By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Movies have always been about dreams. This story is no different. Except this particular dream doesn’t lead to a self-congratulatory speech and a limousine ride into the Malibu Colony, but to a cluttered storefront on a busy Echo Park street not fully succumbed to gentrification. Paolo Davanzo definitely looks the part of a dreamer with his unruly mad-scientist hair and mischievous smile. The 38-year-old is standing in what appears to be a small makeshift theater or a cluttered classroom. The space is called The Echo Park Film Center, and it is all of that and more.
As the afternoon sunlight filters in through an open door, a group of local seniors sit before computers editing images under the tutelage of an instructor named Shauna McGarry. They are learning to make short films. A man named Jamie says he is making a film about a summer camp in Ecuador for low-income kids. An elderly electrician named Enrique works a keyboard with his calloused hands, trying to master the editing software. He says he wants to make a short promotional film about his business so he can advertise on the Internet. They have been coming to the class for several weeks and say they heard about the free workshop through fliers and word of mouth. As the seniors finish up, Davanzo and McGarry rearrange chairs in preparation for the night’s public screening of an underground documentary about local jazz musicians.
Davanzo’s dream, which would eventually become the nonprofit Film Center, was born out of death. Sitting at a table as the sun fades outside, he says the impetus started when his fervently progressive parents passed away.
“My father and mother would always talk about the Black Panthers,” he says. “My mom worked in homeless shelters and was very active in the community. They instilled those values in me when I was growing up.”
His father was from Italy and the family lived there until Paolo was 7. They then relocated to, of all places, Irvine, California.
“It was a very surreal existence,” he says with a laugh. “My father romanticized the United States but it was kind of bizarre because they were these bohemians. They had lived in Paris and Venezuela and then suddenly we were in a middle-class suburban house in Irvine. But I grew up in alternative culture, playing in punk bands and doing zines. I never was part of the status quo.”
Davanzo says he became interested in non-narrative film while visiting relatives in Italy during the first Iraq war. “It showed me the power of media as propaganda for good and for bad,” he says. “So I started to study film connected with political thought.”
After earning degrees in film and political science, Davanzo returned to Los Angeles and began working in film production. Then his father died. “I was working in a system that I knew inherently was kind of bullshit. After my father died I just thought I needed to honor him and do something bigger than me.”
So Davanzo quit his job and began to travel across North America in a van, hanging a sheet and projecting films on the sides of buildings, in national parks, trailer parks and retirement homes.
“I realized people were hungry for film. Not just in the two-hour-pay-twelve-dollar multiplex scenario, but also the funky experimental film on the side of an RV in Idaho. Not everyone loved it. The old guys sipping beers out of their cozies would say, ‘I don’t get it. This stuff’s crap but I like what you’re doing, kid.’ It created an interesting dialogue. That experience led to what I’m doing now.”
Back in Los Angeles, Davanzo taught at a community college and as a substitute at elementary schools around Echo Park. He also periodically returned to the road with his film projector. While traveling in Europe, he was introduced to the concept of film co-ops and micro cinemas, which exist there in an independent DIY film scene reminiscent of punk rock.
“I wanted to bring these ideas back home to this city,” he says. “And I wanted to combine the things that I really loved: filmmaking, activism and education.”
Seven years ago the only hint of the approaching new bohemia on the stretch of Alvarado now occupied by the Film Center was a coffee house called the Downbeat Cafe. The Film Center’s storefront was occupied by some artist friends of Davanzo’s who lived in the back. Davanzo started doing impromptu screenings there and eventually paid his friends $300 a month to rent a third of the space.
“I had some folding chairs and a little pull-down movie screen with tripod legs,” he says. “And I just told everyone, ‘We’re a film center now. We’re gonna teach and show films and we’re gonna rent equipment.’ That was how it started and seven years later it’s evolved into what we have now.”