IFS Turns 70: A Chat with Pablo Kjolseth

Emphasis on “Film”
Boulder’s International Film Series Turns 70
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly

Drunk on the seemingly rocket-propelled success of the Boulder International Film Festival, many Boulder journalists have recently filled BIFF-related articles with complaints like “There’s nothing like this happening around here” and “There’s nowhere to see International films in Boulder.” Sitting in my living room recently with my toddler pulling at his shoes, International Film Series director Pablo Kjolseth represented living proof that those complaints are erroneous.

The affordable ($6; $5 for students) International Film Series is a celluloid-focused Boulder institution attached to the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado, and it’s been going strong since 1941, when IFS began showing eclectic black-and-white 16mm titles. With C.U.’s Muenzinger Auditorium as its chief venue, IFS now fills nearly every night in Boulder—skipping only summers—with exciting documentaries, unique features from around the globe, and mint-condition reels of inimitable oldies.

IFS celebrates its 70th anniversary this weekend with a Saturday matinee showing of a private collector’s print of the legendary ’80s Tom Waits’ concert film Big Time (still not on DVD), an evening screening of Straight to Hell Returns (the new retooled edition of the punk classic) and a raucous concert at the Absinthe House featuring Veronica and Nuns of Brixton (yes, a Clash cover band that dresses up as nuns).

Beginning with a technical lesson packed with rarified language such as “sprockets” and “platter houses,” Kjolseth, a C.U. graduate who grew up in Boulder and has been programming IFS for 14 years, schooled me on the rapidly changing world of film screening. Enjoy a few snippets as we help celebrate IFS’ 70th birthday.

Boulder Weekly: What’s the difference between IFS and the mainstream movie-going experience?

Pablo Kjolseth: We’re dedicated to the experience of the cinema, and then conversation afterwards. We’re not trying to make money off of candy and soda pop. And if you go to Cinemark, for example, they’re phasing out all their film. I find the evolution from film to digital stultifying, because people are getting a little too computer happy, which makes for a lot of sloppy bullshit. We’re very much dedicated to celluloid, though we show some digital.

BW: Why are you so passionate about film?

PK: I consider film to be one of the most important art forms of our time. To me, being visually literate is so important, now more than ever. We’re being bombarded with more visual images today than in any other point in human history, and we take it for granted. We don’t even acknowledge how we’re being manipulated. Sometimes it’s so obvious—you watch Fox News and you see the propaganda and the drumbeats. But other times it’s just branding and people trying to make an impact, distracting you in different ways. And it chips away at us, especially if you’re not visually literate. So to me it’s an incredibly important way of looking at the world, and it’s an ongoing education because visual arts and mediums are constantly changing, and the way we interact with them is changing. It’s a constantly evolving process, and the art form constantly evolves along with it.

BW: How did you originally get interested in movies?

PK: My parents used to regulate how much TV I could watch—an hour a day. I would save up that half hour so that I could watch the “Creature Feature” double features on the weekend. That got me going, and when I was about six I really wanted to see Jaws more than anything in the world, and my parents said I could only see it if I read the book. I was six! But I read it, and luckily Jaws was in the theater forever. Actually, [that was] at the United Artists Regency on Walnut [now the Absinthe House], where we’re having the 70th anniversary concert. You know, Boulder used to have a really good International art-house film scene. I saw Star Wars at the Flatirons Theater, which is now a medical marijuana dispensary. And I was watching movies at the International Film Series as well.

BW: What’s your take on the state of filmmaking in Boulder today?

PK: I actually think we have a film scene that’s percolating. It’s bubbling. A lot of people are coming here who already have backgrounds working with studios and companies—real studio connections and also some money. But there are always people here doing their own thing, and I think that combination is making the background noise get louder and louder every year. As far as whether they have a platform right now…my platform is international celluloid. I still hold a torch for celluloid, but I have had local filmmakers, and the amount of submissions I get is crazy. At some point I sense that, because of that background noise, there will be a reason to do a weekly or monthly dedication to local filmmakers.

BW: After all these years, what’s your favorite film?

PK: I have so many favorite films that the easiest way I can answer that question without feeling like I’m slighting all these other films is…if you could rephrase that to ask what film I’ve watched the most times. The two that pop up are Brazil—I’ve watched that over 20 times—and, after that, I would say Evil Dead 2. I just love that film. If I’m ever really depressed, it’s the movie I go to watch. No matter how bad your day is going, at least you haven’t had to chainsaw your girlfriend in half, fight zombies, cut off your hand and get sucked into the past-vortex. I come out feeling pretty good, going “my life’s not so bad.”

BW: What can you tell us about the people who started the IFS 70 years ago and how you’re not only influenced and inspired by their legacy but also striving to maintain it?

PK: James Sandoe, who also helped launch the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, started the IFS as a labor of love, and that baton has been passed on thanks to people like Forrest Williams, Virgil Grillo, and many others whose contributions I have tried to keep track of on the timeline that I’ve put up on our website. One of the interesting things about the IFS is that it was a series initiated by academic cinephiles who really cared about film as art, and they were very well read and up-to-speed on the wealth of both international and independent cinema that existed beyond Hollywood and overseas – the kind of films that normally only screened in big metropolitan hubs. They brought those films to Boulder at a time when the population here was still hovering around 15,000 people or so, and they slowly cultivated an audience for directors like Jean Cocteau, Godard, Antonioni, Cassavetes, etc. – and slowly, other theaters took notice of the crowds that were coming out for these films and also started booking similar fare. During the ’60s and ’70s Boulder even enjoyed a nice boom in various specialty and arthouse cinemas. Back then it was very profitable! The IFS being a nonprofit associated with the university it reinvested the funds to buy 16mm films for the university. These were then used by many faculty members, including my father, in classes, and pretty soon a natural progression occurred where there were many classes devoted to certain types of films, which when coupled with the visionary ideas of key faculty members, like Virgil Grillo and others, helped give rise to the C.U. film studies program. What the C.U. Film Studies Program now offers is an amazing roster of learned faculty, authors, filmmakers, and artists that keeps growing stronger with each passing year. My own experiences there were nothing less than revelatory. As a long-time Boulderite who started watching films at the IFS as a very young child, and on up through my time as a Film Studies major at C.U., I’m very much indebted to both and I try to honor its roots by staying abreast of rising new talents that are out there, while simultaneously paying respects to cinemas rich past.

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