Focus Group Screenings Bring Experimental Film To A Living Room Near You

Lizzie Conner, Staff Writer

Every Wednesday night, “Focus Group” happens somewhere in Oberlin. It began with screenings in the basement of Mudd as part of Brett Kashmere’s cinema studies class, Exhibition Practices in the Media Arts, but after the first few weeks, Kashmere and his students agreed that the space felt tooinstitutional. So they relocated, but not to any fixed location. They’ve since held the Focus Group screenings at students’ houses and other makeshift venues across town, changing the environment, along with the theme and curator, each week.

While Kashmere included a screening series the two previous times he taught the course, this is the first time it has consistently moved from week to week. From what he said about his intentions for the course, this makes perfect sense: Not only do students learn to acquire and run the equipment necessary for screenings, but they also learn about the process of choosing and booking a space. The weekly relocation prevents participants from getting too comfortable and allows them to easily get over flukes and hiccups.

Focus Group’s mobility also serves as a constant reminder of how space affects the way we experience film — the difference between a projection screen on a tripod and one mounted on the wall, between living room couches and a mess of folding chairs shoved into rows. Part of it is comfort: Given our age and context, slipping in the back door of a house feels recreational. When I went to the screening on Wednesday the 23rd, I forgot that the event was built around a class. It felt like anything else we do on an Oberlin weeknight.

The program I attended, From the Vault, featured several 16mm shorts from the Oberlin College archives — many of which had gone unwatched for over 50 years. Although one could certainly try to draw connections among the films, it felt appropriate to accept them as a grab-bag amalgamation.

One short, Night at Peking Opera, bewildered viewers as a deep-voiced narrator explained the elaborate face paint and circus-like miming that were conventional at the Chinese Opera. The famous stop motion satire Science Friction bombarded the audience with hilarious and unsettling collages that turned national monuments into phallic symbols, rocket ships and mismatched facial features.

But the best moment of last Wednesday was when the last film, Free, began rolling its credits. Given the absurdity of what had preceded it, I didn’t think twice about the fact that the words were flashing both backwards and upside down. Kashmere explained that the film was actually being projected upside down, and we were watching it in reverse. For the next 10 minutes, a naked couple rolled around in an open field having all kinds of sex, frolicked around for a bit and packed up their picnic supplies — meandering backwards through a forest holding hands.

Viewing Free upside-down demonstrated that Brett Kashmere and the students of Exhibition Practices in the Media Arts approach Focus Group with an experimental and relaxed attitude.

Starting on April 13, students will be curating all the screenings themselves. Luckily, word by mouth travels fast on a campus this small, so make sure to ask around to find out where Focus Group will be convening in the coming weeks.