Filling a cultural void: library provides food for thought with adventurous film program

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by Steve Zalusky

Marc Girdler was a frustrated film fanatic.

In Decatur, Illinois, where he lives, there are three movie theaters serving 80,000 residents. Two of them are AMC franchises. One is an independent theater but, somehow, runs the same movies as the AMC, he said.

“I have been trying for years to try to get a place even once a month I could go to show independent films or classics or just something different, because I want to go and see things on the big screen, but I can’t afford to drive an hour out of town consistently,” he said.

It was a much shorter trip to the Decatur Public Library.  “I knew that they were running a movie program,” he said. “I have a friend that works there, and I knew no one could devote the time that they wanted to the film program.”

Girdler certainly had the time. “Pretty much all I do is watch movies. So, it seemed like a good fit,” said Girdler, who has written online film content since the mid-1990s, as both a staff writer on several movie sites and a freelance writer.  His review site contains a database of more than 1,800 reviews – he tries to watch at least 100 first-time movies each month.

So, he wound up curating the program, working closely with Reference Librarian Alix Frazier. The library provided the room and had access to a host of films through a company called Swank Motion Pictures.  With clearinghouse licensing, one is not allowed to do traditional advertising, so the films were advertised in the library and over social media.

For the library, it turned out to be a potent patron-partnership.  “It was something that they believed in, but they really didn’t have the manpower to do it to the fullest potential,” he said. “So, I just kind of rolled the dice and hoped for the best.”

Thus far, he has been rolling sevens in his first year as curator. The handful of patrons taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the film program have profited by treating themselves to a culturally enriching diet of cinema.

Lately, the programming has become especially adventurous, with Girdler and Frazier aiming more at films with a social impact. They screened one documentary film that focused on human trafficking, with guests that included a law enforcement official fighting cybercrime.

Frazier said, “He likes the idea of being able to use film to bring people together and explain our differences and almost as a tool for social justice in a lot of ways.  “We’re showing people how do people look at film perhaps in a way they hadn’t before.

A recent film series concentrated on propaganda films. The wide-ranging program has delved into vastly different propaganda films: “Starship Troopers” (1997), a film about earth at war against alien insects; “The Green Berets” (1968), John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War film; and “Triumph of the Will” (1935), a German film glorifying the Nazi regime.

His interest in pursuing propaganda as a theme was spurred by his examining its role in the commercial films made in Nazi Germany, as explored in the 2017 documentary “Hitler’s Hollywood.”

“I wanted to see how other countries did propaganda. When we think of propaganda, we think of the U.S. newsreels and “Why We Fight.” Once I went down the rabbit hole, I just kept going. I got into looking at how modern news correlates to propaganda.”

The goal of the series, though, was not to politicize it. “I wanted to focus more on the literal propaganda, no matter who is using it.”  She said Girdler brought the idea of the series to her, and she thought it was a good idea.

Frazier said her library director was supportive. “(He) knew what we were trying to do and was completely for it. So far, to the best of knowledge, nobody has really said much of anything.”

All the films featured a panel discussion involving Sam Meister, a professor at Millikin University, and Dr. Tena Helton, from the University of Illinois at Springfield.  The series showed propaganda from all viewpoints.

For instance, Girdler said, “Starship Troopers is so heavy handed with the literal propaganda. But there is so much subtext propaganda. They outright admit that the aliens hadn’t done anything. We invaded them, and they are protecting their homeland. But the way that it is presented, it makes you want to root for the bad guys, the humans.” 

Frazier said, “Triumph of the Will was chosen, “Just because it’s a very powerful piece of propaganda work, but it’s also promoting something that I think the majority of the world is against.”

She said that for Girdler, the film presented some logistical challenges as well.  “My volunteer film curator was slightly nervous that people kept poking their heads in, and he didn’t have a chance necessarily to catch them and explain why we were showing that one.”

With “Triumph of the Will,” the interest was not only the subject matter of the film, a record of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, but the director, Leni Riefenstahl.  “She was cleared of being a war criminal, but she didn’t really apologize, and she didn’t really have a moral objection to what they were doing,” he said.

Oddly, the discussion following the film veered into the topic of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, and how Griffith made subsequent films that were, in a way, an apology, but that Riefenstahl didn’t.

With “The Green Berets,” the people who turned out were mostly 40-and-older, which was a benefit to him, “Because I’m not old enough to have a memory of that era, but some of them remembered it, and they had very different opinions about it.”

The library’s description of the program said, “Propaganda doesn't follow party lines nor is it exclusively a political tool. It is used by those that wish to influence and control how we think about those around us, what we buy and countless other aspects of our daily lives.”

Frazier said, “One of the issues we seem to have had is convincing people that we just want to develop the concept of propaganda itself and how it has been used in film and across both political parties,” she said. “That whole non-partisan piece can be difficult to communicate to people.”

But Girdler found the reactions fell in line with currently polarized political camps.  “I stressed independent thought and how important it was not to believe everything that you read,” he said. However, “It seemed like people who had a left leaning thought that I was railing against Trump and Fox News. And people that were on the right felt that I was railing against CNN, which was difficult for me, because I didn’t want to get into the middle of anything.”