Public Cinema: “Art Doesn’t Need to Be Crowd-Pleasing”

In Movies & TV, Program Notes by Chris Barrettleave a COMMENT

On Sunday, Oct. 25, the Public Cinema presents the premiere Knoxville screening of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, with his most recent film Horse Money. Public Cinema co-founders Paul Harrill and Darren Hughes­ launched the project less than a year ago. The occasion of this milestone seemed sufficient cause to check in and see how things are going.

“Darren and I started the Public Cinema as an experiment,” says Harrill, “so we didn’t go in with lots of expectations. But we’re really happy with how things are going. It’s been less than a year since we began and some of our screenings have been Southeastern—even North American—premieres. We’ve had three great venues [Knoxville Museum of Art, Scruffy City Hall, and Pilot Light] step forward as partners. That’s allowed us to expand our programming and serve different, and growing, audiences. And starting this fall, we have been able to pay screening fees to the filmmakers, thanks to an anonymous donor and a corporate sponsor, Fandor. Paying the artists, and keeping things free for the public—that sounds impossible, even utopian. But somehow, for now at least, it’s our happy reality.”

Is Horse Money or the work of Pedro Costa representative of what the organizers had in mind for the theater?

“Very much so,” Hughes admits. “We’re always trying to balance two goals that are sometimes at odds with one another—that is, growing an audience/community for the Public Cinema and exhibiting films that should be seen because of their significance to the art form. Sometimes we hit that balance square in the middle. For example, The Mend is a crowd-pleaser and a great work from an exciting new independent American filmmaker.  Horse Money is my favorite film of 2015 but it’s a difficult piece, and I’m okay with the idea that a certain percentage of people who show up on the 25th will be frustrated/annoyed/bored by it, because boundary-pushing art doesn’t need to be crowd-pleasing.”

“Paul and I both look at Big Ears as a useful model. Obviously we’re working on a much smaller scale and with much smaller resources, but the genius of Big Ears is its curatorial voice. All of us who look forward to it each year have come to trust the programming to a point where we say, ‘Okay, this particular band is not my thing, but I recognize how it fits into the voice of the festival, I understand why it’s here, and I’m glad I had the chance to experience it.’”

What’s next?

“We’ve got a great program of films coming up,” Harrill sums up. “The Peace Officer screening, in particular, is worth noting. It’s the Tennessee premiere of a documentary that’s won major awards and has been getting Oscar buzz, and co-director (and Knoxville native) Brad Barber will be doing a post-screening Q+A.

“To me, the ideal Public Cinema experience isn’t just seeing a great film. It’s seeing a great film, having an interesting conversation, and—corny as it may sound—maybe even making a new friend or two. That community-building aspect is an essential part of what we’re doing with the Public Cinema.”


Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

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