After seven fruitful and rewarding years curating cinema for Ventura audiences, Lorenzo DeStefano is ready to stop being the guy that everyone runs from — at least for a little while. As founder of the Ventura Film Society, he’s charged with the tasks of fundraising and cheerleading — necessary “evils” faced by all arts programmers. But no one’s really bothered by DeStefano’s tenacity — his authentic desire to create community around something as simple as people watching a movie together shines through his sometimes relentless PR pleas. And succeeding where many have failed, DeStefano has managed to consistently coax more than a few people out of the house for a little culture, sans alcohol. Some might call that heroic.
As passionate as he is about sharing great films — especially those that bypass convention — DeStefano, a member of the Director’s Guild of America, is an artist in his own right. His current pet project, the documentary Hearing is Believing about Oxnard musical prodigy Rachel Flowers, is requiring the lion’s share of his attention as he works toward its completion in time for next year’s festivals. On the heels of his photography exhibition at the Museum of Ventura County, the staging of his play Shipment Day in Los Angeles and his continued pursuit of financing for his long-in-development feature film Hypergraphia (his screen adaptation of the 17-million-word Inman Diary by Arthur Crew Inman), the time has come for DeStefano to take off one of his hats.
“We are not going away, but we’re changing for sure,” DeStefano told VCReporter. And change is something he and his board of directors have become pretty good at. From its inception, the VFS has proved its adaptability by changing venues, changing formats and even modifying its original vision as a film festival to something perhaps more accessible and engaged: a film society. “My favorite thing is to sit in the back of a full house and see all the peoples’ heads backlit by the screen. That’s together in the dark,” says DeStefano, referring to the VFS tag “Bringing people together in the dark.”
In seven years, the VFS has screened more than 400 films and brought local audiences face to face with the likes of director Paul Mazursky (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Moscow on the Hudson), actor/producer Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Caligula, Cat People) and director Chris Paine (Who Killed the Electric Car), among others. From groundbreaking documentaries (Blackfish, The Artist is Present, Gasland, We Live in Public) to foreign films (Intimate Strangers, Mafioso, La Siciliana Ribelle) and classics (White Heat, An Unmarried Woman, Being There, Harry and Tonto), the VFS has unfailingly offered viewers a diverse slate of excellence on film and done so in a way that encourages actual dialogue (as opposed to social media outbursts). Perhaps even more to DeStefano’s credit, however, is his commitment to localizing the cinema experience by championing new filmmakers — Brooks Institute students, fledgling filmmakers and other creative types — by showcasing their work for friends and neighbors. Among those films are various shorts by Askew Poetry Journal editor Phil Taggart, Angela Izzo’s We Heart the Art Barn and Jacob K. Cunningham’s Thy Will Be Done, a gripping documentary about a Ventura man who was paralyzed at 14 years old after being shot by an emotionally unstable neighbor.
The VFS approach is unpretentious by design and welcoming in a millieu that could, in less friendly locales, be intimidating. “We’ve been very non-red carpet,” he explains. “I’m fed up with all that exclusivity stuff. I was thinking about doing a black carpet,” he laughs. It’s an attitude that has won the VFS much support from numerous backers and a small army of volunteers.
Why is a film society important in an age when audiences needn’t leave home to catch a flick? “The purpose is to fill the gap,” says DeStefano. To introduce audiences to films they might not otherwise be aware of and give them a deeper experience than what the typical Hollywood blockbuster might offer.
The VFS will gather for its final screening of the season and first-ever double bill featuring characteristically oddball films: Cavedigger, an award-winning short film about an obsessive artist who renders magnificent sculpture from cave walls; and Finders Keepers, “the hilarious true story of a mummified human leg and the enterprising Southern entrepreneur who refuses to return it to its rightful owner, a recovering OxyContin addict who wants it back.”
“It will be a sense of accomplishment for me,” says DeStefano. “I like completing things. I’m old-school in that way. If you refuse to change you will die off. The film society has helped me as a creative person. I got to meet so many great filmmakers. I got to bring colleagues and friends. It’s enriched me in that way too. I got to indulge and be an impresario for a little bit.”
The Ventura Film Society Closing Night Celebration on Sunday, Dec. 6, 6 p.m. at the Museum of Ventura County featuring Cavedigger and Finders Keepers, a no-host bar and food truck. 100 E. Main St., Ventura. 653-0323 or www.venturafilmsociety.com.