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.”
The Film Center rents affordable film equipment, transfers film to video and holds nightly screenings. But the main focus is on education and, in particular, teaching teenagers from the ethnically and financially diverse neighborhood. This rich mix is on full display in the documentary films produced by the Center’s youth program. A film titled City of Angels contains 23 shorts by 23 students, focusing on what it means to be an Angeleno. Some deal with life of working-class immigrants, one examines what it is to be Korean in Los Angeles and several feature decidedly bohemian parents.
On a Thursday evening, a crowd has begun to assemble for the GI Joe Fest, which features stop-motion films using GI Joe action figures. Davanzo expects a standing-room-only crowd. The Center’s youth coordinator, Lisa Marr, a longtime musician (Cub, The Beards), who is also Davanzo’s girlfriend (he refers to her as “the love of his life”), ushers the teenage students out, reminding them of pending assignments. I ask whether they are concerned that increasing rents and the bad economy might jeopardize their efforts. “That’s why we have the bus,” she says with a smile.
The following week I join Davanzo on the Film Center’s new bus. What he unveils is not your cliché Partridge Family–style counter culture school bus. It is a fully operational mobile classroom enabling Davanzo and company to take the Film Center’s mission on the road and, if need be, stay there. The onetime Army transport bus has been beautifully refurbished by artist Will Rollins and is fueled by vegetable oil (with solar panels to be installed).
“Lisa and I were traveling the country and saw this disparity of access,” Davanzo explains. “Not just in parts of L.A. but also in rural Wyoming, in Native American areas of South Dakota. It seemed so obvious, why don’t we just bring the resources to people.” So they pitched the idea of a mobile classroom to the Annenberg Foundation, which loved it and awarded them a grant for the bus.
Later, as we careen through Los Angeles, Davanzo is literally beaming at the wheel. More than the storefront, the bus seems the realization of his original dream. You can hear it in his voice when he describes last summer’s inaugural journey to Canada.
“Every day Lisa and I did little workshops in towns where we did animation with kids and then would project their works that evening,” he says. “It was this real sense of commune with film and food and people — a truly magical time. For me that’s what this is all about.”