file photo by Jeremy M. Lange
For a year, Brendan and Jeremy Smyth gave the experimental film scene a stable place to gather in the dark.
Not all art spaces are meant to last forever. You swallow hard and get them up and running on a shoestring. You host great programming and build an audience and sustain it as long as you can. There are triumphs, when you pack the house and get good coverage, and then there are the nights when the performers outnumber the audience. And eventually, one month when you’re writing the rent check that you know will bounce or you’re snaking the stopped-up sink for the umpteenth time, you get that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s over. It’s been a great run.
And so, Durham’s Unexposed Microcinema
has turned out the lights. Just a year after tricking out a garage space on Hood Street and transforming it into one of the more lively sites for experimental film
in the whole Southeast, brothers Brendan and Jeremy Smyth
have handed back the keys. A lack of funds, coupled with life changes (happy ones—marriage and impending parenthood), made it impossible to put every waking moment into the space anymore—and that’s what it takes to keep a space like Unexposed going.
After a hiatus, the Smyths will continue programming film under the name Unexposed; the project just becomes itinerant, as it was before they got the Hood Street space. Accomplished experimental documentarians in their own right, they’ll continue making films, too.
But it’s important to mourn this loss and acknowledge the crucial role unique spaces like these play in our community, even as we’re busting our asses to create the next ones. Unexposed provided an accessible, warm-hearted, and damn enjoyable home for work that was genuinely challenging and frequently baffling. This wasn't film for everyone. In an average week’s slate of seven or eight films, only about half would adhere to anything resembling a story line. Yet it never felt elitist; you didn’t feel like you needed to be a practitioner or have a doctorate in the field to get in. The Smyths brought that to the space, and that’s rare and beautiful.
Unexposed also served as the de facto off-campus screening room for Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, the faculty and student body of which, on many nights, composed almost its entire audience. Anna Kipervaser
, a 2015 graduate of the program who now teaches at Duke, became a third curator at Unexposed. Visiting filmmakers showed their work there, and David Gatten
, who splits teaching time between Duke and the University of Colorado at Boulder, hosted talks and screenings.
Gatten’s three-hour homage to his colleague Phil Solomon and elegy for Peter Hutton at Unexposed is one of the most moving art experiences I’ve ever had. I remember the thrill of watching Bill Brown
—a hero of the Smyths—and another Duke faculty member hacking old slide projectors with an Arduino
for an experimental multimedia piece that could have fallen apart at any moment but didn’t. I remember bands jamming to the projections so that the difference between image and music was rendered meaningless. And I remember, a little lit from chugging peach moonshine in the rain out front, putting on diffraction glasses to watch Jodie Mack’s psychedelic geometric film Let Your Light Shine
, seeing epileptic rainbows all over the place—sheer optical ecstasy.
Unexposed didn’t just provide a venue for work that has very few venues to be publicly shown. It provided a space for people who love that kind of work to watch together. This kind of ritual cinematic experience is disappearing from our culture, and we’re all the poorer for it. As so many experiences that we once shared have moved online, we find ourselves increasingly isolated from one another. And that devalues us all. Now we find ourselves isolating our country from the rest of the world, building walls and banning immigrants.
Unexposed wasn’t going to save the world, but it made my world a whole lot better for a year. May we all gather in the dark again soon.