Basement Films


What's Basement Films

Definition: "A mobile, makeshift, volunteer-run venue for experimental, independent and other underrepresented forms of film and (occasionally) video making."

I was browsing through web pages one day and happened to find a link to a "Basement Films" running out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Well hell, that's right next door," I said. So I sent them a message and a couple of months later we were guests at their 4th Semiannual Film and Video Showcase at the Harwood Art Center. It was pretty kick-ass, too, for something that makes just enough money to keep running. And that's really how they want to keep it, from what I understand. Of course, they would love to make more dough, but they would much rather keep the D.I.Y. and punk rock ethics over being commercial bums. That's what it's about, too. Film, by the people for the people. What more could you ask for? Not only were we treated to a great show, but we also had the opportunity to share some drinks with them at an after-show gathering which ran into the wee hours of the morning. Then it was up at 9am to meet most of the crew for breakfast. All of us were kind of bleary-eyed and slow-moving, but we managed to get a few questions asked and a lot of answers in return.

SC: How did you become involved with Basement films?
Nathan Keay: I've been involved with Basement Films since probably around December and I got in Basement Films because I was trying to do the same thing in Saint I guess I've been in town for about six months and I was excited that something like Basement Films was around and I kind of forced my way in. When they found out that I worked at a copy center, it was the final kicker.
Virgil Rhames: I got involved with Basement Films through showing work with them at a place called Taos Talking Pictures, a film festival, and just went to a lot of shows and hung out. I kind of unofficially do some sound work with them so it's kind of fun that way. It's fun in an UNOFFICIAL way, but you know...I go to meetings, get drunk with Keif, wake up with him in the' see, you get to know people that way! It's really good; I like Basement Films.
Matt Cowan: DJ's eating, so I'll talk for DJ. DJ Burt. DJ's been involved for about 3, 4 months. He's my roommate. I make him come. In more ways than one! DJ adds this special touch to the group that no one else could. His good cheer, his dog Misha (who's prettier than all of us), and a slight odor that can't be matched in any other way.
Keif: Plus him and Virgil are the best dancers out of the group.
Virgil: Solid Gold Dancers.
Matt:They're the hottest dancers around. Is there anything else that you wanted to add to that?

16mm arc projector

"See, if I tell you our secrets, then all of a sudden you'll be trying to out do us and then I'll have to kill you."
~Keif Kenley, when asked about Basement Films equipment. Shown here is a 16mm arc projector (which they don't use).

Matt: I've been in Basement Films for a little over five years now. I started when I moved to Albuquerque and I actually had seen an ad for Basement Films when I was visiting and I was like, "OK, there's something going on in this town." So I went down to the show and I was like, "Sign me up, I want to help", and that was it, the beginning.
Keif Henley: In 1992, I had a friend who took me over to his friend's studio out on 4th street and I noticed that the guy who was sharing the space with the friend's friend had some projectors and was talking about showing some movies just on this little projector. I think the movie was Slackers. It had not come to town and it looked like it wasn't going to come to town and they were like, "We can get a 16mm print of this, so let's show it." So Basement Films kind of started as some kind of thing where they weren't showing these films that we all wanted to see, at least, "we all" being a small group of people. So I got on the mailing list and he would send me stuff and I just went to enough of them and he started having me do the door and things like that and I just took a lot of interest in it. So I got involved that way.

SC: What were their names?
Keif: David Nelson and Elizabeth Haus. She moved out of town and he asked Matt and I to help out. Then David eventually went to Shreveport for family business matters so it was dropped in Matt's and my lap and that's about the story of it. Since 1992 and most recently it's the most ambitious that it's been. It used to be we would just program other people's works, but now there like this sort of co-op edge that people want to put into it where we do more than just program other people's films.

SC: Like what?
Keif: Well, supposedly we're going to do this project with the Harwood called vehicle, which is all about transportation -- this is an example. What we're going to do is carry a multiple Super 8 camera in a car and film simultaneously -- if I've got the concept right. I think Matt can clarify this better; he had a better idea of it -- and then sort of simulate it; reproduce it. Also, we're kind of a resource center for foundations, grants and other places to show your work. That's something that was not the case when David, myself and was all we could do just to do shows...but now it's become a lot more...
Virgil: We do it every week.
Keif: Yeah, it feels like it. At least once a month is when we do it.
Matt: Lately it's been every week.
Keif: So we want to get involved in assisting other film makers, maybe get their works shown. That's always been the case, and doing workshops on how to do low budget films.
SC: You just started from showing films and now it's turned into this whole big production. So how far along are you into starting these workshops?
Keif: We have one on July 26. Kevin Wiggins. It's a thing called How to Spend Your Low Budget Money. He's a guy that's worked on everything from like high end industry jobs; like he was JFK in that movie Ruby. Production Assistant, Grip, all the way to like these low budget obscurities. So he's run the whole gamut. He's seen a lot of people waste their money, so I feel like he's qualified to do a workshop.
Matt: And it's only 10 bucks for like 4 hours.

SC: In the early days, did you mainly deal with the local scene or were you bringing in films from out of town?
Keif: At first it was more showing experimental underground stuff and then David Nelson talked about a film community sense and not just the selfish need to watch these avant-garde films. So Matt and I put on the first local film and video showcase back in, I think, '93. A lot of people showed up and it seemed like a good thing to do it in a non-juried, non-competitive style, although sometimes we argue about that.

SC: For these shows do you basically show whatever you get? What kind of criteria do you have for selecting films that you show?
Keif: We haven't turned down very much. For a local show we never have. There's enough juried competition going on in the world.
Matt: We do get tapes that we don't show.
Keif: I kind of like to pass the film around to everybody and if some one feels strongly about it, then we'll do it and if not... Now that we're on the internet I think that we'll get a big increase in submissions, so... There's a lot of BAD independent work out there. (laughs) If there was one word that I would take off our synopsis, it would be the word "Independent" because a lot of independent features, they're not a real radical departure from what you see at the Cineplexes.

8mm projector

8mm projector, which they ALSO don't use.

SC: You're most interested in real avant garde stuff, in general?
Keif: Well that's my interest...and the documentary and stuff like that.
Virgil: It's the stuff that's going to have a hard time getting out there.
Keif: It's just providing a forum for voices.
SC: What personally do you all want to gain out of doing this?
Virgil: To meet the ladies!
Matt: Yeah, that's what we're all about!
(Laughter, Ha-ha-ha)
Virgil: Conquest.
Keif: The most gratifying thing is meeting the filmmaker and spending time with that person. It just reminds you that there's more than just your little test tube of life, to meet these people on the road. Especially when Eric Saks comes to town.
Matt: Meeting the people and hanging out with them is really the best part. Seeing the films is definitely a large part of it. You know, half of the top ten films that I've seen in the last year have been Basement Film shows. Well, actually 2 of the best 4 films I've seen have been Basement Films.
Nathan: Like Titanic for instance.
Matt: (Laughs) Yeah, Titanic and we won't go into the other one. No, it was the Martha Colburn/James Schneider , that was one of the best shows I've seen; that and Gummo are the 2 best movies that I've seen in the last year. And after the Martha Colburn/James Schneider film we went out and drank a beer and hung out and went to breakfast. It's just fun to meet them when they're touring and having a good time. That's what I like about it.
Virgil: I think you're right.

SC: So what are the different types of events you all have hosted?
Virgil: Super 8 film festival...
Keif: Nathan's going to organize I think the fourth round of short films of live local musicians. They stand off to the side and provide live soundtracks. Maybe Virgil will be getting these German experimental films from the Embassy.
Virgil: We're working on that; still getting some information.
Nathan: We'd like to do a drive-in caravan.
Keif: We'll go to the nearest drive-in -- either Carlsbad or Las Vegas.

SC: So have you had pretty good turnouts for all of your shows?
Keif: It varies. Lately it's been good though.
Matt: It's been really consistent lately.
Nathan: It's mainly local people. Usually about 30 people. The one from Santa Fe, she had 30 people at her show. She was really obscure, too, no one knew who she was.
Matt: There's always a turnout. Which is good. Did we have any shows that were a total bust?
Keif: Yeah, Alan Fulford and myself taught a Super 8 class for kids. We showed the end results after the end of the class. A few of the parents showed up, but hardly anybody outside of that. That was a real bust. That's funny because we went from having the biggest turnout we ever had with Alyce Wittenstein. We did 2 nights of 120+ people. And that's where we learned to take more of a cut at the door, by the way too. (laugh) We went from that all the way to the children's Super 8 workshop...(interrupted by noisy motorcycle)...hey, he's on our mailing list...lately it's been pretty consistent. We have a mailing list of about 300 people. Press releases to the Weekly Alibi, which is a free wrag in town, and the other big papers.

SC: Do you ever plan on breaking out of the Albuquerque area and trying to go more national?
Keif: Me personally, no. To me it's like that's somebody else's job.
Matt: In what sense?

SC: Well, like advertising nationally or having a big film fest where people come from all over the world.
Keif: Matt's talked about that.
Nathan: Maybe we should tour.
Keif: Well, we do in a way. We go up to Taos, we go up to Santa Fe. We've done many tours.
Matt: We've gone to Carlsbad.
Keif: We were kind of showing more film loops and found footage and things like that. It wasn't specifically one persons vision, so to speak.

SC: So tell me about your equipment; technically what's involved with putting these things together.
Keif: Well, I don't know if I want to demystify ourselves. You know, I kind of like the underground coveted status of people not knowing...
Virgil: ...Oooo, those guys work with PROJECTORS...
Keif: See if I tell you our secrets then all of a sudden you'll be trying to out do us and then I'll have to kill you. No, it's a lot of rummaging -- we've got to be something for nothing. We run on so little money. I mean we're working on next to nothing.

SC: Do you ever hope for or foresee that it will be self-supporting where you can actually make a living?
Keif: Mmm, maybe. It's like here there's not a real preexisting community for experimental films as there would be in San Francisco. So you kind of have to cultivate it, and that's the nice challenge of it. And I like getting the whole demographic of people. I would like to think that we're not just getting a certain clique of people, but getting a whole range...
Matt: I want to try to get a bunch of old silent westerns. I think that would be a good show at a BFW host lounge. We could get a different kind of crowd in there, not just like the artsy film crowd.

SC: Hey Matt, what's your dream for Basement Films; what do you foresee?
Matt: My dream for Basement Films is for Keif to be able to make like a super fat living off of it.
SC: For Keif? Awww.
(...Awww... )
Matt: As soon as we get through getting the nonprofit status, which is becoming a BIG pain in the ass, we can start writing for grants and we'll be able to get grants very easily, I think. I don't think we'll have any problem getting grant money, you know, to start paying someone a salary.
Keif: Yeah, there's a certain freedom to doing it renegade style and you don't have to answer up as much and you don't have to play the charade of official nonprofit bourgeois art administrators. That's what they're probably going to want us to be. But lately it's reached a point where it was taking too much money and time out of my pocket. I'm willing to volunteer. I would definitely work this for minimum wage. I thought about simplifying things. I mean there's a whole history of amateur film clubs which is kind of where we come from, and all the other venue around the country, in that we don't have an industrial standard, we couldn't rise to that standard, probably we would not want to rise to that standard -- we'd want to set our own standards for it. We're not working with digital equipment and theater projectors which are at least $7,000-10,000 sometimes. I like the portable aspect of it, even though it's a pain in the ass sometimes, but that kind of gives it some kind of distinction from the Southwest Film Center (which also can at times program really good experimental film works). It's kind of like taking the religion out of the church. It's not so much what you say, it's how you say it, too.

SC: So what have been some major trials and tribulations of working with Basement Films?
Keif: Well, some of it's like delegating responsibilities, and I feel like with seven people all we have to do is put in an hour a week at the most and this thing can fly, this thing can cruise. So...organization...the organization of it all; that's our trials and tribulations. Well, also it really burns my hide when the equipment goes down and we have to give our money back -- we've only had to do that one time...

SC: So do you all feel that you're getting enough out of all the work you're putting in? Is it all worth it for you?
(well, umm, eee, aaa)
Virgil: Is it worth it guys? Is it worth it guys?? Is it worth it?
Keif: You know, I would like to say that we work best when filmmakers come through town with this sort of like--this is maybe a neg0ative term to us--but like with a folk art sensibility where it's trying to make movie-making a folk art again where it's by the people for the people. Where the general public cannot only make movies but they can make movies that the other general public can watch. Usually it happens in a small community. Right now, generally speaking, our wide scale general public watches movies like Lost World and stuff like that, you know, things that they could never make; it's a very specialized world. And that's not necessarily a totally bad thing -- there's something to respect about craftsmanship and skills and everything, but it's out of hand; it's out of balance. And so I like bringing filming back to the folk art element.
Matt: Bringing it home...
Keif: I was talking to a guy who does programming at the Southwest Film Center and he was like, "It never had a folk art element -- a little bit in the 60's and 70's, but it's always been kind of a specialized thing." We do home movie nights where we invited people bring their home movies, but generally speaking, they're not worthy of public consumption.

Keif and Matt at the Harwood

Keif (foreground blur) and Matt Cowan are shown here working at the 1998 Local Showcase at the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque, NM.  

SC: So in your individual opinions, what really makes a good film?
Keif: You know, if I can hog the airwaves here again...To me a lot of times I see a lot of independent work where what's done is done out of default. It's kind of like "Oh, if I could only have blown it up to 35[mm]; If we only could have had a steady cam in that shot; blah, blah, blah." What I like is work that stands on its own like "No, I meant to shoot that on Super 8."
Nathan: It's hard to pick and choose; you are making a judgment call.
Matt: It's hard to say what makes a good film. As soon as you say that it needs something like this, you see someone who does it completely differently and you're like, "That's fucking great film." It doesn't seem like people are really trying anything different other than like, Woody Allen. He's the only major person that I've seen do anything interesting, you know, he's had people out of focus in his film and like he's willing to throw in junk cuts.
Keif: And then there's Jean Luc Goddard, but he's such a crackpot eccentric in a lot of people's eyes. People will show up to see his movies just because of his name. I still think that he's an interesting filmmaker.

SC: So what do you want to do when you grow up, Nathan?
Nathan: I like the grassroots organizations like Basement Films and the Harwood. It's something that I want to stay involved with for my whole life. I think it's really important; I think it's a necessity -- involving the community in an arts program. It's a great thing.
SC: Virgil?
Virgil: Art. I'm an artist. I mean, I want to be an artist.

SC: What medium?
Virgil: Multimedia. Whatever. I mean, you can be an artist and work in different mediums. It's about expression -- expressing yourself. There's a part of me that wants to be somewhat of a revolutionary, like make things change, or to see things change for the better or maybe even newer.
Nathan: Better red than dead.
Virgil: (jokingly) Yep. I'm a revolutionary and I'm gonna take all of the commies with me. So, just like being here. You can get really bored and say, "oh, there's nothing going on," but that's not true because you've got to make it happen, basically. So, you make it as busy as you want it to be; you can make your life as hectic as you want it to be. You find that you have the ability to do what you want to do. You don't have to rely on school or anything like that. So, just doing it yourself, you know, that's what I want to do for the rest of my like. Do my own thing and not have to worry about my boss or anything like that. I've got my path and I know what's happening.
Matt: I guess I want to be a filmmaker. I'd like to get wealthy and live a cush life and support all of my friends. I think I'll have a house in Mexico.
Virgil: We're all working for Matt!
Matt: I'd like to have a high-paying job and make my own work with the money that I make and not have to deal with raising money for stuff and just doing it cheap.
Keif: I'm somewhat close to doing what I want to do with my life. I would like to be doing more film and video work and I haven't been able to do that for various reasons. I'm still curious about a lot of different mediums -- film happens to be the one I'm most interested in -- I'm curious about all kinds of artistic expression.

SC: What are your favorite filmmakers? What in film really gets you excited?
Virgil: Harmony Korine really gets me off.
Matt: Gummo. He's the man of the moment in film as far as I'm concerned. He wrote Kids. He's the only thing that's really gotten me off in a while.
Nathan: Wim Wenders for me. Pretty films, good stories about relationships. Terry Gilliam as a director, he's got some nice visuals.
Matt: Gus Vanzant. I haven't seen Good Will Hunting yet, but he did Drugstore Cowboy and Malo Noche, My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Keif: Everybody from what they call the "European Masters": Godard, Buñuel, and we've got to throw in Fellini. People like Craig Baldwin, Jennifer Reeves, Bill Morrison's stuff I really like a lot, James Schneider, Martha Colburn, Eric Saks, I think is really one of the best -- so there's a wide range.

SC: You guys put together a resource guide; what is in that?
Keif: That has information on foundations, grants, places to show your work, festivals.

SC: Do you have any concerns about censorship?
Virgil: Have we ever had any problems with censorship? I don't think we have. The people who come out to these shows are pretty liberal.

Interview by Heather Bowden and Orien MacDonald. Photography by Heather Bowden. 1998.