Photo Credit: Alec Kugler

Sam Fleischner and Courtney Muller on Finding Gems in the Sands of Time at the Rockaway Film Festival

When it came time for Sam Fleischner and Courtney Muller to think about the kind of experience that people would have attending the Rockaway Film Fest, which they co-founded, they focused less on the idea that audiences would be seeing a film than the idea they’d be walking into one.

“It’s really fun to think about everything from what’s the feeling of approaching the building or how do people get out to Rockaway from the city – starting the experience with that, what be it like the ferry ride or the subway ride and then how do you approach the cinema? How do you round the corner? What do you see? Where do you enter? What kind of food can you nourish yourself with? What kind of opening act or music we might play before the movie?” said Fleischner, who comes to film programming by way of making films such as “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” and “Wah Do Dem.” “All these elements are really exciting to us. You’re really able to almost shape a narrative for the day. I’ve always seen the similarities between architecture and filmmaking, but seeing film programming and doing a similar beginning, middle and end structure for an experience is all really fun.”

It’s made for a truly unforgettable event on the outskirts of New York that Fleischner and Muller have spared no detail in building up over the past six years, going so far as to construct the outdoor Arverne Cinema from reclaimed pieces of boardwalk and cement blocks in 2021 when COVID had made an indoor version of the festival unsafe. The pair have broken new ground in other ways after piecing together a sturdy and enchanting venue to now call home, constructing annually an equally strong program of films that fittingly weaves together the new and old that’s just waiting to be revived.

Absent a proper movie theater the rest of the year – though Fleischner and Muller have gone about changing that as well with more year-around programming at the Arverne — Rockaway plays host to nightly programs from August 19th through the 27th all carefully curated with the same consideration that Muller brings to her other gig, co-programming the weekly fount of inspiration Le Cinema Club online. Inviting a number of guest programmers to bring out their finest finds, the festival offers a natural wonder on par with the nearby purr of the ocean or the stars above with the movies it presents in concert with one another regardless of length or era, where a screening of Maya Deren’s 1944 dance short “At Land” can sit alongside Madeline Hollander’s 2017 film “Arena” and the movies are punctuated by live performances at the beginning of the night with the Surf Jazz Trio and at the end with a DJ set from Andrew VanWyngarden at Rockaway Brewing Company.

This year’s festival is not wasting any time at casting a spell with “Fantasia” as its opening night selection, with its magic refreshed when placed in context with the works of Oskar Fischinger, a great influence on Walt Disney, and live performances of Bach and Tchaikovsky from Rockaway Chamber Music, and continuing on with a vaunted feature slot given to one of the best films of the year in Luke Lorentzen’s wrenching doc “A Still Small Voice” (Aug. 20), about a chaplain who takes on the pain of others as she tends to hospital patients, and evenings of indie animation (Aug. 22) and cinematic poetry (Aug. 24), courtesy of guest programmer and “Faya Dayi” director Jessica Beshir.

Closing out this year with a sneak peek of the series finale of “How to With John Wilson,” with the filmmaker bringing the rarely screened “Los Angeles Plays New York” after he opened the festival in its first year, Fleischner and Muller can take stock of how far the Rockaway Film Fest has come in creating a platform for local filmmakers that may feel like a respite from the world at large for audiences but has also served as a great way to launch their work into it with the proper context. On the eve of this year’s event, they graciously took time away from putting the finishing touches on their lineup to talk about how the festival has evolved from its humble origins, developing its own traditions and creating programs in which films are central, but are a celebration of so many various art forms.

How did the two of you come to collaborate on this?

Courtney Muller: I was Sam’s intern when I was in school.

Sam Fleischner: Courtney came on to help with a number of projects, mainly music videos probably around 2009 and we kept in touch over the years. Courtney also helped out on “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” and we were out of touch maybe a few years, but then when somebody out in Rockaway suggested that I start a festival and offered me to use a warehouse that they owned, I was mulling it over in my head and there was a serendipitous thing where I [thought], “Man, in order to pull this off, I need Courtney, and then I ran into Courtney…

Courtney Muller: I had just left my job, so it was just like, “Oh, you wanna start a film festival?” And I was like, “Yeah, why not?”

Now, here you are with this amazing event six years in. How do you go about programming when you really don’t limit yourself in terms of time, either as far as the recency of the film or its length?

Courtney Muller: The process is totally different every year. Sometimes we go into it with a thought in our head, like last year was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, so we were thinking about that while we were selecting films. But this year, we just kept track of the things that we found exciting and add them to a document that we’re [updating] over the year. We watch submissions and we see if anything starts developing organically and then we think about things that they could pair with that we’re already aware of.

Sam Fleischner: Yeah, we try to track some of the more exciting new films that are coming out and we always want to have at least one or two of those. This year, that would be Luke Lorenzen’s “A Still Small Voice,” which we watched at Sundance, and we showed his earlier film [“Midnight Family”]. We’re both fans of his work, and it’s really exciting to be able to present things like that, especially when it’s the New York premiere. But it’s rare that we have a clear theme. It’s great when one comes together, but Rockaway is such an eclectic place, that we like the idea of showing a bit of a scattering of films. That also leaves a lot of openings for us and the different interests that we have. There’s still certainly things that we like that just don’t make sense within a program, and that’s always something to grapple with.

“A Still Small Voice”

Courtney Muller: But we like going into a program without really a hint of what the films are necessarily going to be. We don’t really consider genre or anything like that. You could come for one film that someone might have read about and then discover another one that maybe they wouldn’t have watched otherwise or even really realize was a possibility to be shown on a big screen. That’s another thing that’s really exciting about this space particularly. Every year, we have a recurring independent animation program that just self-generates every year, so the idea is that the previous year’s curator is a working animator, and then they select one of the animators from their program to program the next year’s thing, so it happens over and over again. These are things that usually you only see on the tiniest screen, and our screen is pretty big, so it’s really exciting to be able to see them huge.

I saw an interview where Sam said in the early years, the primary issues of the festival were technical, but now it seems you’ve got a world-class set-up. What’s it been like to put together?

Sam Fleischner: After the first year of having our projector die opening night, we brought on Jorge Morillo, an old friend of Courtney’s who is our technical director and one of the chief AV people at the Guggenheim Museum. He’s just amazing. And that was like the biggest game changer as far as like getting over the technical hurdles, just being able to like have somebody who really knows what they’re doing handle everything.

Courtney Muller: And he’s used to bigger scale productions at the museum, so he can really make amazing things happen.

Sam Fleischner: There’s workarounds for things that would normally be cost prohibitive, and we were able to connect with the guy who does projections for mega churches around the country and a total sweetheart who really helped us with our projector repair. I met him because we spent a lot of money on a lemon of a projector on eBay that gave us so many issues, and I drove it down to this guy who took pity on us in Maryland. He has since been really helpful, and sold us a massive 30,000-lumen Barco, so that’s what we have at the Arverne Cinema. The image looks incredible. It’s so bright and crisp. And then I’ve got friends the DJ/audiophile world who’ve like given us really nice Klipschorn vintage speakers that are really warm and just sound great. I think people are usually pretty impressed by the overall audiovisual experience of being there.

Courtney Muller: It’s better than you might expect coming to a DIY space.

Are there any films or events that you’re particularly excited about this year?

Courtney Muller: It’s a hard one [to answer]. I’m excited about opening night with “Fantasia” and shorts by Oskar Fischinger, who had such an incredible legacy but is so underknown. He’s an animator who influenced so much about Disney, like he animated the Blue Fairy’s sparkly magic in Pinocchio and his films led to the concept of Fantasia . it’s rare that you see these films together. it’s also cool that one of his shorts will be screened with a live performance of the original Bach score by a chamber orchestra of musicians organized by a Rockaway resident. Before the screenings start, they’ll also perform a Tchaikovsky sextet. Another thing that has shaped the music and other elements of the programming is that when we found ourselves outside and at the mercy of the sun, we were thinking about the ways that we could curate that transition from day to night and what that felt like and looked like and how it tied together with the program. When “Fantasia” begins, you see the orchestra and then you move into the image, so it just made sense to have a chamber orchestra perform before the films played.

It’s also important to us to host filmmakers here whenever we can because it’s really about bringing people together, so we’re excited to have Luke coming [with “A Still Small Voice”] and one of the subjects of the film and we’re excited for that discussion. All of the shorts programs also just get me really excited, and the last Saturday of the festival is only shorts, which I think is unique [among] festivals. Usually, that’s when you show a big feature, but we place just as much emphasis on the shorts, and there’s no hierarchy there. The presentation for those are just as important to us as the features.

It must be exciting to be able to bring filmmakers back as well. With John Wilson closing out the festival, it must be special to think back to your first festival where one of his early shorts played.

Sam Fleischner: For sure. We’re thrilled to bring John back out and it’s really cool to bookend the last six years in this way with him. I remember after the first screening in that warehouse in 2018, going out to dinner at a local restaurant, it was like him and his friend Chris, who’s been involved in “How to,” and our founding sponsor, Greg Stewart, and at the end, it was like “Wait, who should get the bill?” We did not really know what we were doing at all. [laughs]

Courtney Muller: The first year we also showed “He Who Dances on Wood,” a short by Jessica Beshir, who’s a filmmaker that we both hugely admire and we’re so excited that she’s guest programming a shorts program. It’s really special and we’re excited to host her here and do something a little different, which is to take her turn choosing the shorts. That program came together also very serendipitously and I think it’ll be a beautiful one to see outside. On top of that, I’m really excited about Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio performing and Melissa Lyde of Alfreda’s Cinema is also someone who’s programmed for the festival before and we’re lucky to collaborate with. She has shown many incredible films out here and she’s going to be doing a DJ set that night, so that’ll be a really special one as well.

Has six years been long enough to catch a breath and reflect on this remarkable event you have built?

Sam Fleischner: Yeah, it’s thrilling and pretty emotional because every year, it’s almost like a storm that comes where we’re in this frenzy trying to pull this thing off and learn how to do it.

Courtney Muller: As we’re doing it. [laughs]

Sam Fleischner: And I feel like, even though we’re stretched really thin and we’ve got a lot of other things going on besides the festival, we have learned so much and it’s gotten easier in a lot of ways. How many more people have come to join us in this like crazy effort is really profound and beautiful. Every year I’m always [wondering] are people gonna be just as excited to come out and watch these movies and they are and so much more so. The community here is hungry for watching movies, and it’s so important to be able to gather. We’ve shown some challenging things before and the locals are here for it.

Courtney Muller: Yeah, it’s a great audience. We’re very lucky and it’s what keeps us going. As you probably read, there hasn’t been a movie theater in Rockaway since the late ’90s, so this summer with our space, we’ve been really active almost every weekend, showing up to three programs a weekend, so the festival has become this ongoing crazy effort from a lot of people just to do it and it’s almost like we’re running a little seasonal cinema. There’s definitely growing pains that come with that and I’m not sure film festival is even the best name for what it is that we’re doing. That’ll be a future hurdle to navigate.

Sam Fleischner: Yeah, but it’s something we’ll get serious in trying to crack the code of what it is that we call this thing that we’re doing over the next year or so.

The Rockaway Film Festival will run from August 19th through August 27th.

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