In Echo Park, He's Spreading Word on Movies

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the center of a brightly lit Echo Park storefront, Paolo Davanzo beams like a proud father. The source of the 31-year-old activist and artist's paternal delight is arranged neatly in the room around him--a rack of rare experimental and documentary video rentals, a shelf of film journals, a glass case containing stacks of 8-millimeter film canisters, cameras and projectors and (Davanzo presents this last feature with a dramatic flourish) a large white screen, which, when lowered from its nest just above the plate-glass windows, converts the storefront into a makeshift screening room.

Painted in cheery shades of blue and orange, this clubhouse-studio-store and home-grown screening room is Davanzo's dream project, the Echo Park Film Center.

"It really is like I've given birth to a child," says Davanzo, "and some days it's sweet and cuddly, and some days it's angry and doesn't want go to bed!"

The center, which opened in December, occupies a slice of Alvarado just off Sunset Boulevard, an area that has experienced a speedy gentrification over the past year, its boarded-up windows and graffiti-covered brick giving way to the film center, a clothing store, a skate shop and the homey Down Beat Cafe.

Davanzo and his partner, Ken Fountain, founded the center in the hopes of creating a grass-roots organization that would allow neighborhood families and the area's resident hipsters to share a mutual love and fascination for the movies. Fountain concentrates mainly on the reconditioning and revamping of vintage film equipment, which the center sells at cut-rate costs. Davanzo's duties include amassing the store's video offerings: an array of abstract experimentation, political documentaries and rare animation, the sort of material you'd be hard pressed to find at your local Blockbuster.

Davanzo is also in charge of curating (and enlisting guest curators) for the center's Thursday night screenings. Past events have included a night of avant-garde cinema (with works from the likes of Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold and experimental pioneer Maya Deren), as well as program titled "Broken Music," which featured videos from Christian Marclay and the band Sonic Youth.

Davanzo's focus, however, is not merely on the obscure and eclectic. Upcoming screenings include everything from an evening of Pixelvision entertainment (films made on the now-defunct Fisher Price toy camera) and a cinematic version of an open-mic night, where local filmmakers strut their stuff for the crowd.

"I always meet these people who are not making the sort of stuff you're going to see at the mall," says Davanzo. "A lot of these filmmakers tour like rock 'n' roll bands and they need local venues like this. Basically we want to provide something for everyone, and we try to encourage the audience to engage in a dialogue afterward. We hang out and play a little music and make people feel like they're part of something bigger."

In addition to the center's other offerings, Davanzo is also about to begin the first in a series of film classes he will offer free to local students younger than 17.

"We'll start with Super 8," he says, "because a lot of these kids can't have a computer at home. People talk about the media revolution, where anyone can make a film, but it's still really limited to finances. So the Super 8, which is just a beautiful medium, is to get the blood coursing through the veins and get them excited about film."

Throughout the seven-week course, students will be encouraged to structure, shoot and edit their own short movies. Meanwhile, Davanzo is in the process of acquiring donated computer editing equipment, which he hopes to utilize in upcoming classes.

"Computer editing is a vocational skill for kids, but obviously, having an art background, I also want the kids to dream and work with images," says Davanzo. "I don't want this place to be a fly-by-night venture. Part of what I want to do with these classes is I want the kids I teach to become skilled enough to teach the younger kids and, in turn, really take this into the community."

With his film center classes and his day job as an instructor for the L.A. Unified School District, Davanzo seems to have found a way of combining his love of teaching with his longtime passion for filmmaking. Born in Italy and raised in the U.S. by politically active parents, Davanzo discovered the tremendous power of the moving image while earning his political science degree at an Italian university.

"It was during the Gulf War and I was talking with friends in America who were experiencing this kind of sanitized CNN war where no Iraqis were getting hurt," Davanzo says. "But meanwhile I was in Italy, which has so many political parties, so we were getting the Communist interpretation, the Green Party interpretation, and what you were seeing was much more disturbing. It really made me respect the power of the media and the power of visual imagery to influence opinion."

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After finishing his degree, Davanzo enrolled at Humboldt State University in Northern California and earned his master's in filmmaking with the hope of using images to convey the deep-seated political beliefs instilled in him by his mother and father. After the deaths of his parents, Davanzo found he could also use film as a means of dealing with grief. After the passing of his father four years ago, Davanzo retreated to the sanctuary of his van and spent eight weeks traveling across the country, hosting free screenings in small towns and midsize cities.

"Some nights the police would tell me to leave," Davanzo says with a mischievous grin, "some nights it would be two people saying, 'I don't get these films,' but some nights it would be 40 people with picnic baskets all having a great time. It definitely helped me to deal with my loss."

From this initial adventure, the idea of a traveling festival (dubbed "The Super Super 8") grew, and eventually Davanzo began to take films to sites as far away as Japan and Europe.

"Now we've gotten older and wiser," Davanzo says of the festival. "We still do free screenings, but around the world and at established venues. It's a kind of carnival. We play bingo, we sing songs, and we find a local band to add music."

Many of the films Davanzo has screened at the Super Super 8 are available for rental on videocassettes at the Echo Park center, and filmmakers he has met over the years are often invited to curate screenings. In this way, Davanzo has managed to establish a looseknit grass-roots community of filmmakers from all over the globe.

"This kind of organization is virtually nonexistent here in L.A.," says Davanzo, shaking his head, "and the city is hungry for it. Film is so much a part of the community here, yet so much of the community is alienated from the process."

This passion for bringing art to the people was also undoubtedly inspired by Davanzo's parents, both of whom were activists and involved in charity work.

"A lot of the idea of this place revolves around how I was raised," Davanzo says. "So many children are alienated from their parents, and there's this kind of TV dinner mentality where they can't wait to leave at 18. But my parents' death was in a lot of ways a catalyst for me to try to continue with the ideas that they instilled in me, to give back to the community.".

Davanzo pauses and gazes around the room. "It's about letting everyone have a piece of the pie," he says. "It's not about a filmmaker and an audience, it's not about that division. It's about breaking down those barriers and showing people that if they love film, they can make film. It's not about equipment, it's about ideas."

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