If you were looking for a sustained experimental film scene in the Triangle just a couple of years ago, you were out of luck. Basically, your options were Tom Whiteside's Durham Cinematheque, which focuses on archival more than contemporary, or the filmmakers associated with Duke's graduate program in experimental and documentary arts, who were cloistered away on campus. But that changed when a pair of garrulous brothers moved to Durham and double-handedly created a social nexus for experimental film where none had existed.
Over the last two years, Jeremy and Brendan Smyth's Unexposed series has transformed the local state of contemporary experimental film—both from campus and around the country—from a glimmer of isolated practitioners and one-off screenings to a consistent, visible presence in Durham's cultural life. Justly encouraged, they are now going all in on experimental film in a way that is virtually unprecedented in the national microcinema scene. Their aim is to make the art form they love accessible to all.
In the new year, the Smyths are increasing their schedule from monthly to weekly. They are enlisting collaborators and instituting a yearlong programming theme. They are planning a tri-annual festival and launching a new online home for the films they screen. Most daring of all, they are renting a space, putting their service-job money behind a fervent belief that experimental film could be accessible, even popular, if presented in the right context.
"Our vision is essentially just to prove that there are enough followers of this art form that somebody slapped down cash money on a commercial venue," Jeremy says, "and to give people multiple ways to experience experimental film."
The Smyths, 26 years old, are twins whose unpretentious manner belies their passion for an elevated art form. Both are tall and thin, bearded and flannelled, beamish and boyish. They mainly grew up in Florida but spent summers in Haverhill, Massachusetts. By early 2013, after finishing their studies in economics and film at the University of Florida, they were back in Massachusetts, where they still run the annual Haverhill Experimental Film Festival. They decided it was time for something new.
The Smyths are not only curators but also collaborative creators, mainly of odd, beautiful abstract documentaries. Like one of their idols, Bill Brown—the itinerant experimental filmmaker and Dream Whip zine author who is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke—they are intimately concerned with place, complicating their impressionistic records of far-flung travels with analog techniques and in-camera edits.
From the presence of Brown (and other notable experimental filmmakers) and the graduate program at Duke, the Smyths reasonably inferred that Durham must have a thriving experimental film community. They didn't realize they were badly mistaken until they moved here in the summer of 2013.
"It wasn't really happening," Jeremy says. "We had no idea why there wasn't a poster somewhere about a screening at Duke. We literally started Unexposed because we wanted to meet the professors and give them a chance to screen out in Durham."