000s, it was briefly revived for a couple of years, according to former Films from the Margin president Kyle Główacky, a 2010 visual and media arts graduate. But the comeback didn’t last long. And while Films from the Margin was never officially closed, it became inactive. 

“The leadership didn’t continue. We’re trying to bring it back,” said Gilbert. “A lot of people didn’t even know we existed.” 

After a false start with the failed movie organization One Door Cinema Club in 2011, Dishal and Gilbert said they are determined to make the current resurrection of Films from the Margin, started in the spring of 2013, stick. 

“We are trying to get the word out there,” said Gilbert. “It feels like a topic Emerson students are interested in.”

The club offers one non-tuition credit for becoming a member, which any student is allowed to do. Additionally, they plan to appeal for SGA funds to give them the money they’d need to bring in local independent filmmakers for film screenings. For now, however, things are on a slightly smaller scale. 

On Thursday, Jan. 30, Dishal and Gilbert kicked off the revitalized organization with a meeting, a screening, and a discussion of 1944’s At Land, one of the first experimental films, before diving into the evening’s main attraction, the Robert Downey Sr. film Putney Swope (1969).

In the raunchy political satire, which takes place in the same year it was made, an African-American adman named Putney Swope, previously only a board member of his ad agency, becomes elected chairman by happenstance after the previous chairman dies. It turns out the other board members each voted for Putney because they thought no one else would, accidentally making him head of the company. 

Now elected, Putney promises not to “rock the boat” but rather “blow it up.” He fires his fellow board members, plus all other employees, and brings in an entirely black workforce. The ad agency begins to make politically incorrect commercials, many of which are interspersed throughout the film. 

The targets are endless in the film: Christians, Jews, and Muslims, plus orphans, nuns, and people of Asian and African descent, are all skewered in the film. Sometimes it’s difficult for the viewer to determine whether the jokes are supposed to be funny because they’re satire or because they rely on outdated racial slurs and incorrect stereotypes. 

Still, Dishal and Gilbert say giving exposure to movies like Putney Swope is exactly what Films from the Margin is all about, regardless of some of its controversial or outdated components. 

“Our goal is to highlight stuff that’s never been seen. Something that’s never been nominated for an Oscar,” said Gilbert. “[Putney Swope] is dark and political. It touched on a lot of topics.”

Dishal agreed and said the club holds online polls to figure out the next cult hit to uncover.

“Anything that is underappreciated or unknown is what we’re looking for,” said Dishal. “A film that might be challenging or quirky—just not Zooey Deschanel quirky.” 

The group’s advisor, visual and media arts professor Peter Flynn, said he is proud that this kind of group exists on campus.

“It promotes a continued investigation of films outside the classroom,” said Flynn, who said he keeps in close contact with Dishal and Gilbert. “We can’t show them everything.”

The duo said it hopes to host a screening once a month and continue spreading the word about the rebooted film club. They aim to broaden the film-consuming horizons of not just themselves but the entire visual and media arts department. Additionally, they are signing people up to start writing for their online film journal, Latent Image, which they hope to use to further drum up interest in their film club and continue to expose students at this school to all different types of films in as many ways as possible. 

“We want to gauge a movie. It’s not just a passive experience,” said Gilbert, of the club’s ultimate goal. “We’re interested in the gospel of the moving image.”