The Austin Film Society began in 1985 with a group of friends getting together to watch films that weren’t distributed to the general public. As word got out, that small group of cinephiles turned to hundreds and the Austin Film Society (AFS) was born, honoring classic and independent film with screenings in venues all over Austin.
At Cinema Without Borders, we had the opportunity to speak with Chale Nafus, Director of Programming and one of the founders of The Austin Film Society, about the efforts of this organization in introducing world cinema to Austin film fans.
Bijan Tehrani: Can you please tell us a bit about your background in cinema?
Chale Nafus: I always tell people that it was pretty much my father’s influence. He worked for the Postal Service in Dallas, Texas, but he loved to go to movies. I was born in 1942 so there wasn’t any TV in the house until I was 15. My dad was off on Sundays and Mondays, so practically every Sunday night we would go to the movies. He particularly loved British comedies. I have no idea how he acquired a taste for English humor, but I learned to love those films, too. So, from an early age I was already seeing films from another country, albeit English-speaking. Also, near our house was a place called the Capitan Theatre that showed films like Pather Panchali and Aparajito, films from India, and a lot of different places besides the United States. That was a block and a half from my house, so by the time I was seven or eight I could walk over there by myself and see all kinds of films. By ten or eleven I could ride the bus to see movies in downtown Dallas. Then in my late teens I started going to a movie theatre (Teatro Panamericano) that showed mainly films from Mexico and some from Argentina. So, I was getting a pretty heavy dose of Hollywood and non-Hollywood films. In the early 60’s came the flood of Italian films and French films so I was already prepared to enjoy those films. I embraced them whole-heartedly.
BT: How did you get involved with the Austin Film Society?
CN: Richard Linklater founded the Austin Film Society in 1985. He had been my student the previous year. I was teaching film studies at Austin Community College where I was head of the Radio/Television/Film department. When he was my student he wrote brilliant papers, but I never realized that he wanted to be a filmmaker. So six years later when he made Slacker, that was an enormous surprise and a pleasant surprise. Anyway in 1985 he and two of his closest friends started the Austin Film Society because they liked to watch movies. Some of the places on the University of Texas campus were not showing as many films as they had previously so it filled a gap. Richard asked me to be on the board of the Film Society. We also did some series together (Bresson, Sam Fuller, Cuban) – between the community college and the Austin Film Society. I was on the board until 2002 when the job of director of programming became available; I had already retired from teaching four years prior to that so I thought it would be a cool job to have for a few years. Now it is ten years later, and I’m still enjoying it.
BT: What kinds of screenings do you have at the Austin Film Society, and how often do you hold screenings?
CN: We have a weekly series that I call Essential Cinema, which is primarily films from other countries. On Tuesday nights we rent the Alamo Drafthouse theatre and we get audiences of 100 to 200 people. We still try to show 35mm, but as time is passing we have to sometimes shift to a digital format. I have seven different series per year, based around a theme, a director, or a country or region. As you know, right now we are doing the Southeast European series thanks to our mutual friend Vera Mijojlic in Los Angeles. She’ll be coming to visit with us in mid-May to present the two final films in that series.
BT: Is your programming a mix of American as well as international cinema?
CN: Primarily international cinema. I try to have one classic Hollywood series per year. Very often a friend will curate that, such as Raoul Hernandez, music editor of the Austin Chronicle, who loves 1930s and 1940s American cinema, as I do. But I taught so much of that for so long. I just want to be sure that Austin audiences are seeing more foreign films.
BT: How is the audience reception like at the festival? Do you have a steady turnout?
CN: There is the hardcore audience, who tell me that whatever I show they are going to come see, which is very flattering; depending on the series that we are doing there will be a slight shift in the make-up of the audience. We just finished our 6th annual Middle Eastern series. For that there are more people coming from Middle Eastern studies at the University or are originally from the Middle East and North Africa. When I do an Asian series there will be somewhat more Asian American or Asian people in the audience so it really does vary, but there is that dependable group that comes every week.
BT: How is the Austin Film Society supported, and how do you manage to have so many screenings? I imagine that it takes a lot of hard work and effort.
CN: It is challenging, but we really enjoy it. As far as support, we have membership fees, which can give people a discount on their ticket. It is very reasonable, just five dollars per film. We also have an annual film pass of 75 dollars which can get them into a total of 44 films which amounts to about $1.70 per film. Non-members pay us eight dollars which is still cheaper than most theaters. We also have government funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, and the City of Austin cultural funding. Besides donors, those are our main sources of funding.
BT: I know that Austin is known as a city of culture and art in Texas; do you have more information about the rest of Texas, in regards to places where attention is given to international cinema?
CN: Dallas and Houston of course have good theatres, and they bring in a number of international film. However, as far as screening films on a weekly basis with background presentations and program notes posted online, I am just not aware of anyone else in Texas doing what we do.
BT: How do you see the future of international cinema in the United States?
CN: Personally, in the 60s when I was seeing Fellini and Truffaut, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa and so many films from all over the world, I really thought that that was the way that cinema was going to be, mixed in with some Hollywood products and independently produced films in English. What I found out later on was that, in the 60’s, Hollywood had very little product. It was kind of collapsing and reconfiguring, so the theatre owners had to have films in their theatres and they opened the floodgates to “foreign films” at the time. By the mid-seventies, with the rise of Scorsese and Coppola, people who created the New Hollywood, the number of foreign film imports began to diminish. Yet today, if you put aside theatrical screenings, we live in an almost golden era of international cinema because of streaming, DVDs and online capabilities. There are still films you can’t get, but with the internet it is becoming less important to have American theatrical distribution. If you are willing to look around, you can find lots of sources of global cinema today, so my outlook is very positive.
BT: Any other new plans for the film society?
CN: In November of this year, we will be taking over the National Guard building next to our present location. In our Austin Studios we have two sound stages with air conditioning, lighting and sound proofing and we will have one more when we get the National Guard property. Presently a television show from ABC Family channel called The Lying Game is being filmed at our studio, and they are soon going into their second season.; we have had people like the Coen Brothers finish up True Grit on our sound stages. There are local productions from Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater and others, as well as up-and-coming filmmakers who can use our facilities. So there is the potential for quite a bit of production continuing. We already have a strong educational outreach in the public schools and in summer film camps. When we move we will be having classes there for adults and students. We also dream of having our own theatre. We are very happy with the Alamo Drafthouse theatre, but if we had our own cinema we could do even more programming than we’re doing. There are so many films that I can’t get because they don’t fit into a series that I am doing, but if we had our own theatre then I could show a 35mm print of something that is circulating in the US for a limited time. Besides Essential Cinema, we have Doc Nights, 11-12 monthly documentary screenings. If we can’t bring the filmmaker to Austin, we try to do a Skype Q&A session with him/her after the film. We are also going to show L’age d’Or, Luis Buñuel’s 1930 French film, at Justine’s, a French restaurant, in a couple of weeks as part of our bi-monthly Avant Cinema series.
I honestly think it’s safe to say that within 24-30 months, with the opening of our own 2-screen theater, we will be presenting at least twice as many films as now, and the majority of those will be selections from global cinema, past and present.