Friday, Jan. 8, 8 p.m., $5
Unexposed Microcinema
105 Hood St., Suite 5, Durham

If you were looking for a sustained experimental film scene in the Triangle just a couple of years ago, you were out of luck. Basically, your options were Tom Whiteside’s Durham Cinematheque, which focuses on archival more than contemporary, or the filmmakers associated with Duke’s graduate program in experimental and documentary arts, who were cloistered away on campus. But that changed when a pair of garrulous brothers moved to Durham and double-handedly created a social nexus for experimental film where none had existed.

Over the last two years, Jeremy and Brendan Smyth’s Unexposed series has transformed the local state of contemporary experimental filmboth from campus and around the countryfrom a glimmer of isolated practitioners and one-off screenings to a consistent, visible presence in Durham’s cultural life. Justly encouraged, they are now going all in on experimental film in a way that is virtually unprecedented in the national microcinema scene. Their aim is to make the art form they love accessible to all.

In the new year, the Smyths are increasing their schedule from monthly to weekly. They are enlisting collaborators and instituting a yearlong programming theme. They are planning a tri-annual festival and launching a new online home for the films they screen. Most daring of all, they are renting a space, putting their service-job money behind a fervent belief that experimental film could be accessible, even popular, if presented in the right context.

“Our vision is essentially just to prove that there are enough followers of this art form that somebody slapped down cash money on a commercial venue,” Jeremy says, “and to give people multiple ways to experience experimental film.”

The Smyths, 26 years old, are twins whose unpretentious manner belies their passion for an elevated art form. Both are tall and thin, bearded and flannelled, beamish and boyish. They mainly grew up in Florida but spent summers in Haverhill, Massachusetts. By early 2013, after finishing their studies in economics and film at the University of Florida, they were back in Massachusetts, where they still run the annual Haverhill Experimental Film Festival. They decided it was time for something new.

The Smyths are not only curators but also collaborative creators, mainly of odd, beautiful abstract documentaries. Like one of their idols, Bill Brownthe itinerant experimental filmmaker and Dream Whip zine author who is currently a lecturing fellow at Dukethey are intimately concerned with place, complicating their impressionistic records of far-flung travels with analog techniques and in-camera edits.

From the presence of Brown (and other notable experimental filmmakers) and the graduate program at Duke, the Smyths reasonably inferred that Durham must have a thriving experimental film community. They didn’t realize they were badly mistaken until they moved here in the summer of 2013.

“It wasn’t really happening,” Jeremy says. “We had no idea why there wasn’t a poster somewhere about a screening at Duke. We literally started Unexposed because we wanted to meet the professors and give them a chance to screen out in Durham.”


Since February 2014, Unexposed has roamed through about 10 different venues, mostly in downtown Durham, including the sensible Shadowbox Studio, a stark room above The Pit barbecue restaurant and a barn in Chapel Hill. Almost every month, the series has featured a curated selection of work by traveling and local academic and independent filmmakers, who are usually in attendance for lengthy discussions.

Now, instead of playing venue roulette, the series hunkers down in a garage-bay studio with blank-slate white walls across the street from Golden Belt. Because intimacy is one of Unexposed’s defining features, the move isn’t about finding a bigger audiencethe space holds about 50 people, in line with the series’ average draw of 40 people per screeningbut about making that audience more diverse and raising the profile of experimental film.

Every month, the Smyths will show a selection of 15 or 20 films multiple times in different contexts. Each Friday will feature a different recurring event that is also part of a monthly focus on a certain region. First Fridays are given to black-box screenings that introduce the month’s geographical terrain. On second Fridays, the films will visually score live music, a telling inversion of the usual hierarchy, where abstract film is mere fodder for bands. During Durham’s Third Friday gallery walks, the Smyths will casually run films on multiple projectors and host art showsparticularly abstract painting, a widely accepted medium that they believe can foster an understanding of abstract film. And fourth Fridays continue the tradition of giving visiting filmmakers a close look and a chance to meet their viewers.

The new series begins at 8 p.m. this Friday with the grand opening of Unexposed Microcinema and the debut of the new thematic program, which this month features filmmakers from New England. The screening features nine shorts by five New England filmmakers, curated from the Smyth’s overall selection by Anna Kipervaser, a recent recipient of Duke’s experimental and documentary arts MFA. She will take on this role every month, a product of the Smyths’ efforts to bridge town and gown, infiltrating the closed-off world of Duke while building their small but devoted audience.

“They’re having screenings, bringing in amazing filmmakers, but the public doesn’t know about them,” Jeremy says. “But we attend all their events. We go to campus. We knock on the locked door to let us in.” Gradually, the academy returned the interest, with quite a few Duke professors and MFA students showing at Unexposed and then coming back for other screenings, including Kipervaser.

“She’s helped us integrate with the MFA students a whole lot because she has a great personality, and me and Brendan are a little shy at times, even though people don’t believe us,” Jeremy says.

Kipervaser is also the curator of the new online series that launches this Friday on a smartly branded website designed by Jack Marinichanother part of the push to mainstream the avant-garde and let go of a certain preciousness about presentation.

“We think that experimental film has denied the Internet to an almost ridiculous degree,” Jeremy explains. “Brendan and I have been talking about wanting to push it forward into the digital age, get the films out there, so that when people ask what I do, I don’t have to stumble around my words for three minutes and then give up.”

Instead, he can direct them to the “Explore” tab on the Unexposed website so they can simply see the films, which often defy conventional description. The Smyths hope the geographical focus can also provide curious viewers, who might be conditioned to regard film as a narrative form, some of the context they lack. The brothers are fascinated by how filmmakers from a single area can bring a variety of viewpoints to the same sense of place, which can be critical to understanding their work.

“It’s about a learning process, making experimental film less high and mighty,” Jeremy explains. “These people live and work in New Englandthey’re just human beings, let’s learn about them. It’s a way to ground people.”

The Smyths are aware of, if not daunted by, the improbability that goes with the originality of their scheme.

“The concept of roaming microcinema exists in so many places,” Jeremy says. “You set up 15 chairs in a bar, and it’s quaint and lovely, but it’s so fleeting. The idea of us having our own space is actually kind of insane, and people in the experimental film community are freaking out a little bit. They’re almost confused by our dedication. Nobody thinks this is possiblenobody!”

Still, with the momentum they’ve built in Durham, it just might work. The old series went out on a high note with a spotlight on Duke’s David Gatten, a 20-year veteran of the experimental film scene who has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and premiered his works at places like the London Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Sixty-five people showed up. They stayed for five hours.

“The dedication that night made me realize that the audience is totally there, especially when we’re collaborating with different members of the artistic community,” Jeremy says. “David kind of shoved us in the right direction, saying there hadn’t been that kind of audience for experimental film since the ’70s.”

Beyond the smart curation and consistent presence of Unexposed, the unique ingredient of its successthe thing that makes the impossible possiblemight well be the brothers’ personalities. Their presentation is casual, conversational and enthusiastic, purged of ceremony and arcane theory. When asked whether it’s just who they are or a deliberate countermeasure against the rarified cult of experimental film, Jeremy laughs.

“I think it’s both, honestly,” he replies. “We’re just fun-loving kind of guys. But at the same time, we love this art form so much, and we see why it’s not moving forward, why we’re still explaining what it is. Before each screening, Brendan and I always tell each other to be really happy, smile. It transfers to other people, like, ‘Hey, I can have fun watching this; I can have a conversation about it, not walk out solemnly and go to bed alone.’”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Shot in the dark”