My Turn: ‘My favorite indie cinema’ and the importance of our arts organizations

  • Panelist Brenda Lett speaks during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file photo

For the Monitor
Published: 7/16/2020 6:20:17 AM

Last month, I was laid off from my part-time job as membership coordinator at Red River Theatres, a job I’ve loved for more than 11 years. I had seen numbers grow successfully every year, from roughly 300 members to over 3,000, many of whom are now dear friends. But since mid-March, Red River has been facing its biggest challenge ever, after being forced by COVID-19 restrictions to close its doors, effectively devastating revenue from traditional sources like tickets and concessions.

I’m proud of Executive Director Angie Lane and Red River’s attempts to stay engaged with our supporters during the shutdown, mainly the creative ways that our full-time marketing and events manager, Julia Ben-Asher, also now no longer employed, created coloring pages and printable items for families with children at home, and hosted a weekly trivia competition via Facebook Live.

The cinema even joined other art houses nationwide to present new films for rental through “virtual cinema” listings, which is how Runner, the incredibly inspiring story of Guor Maker, South Sudanese refugee-to-Olympian, with all of its connections to Concord, was made available for viewing (or gifting to someone else) through July 24. Guor and the filmmaker were scheduled to appear live with the film back in April, and Runners Alley had been excited to sponsor the free screening.

Alas, between the disconnect of a demographic of supporters mostly ages 50 to 70 and the expectation and necessity to be on social media or “stream” programs, the cost of which was divided with a distributor, Red River did not even approach replacing traditional avenues for income.

Similar stories abound across the state. Arts organizations are in trouble, their leaders now having to turn into overnight experts on hastily assembled special programs and rescue loans. Theater companies are among the hardest hit, with studio spaces they worked tirelessly to create now becoming financial burdens they struggle to maintain. Over 90 days since the shutdown, with salary support running out and nothing to quell uncertainty over re-opening, staff reductions and unemployment filings are evidently the norm, and my position was among those eliminated.

In looking back over my years at Red River Theatres, dozens of special moments stand out. I held five real Oscar statuettes there. I saw six governors of New Hampshire, three Holocaust survivors, and scores of filmmakers of all ages, colors and genders, from young children from ConcordTV Camp, to teens for the New Hampshire High School Student Film Festival, to professionals like Dan Habib and Jay Childs, and even two appearances by Ken Burns, America’s documentarian but New Hampshire’s resident.

Primarily through the free “Indie Lens Pop-up” documentary series with NHPBS, Red River Theatres aired many national concerns. Panels of civil rights and social justice advocates, artists and educators, and media personalities discussed topics covered in each season’s films, giving audiences a local perspective. Over time more people of color discovered Red River, and taught the rest of us about The Trials of Muhammad Ali, implicit bias, the legacy of the 1970s Black Panthers (with the party’s official historian from New Jersey in attendance), and the value of an HBCU experience.

Those regularly attending the series have listened to painful history and asked questions, learned and absorbed, and developed lasting friendships. All this culminated in what turned out to be our final film in the series, occurring the month prior to COVID shutdown.

NAACP Unit 2069 President Jim McKim and others helped me pull together a panel of experts and a packed cinema representing all sexes, ages, and colors, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder for Always in Season, a film about the history of lynching in America. A researcher from American University’s Center for Media Studies surveyed the audience for feedback after the main Q&A, and then met with a smaller group to record more conversations, ask even more probing questions, and study our audience to determine the impact of documentaries on a community. The evening was the single best conversation on race at Red River Theatres yet.

In attendance were SNHU’s Diversity & Inclusion Officer Jada Hebra as moderator and her father, the Hon. Harvey Keye, an elegant elder statesman originally from Alabama, a survivor of Bull Connor’s racist tactics with a wealth of stories to share. Keye seemed frustrated and restless, asking repeatedly, in reference to the murder of young black men, “We’re good at singing and marching, marching and singing, but when are we gonna actually do something about it?!”

That program and two conversations were held Feb. 25. George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25. And by May 30, hundreds in New Hampshire peacefully marched in outrage, and in solidarity with Floyd’s family. By June 6, over a thousand were gathered on the lawn of the State House to proclaim that Black Lives Matter.

My heart is heavy to be exiting Red River at such a moment, when coming together is so important to accomplish more than superficial change. With no end in sight, time will tell if COVID-19 is obliterated by a vaccine, if real progress is made toward racial justice and equality, or if special places like Red River Theatres can even survive.

I may not be on the staff of my favorite indie cinema any longer, but I plan to remain a member and supporter – and I implore others to hang in there, too. At a moment when we need community and we need conversations, exactly the purposes for which Red River has served our state best, the enormously challenging forces of “social distancing,” masks covering faces and muffling the sound of voices, and, worst of all, uncertainty, are at war with our vital human need to connect. The importance of all our arts organizations – facilitators of connection – must be sustained by a grateful and ever-hopeful community.

Red River derives its name from a 1948 classic western that depicts a group of cowboys achieving a seemingly impossible task, moving a herd of cattle hundred of miles across America. The name, suggested long ago by Red River’s current “virtual cinema” film programmer, the indefatigable Barry Steelman, celebrated the long years of planning and fundraising to open a new indie cinema for Concord. That same spirit is required again now.

(Jemi Broussard is the former membership coordinator at Red River Theatres.)

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