Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Gina Duncan

The film program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is not your typical arthouse cinema. In the past few months, the four-screen venue has shown current independent releases like Eighth Grade, blockbusters like Black Panther, classic favorites like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and series dedicated to films by early female filmmakers, films by Chicano directors, and films inspired by the Martiniquais psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon.

The innovative programming is crafted by a small programming team led by Gina Duncan, who joined BAM—a longtime NEA grantee—as the inaugural associate vice president of cinema in January 2017. In her position, she has sought to show films as diverse as Brooklyn itself, while informing audiences on the rich history of cinema and helping them see old favorites through a different lens. We recently spoke with her about her role at BAM, and how she hopes the venue will serve as an agent of change for the film industry.

NEA: How did you become interested in film and decide to pursue it as a career?

GINA DUNCAN: I actually came to film through literature. As an only child, I learned really quickly how to entertain myself. Books were that for me. I could devour a book in a weekend, and at some point I realized as I was reading books, that I was making films in my head. The pictures, the imagery—the worlds were coming alive there.

It sparked my interest in making films because I was reading a lot of books that had characters that I identified with and was inspired by, but I was not seeing those on TV or in films. So I was like, "Well, I want to be a filmmaker, and I want to adapt these books and bring these characters to other people." In my preteens, I started finding indie films and arthouse films, and was responding to them in the same way I had been responding to the books I had been reading. I very vividly remember showing The Crying Game at my middle school slumber party.

When I was 15 I started thinking about college and career. I was a real fan of Mademoiselle magazine, and I wrote the editor a handwritten letter saying who I was and what all my interests were and if they had any advice for someone like me in terms of what to do. They actually wrote me back and suggested that I look at schools that had film programs, and gave me a lot of real guidance. So I started doing a lot of research and figured out what schools had strong film programs. I went off to college armed with this advice from Mademoiselle's editor and all this research and this passion for telling stories and making films. I was not long in college when I realized that directing was not what I wanted to do—that producing was actually it. I still do consulting producing.

NEA: I think when most people think of creativity and the arts, they tend to think of the actual art-making itself, such as filmmaking. But I want to talk about your role at BAM and how you think that programming or curating is a creative act as well.

DUNCAN: I started out thinking that the only way to do it was to be the one holding the paintbrush; to be the one with the camera. Over time I realized that what I wanted to do was just as creative, which was helping artists or people with great ideas get them out into the world. I found producing to be really creative.

Curating is a creative act in that the way that we put the films together can allow someone to see the film in a different way. I think that’s creative in itself. Recently we did our “On Whiteness” program, in collaboration with Claudia Rankine's The Racial Imaginary Institute. Organizations across New York were invited to do programs that questioned the idea of whiteness. We went back and forth on what that would look like here as a film series, and Ashley Clark, our senior repertory film programmer, landed on this idea of taking very iconic, beloved films—films like Rocky, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pulp Fiction, Godfather: Part II—and looking at whiteness through those lenses. I thought that that was a really creative way of approaching the subject and grappling with this idea of whiteness: inviting people in to see their favorite film, but contemplating them a little differently than they had before.

NEA: One of the things I've noticed about BAM's programming is it not only celebrates current strides being made in terms of diversity on film, but it reminds us that women and people of color in particular have always had an important role in film, whether we celebrated it or not. For example, BAM’s "Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era" series, and the "Black Superheroes on Film" series. Why does that feel important to you?

DUNCAN: It's so important to me. If people just were to listen to what they hear on the news or what they read on Twitter, it's like women and people of color just got here, like we just got into the game. And that's not true. We did the “Women Pioneers” program last month, and that showed that women were making films a hundred years ago. We're answering a lot of those questions like, "Can women direct?” “Can women star in action films?” “Can women do any of this?", and it's like, "Yes, we can. We did it a hundred years ago." So it's very important to me, especially in a venue like BAM, where I have three screens for new releases. Then I have my repertory screen, which is more diverse right now than what is currently being distributed. I want our audience to question why that is. Why is there this rich history, yet still we're still seeing “firsts” happen today?

NEA: As a society, we're starting to talk a lot more about who has the right to tell what story. Again, we usually think of that in terms of the artists themselves. But I want to talk about why the identity of the person presenting or curating or programming those stories can be equally important.

DUNCAN: As a curator, you are giving people context. Hopefully they're coming to more than just one film within a series, and you’re helping them get more of a story so that they can arrive at their own answer as to why something is the way that it is. For me, it's really important that the person curating is not coming at the films with their own bias.

Right now, I feel like our queer programming is not quite as robust as I’d like it to be. I’d like a regular strand of programming that explores the diversity and complexities of LGBTQ communities and accurately reflects the conversations and experiences happening in those communities. It’s important to me to tap a queer curator to shape this—I want to make sure that what we're putting forward is authentic, relevant, and responsible. I don't always think that as an outsider you can do that. I just don't think it always works.

NEA: What do you think we can do to promote more diversity in film—as audiences, as programmers, as artists?

DUNCAN: I personally think that every single gatekeeper should sit down and do their own work, to work through their own biases. I think we all bring some sort of bias to the table.

With the conversation in film, we keep focusing on the Oscars, we keep focusing on who's making the film. We have not demanded anything in regards to who's buying film, who's the head of the studio, who's touching the film as it goes through the development process. Who's giving notes to that filmmaker, to that screenwriter? We're not questioning diversity throughout the pipeline—who's marketing, who's doing publicity. I think that’s the next step for us: every sector of the film business should be having this conversation.

NEA: In a piece I was reading about you in IndieWire, it was saying that BAM audiences “tend to skew towards young, college-educated working professionals." What are you doing to reach new audiences, and is there anyone specific you're trying to reach?

DUNCAN: I think ultimately I'm trying to reach me as a kid. I also use my cousin as an example. My cousin is a well-educated woman of color who lives in the South. The way I know something has penetrated is if she's heard about it. When 12 Years a Slave came out, she was telling me that no cinema in Houston was showing it. I did a quick Google and I did find a handful of cinemas in Houston at the time that were showing it, but they were not on her radar because they didn't typically show films that would appeal to her. So I think about her a lot and how she gets information.

Then I think about Brooklyn, and how we have 2.6 million people here, and how we only get 300,000 people who come and see films at BAM across the year. What more can I do to move out of the bubble that we're in currently? The community around us has changed a lot as Brooklyn has become the hip place to live. In the 80s and 90s, Fort Greene was the home to a lot of black artists and professionals. I want our programming today to reflect the full diversity and history of the neighborhood—to appeal to the newcomers and those who are still managing to hang on.

Doing Black Panther also helped make us visible to folks who weren't necessarily looking for us—folks like my cousin, who tend to go to the major chains. At that time, we also did our “Black Superheroes” repertory film series. So then [audiences] also had a moment to say, "What else do they have? Oh, they have other things happening that I'm interested in." Those two things happening simultaneously really did increase the diversity of our audience, both in race and age. It brought a lot of new people to us who are now being continuously fed. It's really important to me that you just don't talk to a demographic when it's their hot month—when it's Black History Month or Women's History Month, or all the different months that we have. If you're committed to diversity and inclusion, then that means your program is going to be speaking to people all the time.

NEA: What are some of your long-term goals for your time at BAM?

DUNCAN: As any cinema operator, I'm thinking about my physical building, and improving the experience within the cinema. In November we'll be 20 years old, so it's about that time when we need to start thinking about capital improvements in the cinemas.

We have a really small, tight team currently; I'd like to expand the team a little. That's down the line, but I think it's really important to bring in other people and give them their own starts so that they can go out to another cinema after they've worked here for a while, and bring what we're doing here to some other place in the country.

I do think that there's a lot that BAM can do to help arthouse programmers across the country in terms of engaging with audience, audience development, and also in bringing in new artists or artists that they're maybe not aware of, or they think wouldn't appeal to their audience. I think that we can help them figure out how to bring in bolder, more adventurous programming in their space. That's something I really want to start figuring out: how can we, as a larger institution with more of a budget, be more of an asset to programmers in other parts of this country who are looking to replicate or do something similar to what we're doing? As we were talking about how to improve diversity in film, we also need to make sure that the arthouses in the most remote places are bringing these type of films and this type of curation to their spaces, so that the people there who are watching actually become better more astute viewers, and potentially the people who want to create will become better, more astute creators.

NEA: Where do you look for inspiration when putting together programs for BAM?

DUNCAN: I think ultimately I respond to what's happening in the world—whatever themes I'm noticing across my social media timelines or the news or conversations with people. I start to see a common thread. So a lot of our programming is speaking to our current zeitgeist, it’s incredibly politically and socially engaged. This is a huge cultural moment—things are shifting. I don't know if everyone who is looking at it recognizes how deep we are going. I think that on the surface people are seeing it as an act of inclusion—we're doing women and people of color. But I think we've done some really interesting work in terms of Ashley’s Frantz Fanon program that we did back in October, the work that we do in Reel Impact, a series that brings topics that are relevant to the community here in Brooklyn into the cinema space. So it's not just watching the film, but it's also a deep engagement afterwards, where people can learn more about what is happening specifically here in New York.

NEA: What are your desert-island movies?

DUNCAN: Burning an Illusion, Dancehall Queen (my guity pleasure!). I would also say Neon Bull and Silence of the Lambs. Mike Leigh's Another Year. And Crooklyn.

NEA: Is there anything else that you wish I had asked that you'd like to add?

DUNCAN: Coming from Jacob Burns, which is a small arthouse cinema a hundred miles outside of New York City in Pleasantville, and then coming to Brooklyn, I’ve found that we face a lot of the same problems. I would love to see arthouses coming together. The larger chains [of arthouses] have many more resources than us nonprofit cinemas. So specifically I would like to see nonprofit cinemas banding together and really using our voice to help make change in this business. That's my ultimate goal: how can we, as nonprofit cinemas, band together to change this industry in a way that benefits both artists and audiences.

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