GOLDIES 2008 winner: Creating a forum for critical engagement with aesthetics

There is an Alfred Jarry quote at the top of kino21's Web site: "It's always those who can't who try." Jarry's pithy observation might seem like a backhanded compliment on what motivates the underdog, but it also nicely encapsulates the risk-taking and politically provocative sensibility that kino21 founders and organizers Irina Leimbacher and Konrad Steiner bring to their screenings. "We wanted people to see films as a community, to talk about them as you see them, rather than about them, privately," reflects Steiner over the phone. "It's always hot and cold — it depends on the show. It's hard to say if the goal is ever reached, but the point is that we have consistently been showing these films."

Leimbacher and Steiner joined forces in February 2007 to create a more moveable and multivalent forum for the kind of curatorial work they had been doing together at San Francisco Cinematheque from 2003-06, when Leimbacher was associate curator, and then artistic director, and Steiner was on the curatorial committee. Since their inaugural screening of Yvonne Rainer's Journeys From Berlin/1971 (1980), a freewheeling personal investigation of the psychic and political fallout of violence, kino21 has presented films by canonical members of the avant-garde such as Chris Marker and Warren Sonbert. They've also expanded cinema through events such as the New Talkies or Neo-Benshi Cabaret, and their multimedia reinterpretation of Jarry's The 10,000 Mile Bike Race.

While kino21's array of events is certainly eclectic, Leimbacher and Steiner pay attention to the order of things when filling out their calendar: the question of how different screenings will resonate with or deflect off each other is always kept in mind. One example: Schindler's Houses (2007), Heinz Emigholz's meditative portrait of modernist architect Rudolf Schindler's constructions, was screened on the heels of a double bill consisting of Kamal Aljafari's The Roof (2006) and James T. Hong's This Shall Be a Sign, which both investigate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by way of architecture and urban development.

Even when programming older work, such as last April's screening of Bruce Baillie's rarely-exhibited 1970 Quick Billy or Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (1973), Leimbacher and Steiner aren't, in Steiner's words, "trying to recuperate or resuscitate someone's reputation, but to show their continuity with the present moment." As he puts it: "To draw historical work back and make it relevant, rather than nostalgic — that's what we hope to accomplish."

Kino21's most ambitious and certainly timely project is the current five-part "How We Fight" series. Evoking Frank Capra's Why We Fight series of World War II-era propaganda films for the United States, "How We Fight" presents international works that investigate the various ground truths of those doing the fighting. "We wanted to show films that looked at war, but not from some specific ideological or moral perspective," Leimbacher explains. "Instead [they] actually explore and visually convey the experience of what it means, in the short and long run, to be a soldier." From Joseph Strick's historic interviews with My Lai veterans, to recent footage shot by soldiers and mercenaries on the frontlines of Iraq, to Stefano Savona's controversial, diaristic portrait of Kurdish terrorists, the films in "How We Fight" demand an honest emotional as well as critical response.

A forum for this sort of critical engagement with aesthetics, in fact, is exactly what kino21 creates. "There's an aspect of art where we use it to better our lives. But there's another aspect where we use it to investigate our lives," Steiner says. "We try to do the latter."

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