Is Film Really Dead?
An Interview With Steve Cossman

By Tara D. Kelley



While conventional wisdom predicts the death of film as we know it, the next generation of filmmakers are creating, experiencing, and exploring photochemical film at MONO NO AWARE workshops. Founder and Director Steve Cossman, expands on the organization’s vision, future plans and their need for a home base. 
 
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After a successful week at the Tribeca Film Festival, where workshop instructors and former participants ran the Handcrafted Film Atelier with Persol, attention must be paid to MONO NO AWARE. If you’re wondering what MONO NO AWARE is and how it got started, you’re not alone; Steve Cossman answered this question during our first conversation:
 
MONO NO AWARE began as my own curatorial effort and over the last 8 years grew into a multi-faceted organization. I moved to New York in 2006; I had just returned from film school, and I was looking for a way to engage with local filmmakers…
 
I thought a good way for me to get engaged with the community would be to organize some sort of exhibition or festival. I had seen a lot of festivals - thousands of festivals, actually - listed everywhere for every genre and subgenre and micro-genre – on T-shirts, tote bags, and posters. I set out to do something that was unique to my interests and meaningful. I wanted to focus on what drew me to cinema in the first place. You know, that gathering of strangers sharing this common experience; tension in the air, laughing together, or being in shock. There is a kind of magic that happens there that I felt was missing my visits to fine art galleries. I set out to do something that focused on the gathering, where the emphasis was on that cinematic experience. So, the initial idea for MONO NO AWARE, the exhibition, was: expanded cinema performance, with projected film prints only to kind of over-emphasize that idea of the artist being present, the audience being present, and the work being a one-time experience...
 
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...which kind of leads into the concept of Mono no aware, the Japanese expression having to do with this emotional connection with something that’s fleeting, an attraction to the ephemeral. The environment created by expanded cinema performance, or even by an installation which has that moving image element, is kind of this temporal experience. The group of people that you share it with is unique in that sense, too, so…. It seemed to fit the event.
 
MONO NO AWARE started with just me organizing the festival the first three years. From there, with the help of dedicated friends, and now a small staff, it’s built into a dynamic arts organization with educational initiatives 6 months out of the year, a monthly in-person screening series called Connectivity Through Cinema, film related field trips, an equipment rental program, and one of the premiere platforms for expanded cinema performance and installation work with almost 650 in attendance in 2013. 
 
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MONO NO AWARE offers amazing workshops led by local filmmakers which include Expanding the Frame; Handmade Emulsion (with a second class using an eco-friendly seaweed/agar emulsion recipe to be offered this fall); 16mm Pinhole Filmmaking; and Alternatives to Projection. For information about the workshops click here.
 
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Workshops sold out? No fear. You can still include the group in your summer plans, especially if you enjoy field trips outside the city. On Sunday, July 27th, MONO NO AWARE takes a return trip to the Thomas Edison Museum. While last summer’s visit included a tour and use of the museum grounds, on this voyage you have the opportunity to shoot film inside the museum’s replica of the Black Maria as well. MONO NO AWARE will offer this workshop - shooting, processing, and projecting on the grounds of the park - to both trip participants and museum visitors. You can visit the Warwick Drive-In Theater in July and August too. As an added perk, short films created by MONO NO AWARE’s spring workshop participants will be digitally projected onscreen before the main feature. 
 
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While digital technology is an important tool, MONO NO AWARE pursues ways to make film and film technology available and affordable at a time when the infrastructure of industry-supported film is being stripped away. One of their initial plans, a film equipment rentals program, has generated such high demand that the organization is now seeking permanent space. At present, coordinating equipment pick-ups and drop-offs is organized around the group’s full-time work, so a fixed address would help consolidate their efforts and allow more time to develop programs. As a natural extension of their rentals program, MONO NO AWARE recently began to sell 100’ loads of reasonably priced 16mm color reversal Agfa stock (200D) and ORWO UN-54 (100D) black and white, which can be processed as negative or reversal. 
 
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However, one can’t ignore the impact that the industry shift has had on filmmakers. Advocates like filmmaker Tacita Dean (savefilm.org) and the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA Film Advocacy Task Force), continue to raise public awareness around the issue of creative choice. In the past, I’ve asked Steve to respond to what now seems to be the annual question on the future of photochemical film. As always, he’s realistic, yet remains positive:
 
I’m as much in the hands of the material and the manufacturers as anybody else. I certainly can’t single-handedly change the direction of a large manufacturer. As an organization we can certainly make a small contribution in sales for these companies, but we really can’t start a revolution – we need to work together.  
 
It’s a strange situation, because if they stop making oils, painters use acrylic or gouache or mix berries if they are desperate. They have options. But, in the case of working on film, if Kodak stops making film, you can make your own emulsion (and we are happy to show you how), but there are very few other people producing film commercially.
 
The future of film is an uncertain one, which might be a factor of why people are excited about it again. I remember while in high school reading about the vanishing number of record pressing plants in the US, with headlines shouting that vinyl is dead. This morning I saw records for sale at Whole Foods. DJs love vinyl, Film makers love film.  
 
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People, generally speaking, love mystery and chaos, so as technology automates everything around us, we sense that something is missing. There are filters and applications that, at the push of a button, create a sepia tone effect or a solarizing effect or anime-eyes effect - but it’s all binary and the results are still encoded. There’s no room for accidents and experimentation, and there’s no room for things to be out of control… 
 
Sometimes I’ll be shooting with my Bolex, and people will say “Those things are so hard to find!” or “Too bad you can’t get projectors anymore” or “The parts are going to be harder to come by, and soon you’re not going to be able to shoot anymore.” So much of which is a misconception; it’s no wonder film is foreign to so many children and young adults. I feel like we’re at a point where the common person believes that digital and technologies have replaced analog machinery all together. My response to that is, ‘Have you seen what a 3D printer can do?’ At some point, I’m going to be able to 3D scan my entire Bolex and print out a Bolex then shoot film with it! I can replicate almost any EIKI part I need; I’m going to be able to build an optical printer in Rhino. I’ll be able to build custom gates and trick it out in any way I want. I think certain advancements in technology make it possible to sustain analog practices and improve upon them.
 
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It hasn’t come to that point just yet. Right now, film equipment is more accessible than it’s ever been. So many schools and filmmakers are just unloading equipment. They’re either giving it away or selling it cheap – happy to see it put to ‘good use’. If, twenty years ago, you wanted to shoot on film you’d have a hard time budgeting a camera rental, and certainly you wouldn’t buy one. Now, you might fall into one for less than a grand or possibly free. Equipment is collecting dust on closets and shelves; all you need is some simple maintenance to get it running again. How are you going to say that it’s difficult, or more expensive, to shoot on film when someone hands you a camera for free?
 
Every time we meet, Steve is excited, energetic, and focused. There is always a new workshop and a future aim for the organization. What keeps him this positive?
 
Coffee! 
 
It’s all the connections that we are able to make with people from all over the world… 
 
It’s the new work that is so creative and inspiring - and then to have the ability to share it with others. Receiving an email for an upcoming screening or performance by two artists who met in our workshops -- that’s such a great feeling! While at Tribeca, a former participant came up to me, excited, and told me that her workshop film screened at a festival in Italy. On the street, I’ll run into at least one person a day either who I met from a workshop or from the annual exhibition -- it makes the entire city of New York feel like home.  
 
If you’re an artist or filmmaker and want to have your work considered for the eighth annual MONO NO AWARE, the  call for entries is open. As a nonprofit, MONO NO AWARE can accept donations of equipment, building space, and generous contributions of time. If you would like to help in any way, please reach out to them. After all, “The future of cinema is ours.”  
 
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