SANTA FE — In the hyper-capitalistic world of mainstream filmmaking, there’s not much room for experimental or nonlinear narratives, or for prioritizing access and agency above exclusivity and profit. But that elusive cinematic space has found a home in midtown Santa Fe thanks to three relative newcomers to New Mexico’s capital city.
Hailing from Oakland, No Name Cinema co-founders Justin Clifford Rhody and Abigail Smith, who are also beloved roommates, relocated to Santa Fe in 2018 and met collaborator Ben Kujawski, a recent transplant from Los Angeles, soon after. The three became fast friends, bonding over a shared interest in experimental cinema and subsequently discovering a lack of access to it in the City Different.
“It felt like there was something of a hole, a gap. There’s a lot of film-related activity in New Mexico, especially lately, but it’s all very industry-centric and mainstream,” Rhody explains (Netflix and NBCUniversal have recently established studios in Albuquerque). “We felt like there was a real lack of anything experimental, artist films, things operating in the underground.” The seed of an idea was planted before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered cinemas from coast to coast. In New Mexico, the state public health order tied reopening to county infection rates, keeping some theaters closed for over a year.
But the idea persisted, first manifesting as stay-home-era Twitch screenings. When No Name Cinema opened its doors in November 2021, Rhody admits the timing wasn’t ideal, with the pandemic’s fourth wave just beginning to ebb. But when they learned of affordable warehouse space for rent in Santa Fe’s notoriously pricey real estate market, they went for it. Masks are still required in the microcinema’s enclosed space, and Rhody says their patrons seem to appreciate that.
Even in a city like Santa Fe with global art status, believing that an experimental micro-cinema could debut and thrive during an ongoing pandemic requires a defiant sort of optimism. Rhody’s expectations were more low-key. “We wanted to start it because we wanted it to exist. When we started out, we literally said out loud, ‘If two people show up, that would be awesome,’” Rhody recalls.
From an anti-business, donation-based ticketing model to transgressive programming and a goal of building a participatory arts community, No Name Cinema defies mainstream rules and norms at every turn. Yet, with each rule collectively discarded by its co-founders, the response from a wide-ranging group of local film lovers has been to show up — even when that means standing up.
“We can seat 40 people and there have been multiple events and screenings where it’s standing room only, and people choose to stand throughout,” said Rhody. “At the smallest screening, there was a turnout of 15 people, which is still great and way above our initial expectations. It has been a wide, diverse group — there are teenagers and people in their late-eighties, and they’re all asking questions during the Q&A.”
No Name Cinema’s success is all the more impressive because everyone involved works a day job. Rhody manages the cinema at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts, while Smith, a collage artist, is an archivist and information science pro by day at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Kujawski works as a writer and filmmaker. When it comes to running the cinema, everyone makes popcorn, deals with tech, distributes flyers, and works the door. The enterprise isn’t making anyone rich and its co-founders have had to supplement funds raised by donation.
A Fulcrum Fund grant has provided the collective with some financial security for potential slowed participation. Rhody posted info on allocating that funding via the cinema’s Instagram account. The cinema’s online and ephemeral aesthetic was also created by Rhody, whose experience organizing and promoting DIY experimental and punk shows prepared him for the challenge of thoughtfully curating months’ worth of weekly events.
However, Rhody reveals that the main carryover from his DIY past is deeper and more intrinsic. “The interest that I had in punk music—it wasn’t a certain drumbeat. What I found inspiring and what carries on, what translates and means so much, was that it wasn’t exactly about the music or fashion. It was that punk culture was participatory culture.”
After a jam-packed season where No Name hosted at least one event every week, the cinema’s 2022 summer schedule is more relaxed but programming is in place through August. In addition to screenings, No Name Cinema strives to offer added value to events with exhibitions — like the Irving and Paula Klaw erotic pin-up prints on view through June 12 — as well as zines, opening shorts and, when possible, in-person filmmaker Q&A sessions.
Recent and upcoming events include a low-budget UFO documentary marathon presented on VHS; an expanded cinema performance event with Wind Tide; a program of shorts curated by Nicole Peterson to represent the female-identifying body experience; and a repertory screening of LA Rebellion icon Billy Woodberry’s “Bless Their Little Hearts” alongside contextually related shorts.
No Name Cinema also hopes to inspire local filmmaking by reissuing its open call submission screenings twice per year and continuing to work on creating a paid cinema operations internship with Santa Fe Community College.
For Rhody, the goal of fostering engagement in the arts seems as important as his curatorial vision. He hopes to encourage people to dismiss arbitrary, industry-driven notions of who can be a filmmaker and to inspire them to create, saying “There are people working in a factory right now who are just as likely [as industry veterans] to make interesting work and have interesting ideas.”
Editor’s Note, 4/29/2022, 2:11pm EDT: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Justin Clifford Rhody and Abigail Smith are married. The error occurred in reporting and the statement has been corrected.