Irina Leimbacher and Konrad Steiner on "kino21"

Max Goldberg August 13, 2007

San Francisco has long been a bastion of underground cinema with successive patchworks of DIY productions, intermedia experiments, and atypical screenings. This secret history rests not just with the filmmakers, but also the many institutions (though that hardly seems the word) which have sprung up with appropriately anachronistic systems for exhibition. In truth, the artists and exhibitors were usually one and the same, or at least deeply collaborative (and often collective). Kino21 is the newest such endeavor, though those already enmeshed in the Bay Area scene will already be familiar with co-programmers Irina Leimbacher and Konrad Steiner from their previous work with SF Cinematheque. Thus far, the two have programmed an eclectic, vital mix of avant-garde heavyweights (Bruce Baillie, Chris Marker, etc.) and contemporary excursions, the latest of which ("Neo-Benshi Cabaret") commissioned new, sometimes subversive narrations to be performed alongside preexisting films. I interviewed Leimbacher and Steiner over email to get a little more of a sense for cinema a la kino21. [ editor’s note: kino21 presents two films of Nathaniel Dorsky, "Triste" and "Threnody" Aug. 16 at SF Camerawork Gallery.]

SF360: First off, how did you two meet, and what was the genesis of kino21? Did you have any experience collaborating before creating the series? Why ‘kino21?’

Irina Leimbacher and Konrad Steiner: We worked together at SF Cinematheque for four years (2003-6), when Irina was Associate Curator and then Artistic Director and Konrad was on the Curatorial Committee. Kino21 is as a continuation of the work we did there. The name combines our first initials using an international word that references a legacy and a future. We both admire the aspirations and achievements of early Soviet cinema and particularly the ambitions of Dziga Vertov and his Kino Pravda. The staff and board at Artists Television Access have generously hosted our projects and they’re on 21st and Valencia Streets. It’s also a name looking forward to this new century.

SF360: Can you both speak to how you conceive of the spirit of kino21 programming, the kinds of films you’re looking to screen?

Leimbacher: We began this project as a way to continue doing something we both love: screening provocative, imaginative, politically astute cinema. We seek out current and historical work that is relevant to our time. We want audiences with high expectations to discover or re-discover this work. The series started out with several ‘classics’ and will continue with historical work, along with co-presentations (MadCat Film Festival, SF Camerawork, The Poetry Center at SFSU and others) and more personal appearances from local and visiting artists, curators and scholars.

Steiner: I hope our programming contributes to the dialog between artists of different media. Along with Steve Polta and Maia Cybelle Carpenter at SF Cinematheque, we all developed a series called Promiscuous Cinema. It’s said sometimes that Poetry or Music or Painting is the mother of all the arts. Well, I thought, what if cinema was really the whore of all the arts, and I mean that in the most sex-positive way. That series had shows with poets, visual artists, composers, and film performance. I’d like kino21 to be a venue that sponsors new collaborative work especially from writers and composers interested in work that both entertains and provokes.

SF360: Did you have any particular models for this kind of programming? Were there specific periods of time that were especially formative to your understanding and appreciation of cinema?

Leimbacher and Steiner: Influential periods of cinema for us start with the eclectic and formally playful ’20s in France and early Soviet cinema. Then there is the very fecund ’60s and ’70s rich with collaboration, intermedia crossovers, and new forms of politically engaged essay filmmaking. Finally we’re very interested in the personal political films of the 1990s and 2000s from all over, not just the US.

As for local inspiration Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema is a big one. That was the first experimental film series in the country. It ran in San Francisco from 1946 to the early 50s at SF MoMA, in a time before experimental film got so specialized. Then there’s the DIY ethos of early Canyon Cinema, evolving into SF Cinematheque, when Director Steve Anker did pioneering work for 17 years expanding the audience for experimental film. Also, Konrad admires the ecumenical-yet-in-your-face spirit of Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire.

SF360: I’m curious to have you describe the nature of your collaboration a bit more. You’re obviously both bringing distinct backgrounds/experiences to the table for kino21 but do you generally feel you’re on the same page with regards to sensibility and formatting?

Leimbacher and Steiner: Irina is the more experienced programmer with 12 years at Cinematheque, and Konrad is the more active filmmaker. We each have our focus, but after several very pragmatic years of learning from and critiquing each other’s ideas, we also have confidence in each other’s instincts. We can be more objective and also more receptive towards each other, which encourages exploration. We want to share that spirit with audiences.

SF360: How, in your experience, does showing other people’s films compare to screening your own personal work? Konrad, I was struck by what you said introducing the Baillie [‘Quick Billy’ and’Roslyn Romance’] films about how transformative they were for you-it made me think about the way you end up putting yourself on the line in sharing, endorsing art you’re especially attached to.

Steiner: Either way, presenting work is always a risky, outward-facing gesture. So they’re similar. But maybe it’s like, after a child is born the difference between being the mother and being the midwife. Lots of care and responsibility in either case, but the stakes are different. Still, a show is also a kind of composition, and creative programming can have a level of exploration and even advocacy that people appreciate, as long as the curator doesn’t upstage the work. We like Amos Vogel’s (founder of Cinema 16 in 1950s New York) wisdom: you have to be one step ahead of the audience, not two.

SF360: Given the couple of well-established local organizations associated with SF avant-garde film (Cinematheque, Other Cinema), how has it been trying to establish the kino21 name? Have you had an okay time acquiring prints?

Leimbacher and Steiner: There really isn’t any sense of competition with other organizations, mostly because no one has a grip on what ‘avant-garde’ means anymore. You mention Craig Baldwin’s seminal Other Cinema, but like any good idea, that spawned many other others: series we consider kin such as Studio 27, the Film on Film Foundation, Guerilla Outdoor Cinema, Film Night at the Edinburgh Castle, the New Yipes poetry and film series at 21 Grand in Oakland, the Electric Mural Project at 19th and San Carlos, to name a few that suggest the variety. We share the same pleasures, freedoms and constraints of being self-financed.

Renting prints or tapes is no problem as we both already have numerous contacts in the film exhibition world. But it’s true, establishing credibility and trust is important because we’re not just doing this to see the work ourselves. We want to show it to people! So far the audience response has been very good: we’re personally breaking even on the rentals and the in-person artists have all been paid well from the gate.

SF360: In at least two of the films you’ve screened thus far (Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ and Chris Marker’s‘A Grin Without a Cat’) you’ve noted that the works are fundamentally untranslatable in some ways. Can you speak to the particular kind of challenge which goes with screening foreign avant-garde cinema?

Steiner: In those cases, we’re dealing with masters of what’s been called’polyvalent montage’ or editing which works on many levels at once. If you have to read subtitles, you can’t really attend to the story that’s being told, or the references or jokes that are made with the picture. We produced our own version of SOS explicitly to address my concern with an American audience’s appreciation of that level of Debord’s filmmaking. In Marker’s case, he did it himself for the film distributed in English speaking countries.

Leimbacher: To give an answer to the broader question, let me say that the US is provincial in many ways, not just with regards to its geo-political ignorance. It’s very important to screen works that put forth perspectives that haven’t been explicitly made, translated, or pre-digested for US audiences. In the next year we hope to screen more political documentaries or essay films from Lebanon, Indonesia, Israel and elsewhere. Debord and Marker are of course seminal figures in film, both politically and aesthetically. Our screenings of their works was also a form of homage which will also continue to weave through kino21 screenings, and we have more Debord screenings planned for the fall.

SF360: Most of the kino21 screening thus far have been at Artist’s Television Access, but you’re showing the Dorsky films at SF Camerawork. Are you planning on doing more programming there? Are there other venues you’re hoping to bring films to?

Leimbacher and Steiner: The series will continue to screen monthly at ATA in the fall. We have more shows planned with SF Camerawork, and probably with other venues, including curated salon screenings, iPods and street projections.

SF360: Do you have any particular goals for the series, either in terms of specific films/programs or, more generally, in terms of the types of events you’d like to host?

Leimbacher and Steiner: We encourage the theatrical experience of projected cinema, as opposed to the Netflix experience of film on furniture. We come together in the theater. The community manifests in the flesh. This is why we concentrate on rare work, in-person appearances and film in performance: to draw us together in civic space, to create shared experience and discussion. It’s also why ATA is a particularly good venue for us, because it’s a warm atmosphere where people can congregate, linger and talk.

SF360: What’s the best way for people to keep in touch with kino21 programming?

Leimbacher and Steiner: Without a website, a facebook or a myspace, we’re very diligent about getting the word out for our shows the old-fashioned way, via email. If you wish to receive announcements personally, drop an email to and check and