Annie Wagner knows she’s going to catch some flak from her friends for being the subject of an article. “Pay no heed,” she says. “I’m up for the antagonism!”
When you’re the president of OFFScreen, a student group that brings such avant garde films as Trembling Before God and Together to UVA’s usually conventional Newcomb Hall Theater, you’ve got to be used to a bit of antagonism. You’ve also got to know a whole lot about film.
“Being from a big city really helps you learn,” says Wagner. “People in the suburbs just don’t have access to the sorts of theaters that you find in big cities.”
Wagner’s big burg is Seattle, and many of her cinematic picks have been inspired by the Seattle International Film Festival, which Wagner reviews for the illustrious Stranger (sort of like The Hook, but in Seattle, and considerably more famous).
From Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 classic The Blue Angel to Richard Kelly’s under-appreciated 2001 debut Donnie Darko, and ranging from Criminal Lovers’ gruesomely fantastic fairy tale to Welcome to the Dollhouse’s take on puberty in suburbia, OFFScreen’s season unearths a trove of beautiful films too un-commercial to be found at your local Regal.
“We look for films,” says Wagner, “that give students access to other cultures, or maybe enlighten people.”
If brainstorming the season’s schedule is the easy part, piloting the day-to-day operations of a student-staffed group can be a bit of a headache.
“This year we’ve had a complete staff turnover except for me,” says Wagner. “We’re not paying people. That’s hard.”
Dealing with film companies can be harder. “Distributors are used to dealing with theaters, and they get upset if there isn’t someone in the office to answer the phone from 9 to 5,” she says.
Communications don’t always run as smoothly as Wagner might like. Vinegar Hill Theatre, she laughingly protests, “snagged Kandahar behind our back.” Conceived by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the film found its appeal magnified by current events— and the fact that United States is pursuing one of the actors on terrorism charges, Wagner explains.
Are independent, art-house films like this largely wasted on the University, which some might consider a fratocentric bastion of conservative thought?
Wagner sighs. “It's really frustrating to me— there’s a lot of resistance to things that seem out of the ordinary. A lot of our films could have wide attraction, but I think people get scared off by subtitles.”
In the end, though, this may not be such a bad place to show good films. “Charlottesville has a very receptive film community,” Wagner says. “The fact that Vinegar Hill and the Virginia Film Festival both stay alive is proof of that. We just have to convince the community that it’s okay to venture up to UVA.”