Cinetheque Paradiso

Photos by Virginia Lee Hunter

Say it out loud: Paolo Davanzo. The name circles around your mouth, rolls down over the tongue and finishes off with a triumphant, three-syllable flourish. A grand appellation, to be sure, and when you hear its bearer pronounce it, you know the dude’s got character.

As co-founder (with filmmaker Ken Fountain) of the Echo Park Film Center (EPFC), a nonprofit community exhibition space, film school, lending library and repair shop in the heart of Echo Park, he’s needed it. Sandwiched between the alternative clothing store–bookstore 33 1/3 and the Downbeat Café, within smelling distance of Burrito King and half a block west of David Farley’s United Methodist Church, the center was founded three years ago when Davanzo and some friends started screening experimental films there. “We had literally this much room,” says the 33-year-old, talking a mile a minute and sweeping two bent arms a few feet from the center’s large, street-side window. “We had maybe 10 chairs, and a borrowed projector, and a tiny little pull-up screen.”

That was in December 2001, and Davanzo, an experimental filmmaker infatuated with the physical materials of cinema, was hot off the Super Super 8 Tour, an amateur-filmmakers showcase he’d inherited from its founder, Melinda Stone. Both Davanzo’s parents had been political activists; from them he inherited a big, Italian heart and a staunch commitment to engaging the community around him. “I wanted to reciprocate all the generosity people had given us on the tour,” Davanzo says, explaining why, in the shadow of Hollywood, he wanted to show experimental films and why, despite radically diminished public funds, he embarked on an endeavor that promised to keep him busy, and crazy, for years with little hope of financial reward. Ever.

But that’s Paolo. Stepping backward, he begins the tour of the center by gesturing toward two glass cases housing obscure movie-camera paraphernalia, weird batteries for ancient light meters and the funkiest film editors you’ve ever seen. There’s a big screen now, too, and a great sound system, both of which have helped make the Echo Park Film Center a legitimate stop on the West Coast tour of microcinemas, with visiting filmmakers dropping by almost weekly.

“We show experimental films, political films, Spanish-language films — films for the neighborhood,” says Davanzo. Screenings have included Stan Brakhage’s complete Dog Star Man (with the possibly sacrilegious addition of live music), Japanese experimental films, Iranian films, work by local collective Alpha 60, shorts about bike culture presented by Critical Mass, and much more. The list of out-of-towners sparkles with underground superstars like Mark Street, Matt McCormick, Lordes Portillo and Craig Baldwin, while maintaining a focus on local talent: Naomi Uman hosted the Los Angeles premiere of her new film, Mala Leche, at EPFC in October and, this Friday and Saturday, a program of highlights from the Cleveland experimental-film festival 20,000 Leagues Under the Industry (see Special Events in the film calendar).

But the EPFC moves well beyond just being a screening venue. “From day one, we’ve had the media school,” Davanzo says, continuing the tour. Moving past the stacks of books and videos lining the orange-and-red walls and into the room at the rear of the space, Davanzo surveys a long desk on which sit several computers. “We do traditional film classes with the kids because it’s tactile — they can touch the film stock with Super 8 editing — but we’re also pragmatic and want to give them skills they can use, so a lot of times we’ll shoot on film or D.V. and then edit on the computer.”

Davanzo says that the center has taught 45 kids over the last 18 months. “They never pay a penny,” he says. “They come in, they make these beautiful films, and we try to empower them. We’re not dogmatic about any of it — they make their movies.”

Not surprisingly, he’s recently been fielding calls from parents and teachers all over the city who want to bring their kids to Echo Park. Davanzo often offers to help guide different neighborhoods in setting up their own centers, and from the glimmer in his eye, you can picture his utopia: a city bursting with neighborhood film centers, and kids on every street making movies, then gathering at night in the flickering light of projectors to share them. It’s a laudable vision, and Davanzo — with his partner, a cluster of volunteers, the center’s growing audience and a heart as flamboyant and poetic as his name — is making it happen.

Holly Willis is the editor of Res magazine. The Echo Park Film Center is located at 1200 N. Alvarado St., Los Angeles. For information, call (213) 484-8846.

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