Conjuring of the spirits

One man against the widely accepted models of cinema distribution and event branding

There is a man in Amsterdam who calls himself a cultural activist and single handedly revolutionized the film screening scene in the city, using his DVD collection and cheaply xeroxed leaflets. I talked to Jeffrey once. It was awkward. I tripped over my words as I recommended my favourite, if somewhat tough-to-find film, and he said, “I'll try and find it.” I promptly volunteered to send him a DVD: the film in question has only been officially released in my home country and I was sure Jeffrey would never find it online. But maybe he had a mystical access to films that nobody else had, because he kept repeating, “I'm sure I'll find it.” I was excited; I probably couldn't fall asleep that night. 

During the day, Jeffrey watched films and prepped for the screenings he put on in squats and community centres. At night, four to five times a week, he was out there, screening and persuading, no, infecting people with the idea that the next big thing on your list of excitement should be some C level sleazy thriller from the 1980s made with (as he never failed to point out) a budget the amount of what James Cameron's Titanic crew spent on coffee alone. In Jeffrey's world, a fact like this was crucial. Perhaps a decent budget to make a film, but a helluva lot to make only coffee. Snigger and scoff. 

Inevitably I adopt boomer energy when I talk about Jeffrey because to me, he is the Simpler Times and Back When and The Golden Era of My Youth, even though I was an active audience member of his less than a decade ago. What he was (and still is) doing was already a little oldschool even for 2012. He was (and still is) pushing against the branding and marketing schemes that have eventually trickled down from corporations and social media into the smallest of art events and non-profits. His cultural activism is rooted in opposition and a no fuss approach. While the rest of us were wrapped up in the increasing presence of social media as a necessary part of marketing our events, Jeffrey only ever used a simple newsletter (before newsletters were cool; while Facebook events were becoming a rage) and the xeroxed black and white leaflets, conspicuously left on tables, chairs and toilets. 

In 2016, Jeffrey and his partner published the book called Séances - Re-wiring Images in the Amsterdam Underground, celebrating a decade of the film programming and charting the course of ever-increasing gentrification that is behind closing down of the several iconic squats and venues where Jeffrey has screened films. As he points out, in French the word séance stands for a film screening, but in English it refers to people coming together to conjure up spirits of the dead. 

Jeffrey's evenings were rituals. There was always a sizable group, and you often had to arrive early to get a good seat. I would cycle through the whole city, rain be damned, to be there. It's where life was: several hours of legs cramping, sitting on the floor in the dark, not talking to anyone but the screen. I was a little challenged but always felt welcome. There would be half an hour long commentary ahead of the screening, covering the film and its context and the director. No detail was spared; gossip was covered. Jeffrey had handwritten notes on scraps of paper and used a tiny torch to read them. You had one chance to see the film, unlike in the repertory programming of a commercial cinema. If you missed it, you could always try watching on your laptop, but that's not how we conjure the spirits. 

Jeffrey's séances were a rejection of capitalist forces within the arts, cinema specifically. It is a not-so-quiet opposition of distribution and audience participation models that we quietly agree with. Audre Lorde said that master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. I suppose that gives you a choice: you either make a living from your art under capitalism, using capitalist tricks and schemes; or you completely denounce making a living from it, which gives you more freedom to experiment, not only in the content, but also in the distribution. Part of the equation of why Jeffrey was able to build the underground cinema network that he did is a free or cheap admission to his screenings. As far as I'm concerned, and at least back in 2012, he did not make income from this work. 

I went on to organize my own film clubs and screenings in the years to come, trying to channel Jeffrey. Something that became very clear to me was the paradox of if you built it, they will come, for the audiences never came so easily. So many people in the arts regard marketing, branding and PR as the necessary evils. But then I think of Jeffrey and how, in fact, he built it, and they did come, and repeatedly. I have never again experienced the phenomenon of a living organism that was his audience, moving around the city with him. 

A couple of years after I moved out of Amsterdam and arrived in Prague, I went to a Q&A with the filmmaker Abel Ferrara, which was part of the programme of a big and well-known festival. The setting was eerily similar to Jeffrey's screenings: top floor of a café lined with beaten up chairs. Except that in the space fit for a hundred people, ten of us were seated, half of the group being the organizers themselves. Abel waltzed in and with a singular gesture of taking off of his sunglasses, I knew this man expected a red carpet and an adoring crowd that would wolf down the stories about how he spent a whole decade being coked out on the set of his films, yet achieving legendary status. He scoffed: “This is it? You don't have more people here?” We got five seconds of the most excruciating silence. “Why don't you guys print 500 leaflets and go hand them out in the streets, and bam, you have this place full?”

At the time, I thought to myself, this man, clearly he does not have his Marketing 101 together. He thinks leaflets get people in? But in some places, they still do. They come because someone built it, and put out a freaking leaflet. (The leaflet being the end of the organizing chain.) They come to conjure the spirits of the dead, and therefore to celebrate the living. And then some. Something they get nowhere else in the city.