It's called Casket Cinema, but don't expect vampires or zombies. The only horror this informal movie club shows is the real-life kind — sand-fracking fallout, casualties of war, skyrocketing health care costs.
With a calling card like that, you'd think people would stay away in droves. Turns out it feels easier — and more hopeful — to absorb sobering news in the company of others.
So named because its monthly documentary screenings are held at the Casket Arts Building, a repurposed factory in northeast Minneapolis, Casket Cinema was started five years ago by two guys involved in local Iraq war protests. Filmmaker/artist Mark Wojahn and Web developer Wilbur Ince began screening related documentaries, sometimes inviting the filmmakers to speak, attracting audiences by e-mail and word of mouth. They figured it would be a productive way to rally fellow activists.
That it was, Wojahn said, but focusing strictly on war and peace month in, month out, got a bit heavy to sustain.
"A kind of fatigue set in and we realized we had to branch out," Wojahn said.
They did, and more than 50 movies later, they've inadvertently become part of the microcinema movement. Loosely defined as small groups gathering in dark rooms to watch cult classics or indie films too underground to even make the arthouse circuit, the movement has been growing across the country as a way of connecting with simpatico strangers over shared interests — or simply combatting the social isolation of staring at screens by ourselves all day.
For Wojahn and Ince, diversifying their programming has added not only other social causes like population control and garbage reduction, but lighter cultural topics like the band Wilco ("I Am Trying to Break Your Heart") and the craft brew explosion, "things that make the world great," Ince said. "The beer movie drew our biggest crowd, like 70 people. One group even brought a huge cooler-full they'd brewed themselves."
Films shown have included titles as prominent as Errol Morris' Oscar-winning "The Fog of War" and Michael Moore's health care exposé "Sicko," but it's often hard to track down filmmakers and distributors for permission, Wojahn said.
Jim Tittle, St. Paul-based director of the fracking doc "The Price of Sand" was on hand to introduce his movie earlier this season. When that's not possible, the guys bring in locals well-versed on the topic at hand, like sustainable-landscape expert Krista Leraas for "What Would Jesus Buy?"
Comfy as an old sofa
Wojahn's studio exudes an artist's typical cluttered charm. Strips of exposed film hang from the ceiling, dividing the screening room from his work tables, forming that kind of see-through, love-bead curtain that divided many a '70s basement crash pad from the laundry room. The seats assembled before the 18-foot screen are a jumble of vintage sofas and easy chairs, plus folding chairs borrowed from obliging neighbors.
While Wojahn and Ince make no money for their time and effort — admission is free, and pass-the-hat donation requests for $5 to $10 go to filmmakers or their causes — they say keeping it up is its own reward.
"Part of it is scratching our own itch, things we're interested in," Ince said. "But it's also good to feel like you're a part of creating community."
While Casket Cinema isn't technically a club, Wojahn said, "we're a step up from watching a serious movie at home and getting all depressed because there's no one to talk about how to change things with. If you're with a group of other people you feel more motivated to be active, to work together."
Wojahn — who primarily makes his living as a propmaster and set decorator and who is president of the Minnesota film and TV crew union, IATSE 490 — has yet to screen any of his own work for Casket Cinema. His documentaries include "What America Needs: From Sea to Shining Sea," for which he interviewed 500 people across the country after Sept. 11, 2001.
The film screening this Thursday, "Symphony of the Soil," raises the alarm on toxins destroying the world's topsoil. Next month's film, "Tattoo Nation," to be shown May 17 during Art-A-Whirl, will close the nine-month season.
"Minnesotans don't want to sit in a hot studio in the summer," Ince said.
Artist Lenora Drowns, a habitué of the series, says the intimate setting promotes uninhibited discussion.
"The conversations after the film sometimes get really heated, in a way they wouldn't if you were someplace like the Walker," she said. "At the same time, no one pressures you to feel a certain way or give money."
Sometimes the talk turns philosophical or spiritual, as it did after a screening of a film about the Burning Man festival. That randomness, Drowns said, is a large part of Casket Cinema's appeal: "You just never know who's going to be there or where it's going to go."