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Amateur and Avant-Garde Film: An Interview with Antonella Bonfanti

By Taylor Dean

Film runs in Antonella Bonfanti’s blood. Her grandfather worked as a projectionist in Sicily from the end of World War II through the 1950s before immigrating to Canada where he ended his career as an operator, thereafter picking up a camera only to shoot home movies.

Decades later, Antonella found herself following in his footsteps inside a projection booth at the University of Toronto. Working an undergraduate work-study position while pursuing a degree in Cinema Studies, she gained valuable hands-on experience “behind the scenes,” projecting 16mm film and developing a deep appreciation for experimental and avant-garde film. After completing her Honors BA in 2003, Antonella went on to earn an MA from the Selznick Graduate Program in Film and Media Preservation at the University of Rochester and George Eastman House in 2008. She has worked as a technical manager and projectionist at independent cinemas and film festivals and has served on the board of directors of the Center for Home Movies, an organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of home movies. Antonella also serves on the board of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). In addition, from 2008 to 2016, Antonella was involved in AMIA’s Archival Screening Night to encourage access to moving image materials in archives throughout the United States and the world. She spent nearly a decade working at the Canyon Cinema Foundation (CCF), one of the only organized sources for distribution of prints of avant-garde and experimental film in America. Canyon Cinema prides itself on educating the public on independent, non-commercial avant-garde films. Antonella first served as its Collection Manager and then as the Executive Director. In 2020 she took on her current role as the Film Collection Supervisor at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) where she cares for a major collection of Bay Area avant-garde and experimental films, assisting with film exhibitions in the in-house cinema and preserving original materials held in the archives. 

Below is an excerpt from a recent interview with Antonella on her career and her hopes for the future of the film preservation field. Note that this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What draws you to the avant-garde and experimental film genres, specifically?

There were several aspects of it that I found compelling as a young person. And in many ways I still find it compelling today. One is the purely visceral nature of some of the structural works. As someone who was a novice 20 years ago, being introduced to the works of someone like Paul Sharits, who made these very intense flicker films, or Tony Conrad…I had no idea what it was, but watching these films elicited a physical response to these abstract visuals. There is no narrative. There is no swelling music. There are none of the traditional techniques used in narrative films to coax an emotion out of you. This is emotion through pure form. That was something that I had never experienced before. I didn’t understand it and that excited me because I didn’t know that film could do that or that the films that I was used to seeing, like in the mainstream, weren’t doing that through form. This aspect I found really intriguing. And on the opposite end, I also was really attracted to the observational form which would reveal, in some ways, at their core the act of seeing and meditating on a space. How once you take the time to stop and look at something over a period of time, it can be uncomfortable and weird, but it also reveals other kinds of aspects of the world. It asks you to change the way that you engage and look at the world, how you observe the world by forcing you to sit in a room for three hours and stare at something that is not moving or barely moving. Structural films are really exciting to me because they elicit a very visceral response. Observational works are also compelling to me because they kind of force you to engage with this frame, the world around you, in a different way.

You’ve had quite a career so far — Eastman House, CCF, and now BAMPFA. I’m curious about how you’ve found yourself working on these amazing projects and with such unique collections.

I’ve had a lot of luck! I went to the University of Toronto for my undergraduate degree. While there, I was able to get a job in the projection booth, working as an audio-visual technician for classes. That position opened my world to film handling… Being in a cinema studies program and then interacting with that same program from behind the scenes at a time when you’re actively showing 16mm in the classroom across all classes… This was the time of the rise of DVD, the fall of VHS and laser discs. Mini DV was considered an exhibition format for like a hot second, which was a nightmare! It was this moment when there was this confluence of all of these magnetic media and digital media and film all being shown in the space at the same time. I got exposed to all of these different types of media in a very practical way. But it was through that experience that I came to understand film as this tactile medium where every scratch, every piece of dust, every splice had a representation–it was visible on screen. And how it was a very fragile medium that needed protection.

Outside of your professional positions, you’re involved in several passion screening projects — AMIA and the Home Movie Day Events and you now serve on the Board of Directors at CCF. What drives your engagement and what are your hopes for the field at large?

I am hopeful for continuing this forward momentum with the sharing of knowledge and the acknowledgment that most of us have been able to get these jobs and work in this field because of a certain amount of privilege. I wasn’t even totally cognizant of this as a young person. My parents helped me through school, and while I worked hard, I still had a lot of support and was able to find ways to kind of muscle my way through into places. I had the ability to make time for volunteering for projects. I worked jobs that paid less because I was supported in other ways. BAMPFA is the first job that I’ve had that actually pays a reasonable amount of money for where I live. I have been able to engage in extracurricular projects because I live in a two income household and I have support from my relatives and community and so on. I’m hopeful that as communities like AMIA and others acknowledge – that if you don’t have the right connections or the right resources, doors don’t automatically open for you. And so we, in order to remain relevant and in order to continue to grow and enrich ourselves as a field and as professionals, we are obliged to open the doors to anyone who wants access and anyone who wants to learn. And be cognizant that we’ve become too homogeneous. Diverse voices and diverse perspectives only make us stronger and better. I’m hopeful that a lot of the progress that’s been made over recent years will continue. Particularly with organizations like AMIA–and this is a project I can take zero credit for, but I just want to point to their Pathways Fellowship as a great example of something super positive in our field. The Fellowship is meant to open doors for folks from groups historically underrepresented in the profession, and I’m hopeful to see other such entry points open up in the field.

I would like to thank Antonella for her time. To learn more about Bay Area experimental filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s the BAMPFA will be holding a special premiere for several recently preserved films on September 21st called Serious Business Company and Bay Area Artists. Antonella and Jon Shibata, the Senior Film Archivist for BAMPFA, have also recently interviewed experimental filmmaker Dorothy Wiley, whose work is included in the premiere. I encourage readers interested in learning more about Dorothy Wiley or experimental filmmaking to check out that interview and the BAMPFA.