Since moving to the Triangle in 2001, 29-year-old Niku Arbabi has been a whirligig of organizational might around her primary passions, DIY filmmaking and ‘zine publishing. Since 2002, she has been the driving force behind Ms. Films Festival, taking the helm after it was created as a one-off event by local curators Corky Goldsmith and Jim Haverkamp.
Arbabi, a native of small-town Michigan who studied comparative literature and film at the University of Minnesota, has supported herself in various capacities on the film studies staffs of Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, founding the ScreenArts programming series at the latter school. In 2003, she and Ms. Films received an honorable mention in the Indies Arts Awards given by this newspaper.
But even as Arbabi seemed to be a bottomless fount of creative energy, she was finding it difficult to gain lasting traction in the community. In June, she announced that she, her partner and the festival would be relocating to Austin, Texas. On Friday, June 30, the Triangle’s last Ms. Films Festival took place in the form of a greatest hits screening at 305 South, a Durham arts space. It was attended by approximately 50 people.
Two weeks later, Arbabi moved to Austin, but not before she sat down with the Independent for drinks at Blue Coffee in downtown Durham. These are her frank reflections on her years in the Triangle–and why she’s leaving.
On the attraction of Austin: There’s a much larger concentration of people doing arts, and the support from the city is unbelievable. There’s all the [institutional] support artists have, and then there’s all the people coming out to each other’s stuff. Here it’s spread thin and it’s hard to maintain it without sliding back downhill. There are people doing things here, but in Austin it’s less uphill. I’m excited about being somewhere with so many options.
I’m also looking forward to a much more diverse queer community.
On Durham’s drawbacks: What’s frustrating here–that I didn’t experience [while in college] in Minneapolis–is the isolation of the universities.
There’s something about Durham that makes it very difficult to meet and connect with people. It’s an invisible bubble. The first time I visited [Austin] I immediately met people on the streets. It was wide open. Durham is more closed. It took me a few months to meet anybody, and I put a lot of effort into it.
Personally, I’m more comfortable in bigger cities where you can get coffee at 9 p.m. and go out to eat in more than a few places.
It was also a pretty big blow to find out what the public transportation is like here. Better transportation would support the arts.
One advantage of Durham over Austin is that it’s easier to visit other places by car. I really enjoy Richmond. People should go there; it’s really underrated.
On the mission of Ms. Films: I want to get people involved who never made films before, never made ‘zines before, who have never expressed themselves artistically.
The quality is very high compared to the amount of money involved in it. There’s no entry fee. I’m not going to start charging filmmakers $50 to enter. Why make money from artists? How does that fit into your mission?
I asked people coming to Ms. Films about what works. People would say, “There were no throwaways, no filler.” I go to other festivals and see movies all day, all night, and half of them are not worth the time. Part of encouraging people to do good work is to be selective.
On the reception of Ms. Films: In some ways the community has been very supportive, but in other ways it hasn’t. Turnout hasn’t been that great. I’ll see a lot of people who say they’re excited, they want to come, but not this year, they’re gonna be there next year.
Everyone wanted to help. I’ve met amazing people through Ms. Films. People who came to the fest always told me what positive impact it made on their lives.
We had Chicks Rock fundraisers, monthly shows for four months with 12 or 13 bands. Bands here are generally [supportive] like that.
Durham has a lot of issues; people in the beginning especially were very discouraging of Ms. Films growing. Some seemed to feel like I was selling out by bringing in more people from out of town. There was an underlying attitude that discouraged growth.
There was very little support from the queer community for Ms. Films.
On the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian Film Festival: It’s very closed off; it’s been very disappointing to me. At the very beginning I tried to partner with them. At first, they said “great” but they never followed through. The sensibility is mainstream and corporate, not quality programming. I think they could stand to get some film curation in there, for god’s sake. They’re not giving the audience credit for being intelligent. Just because a film is made by a gay person or a woman doesn’t make it good.
On what she’ll miss: I really like the Scrap Exchange. Joe & Jo’s was always supportive. Businesses like that would give you spare food, in contrast to people who say, “How much can I get out of you?”
Joe & Jo’s and [the now-closed] Ooh La Latte are businesses that have given help without questions. Cozy, too. Avid Video made a point of supporting us every single year. I just hope the community supports these businesses as well as they have supported the community.