Arts and Culture

Denver Film Society's Andrew Rodgers on the Role of the Arts in the Trump Era

Although Andrew Rodgers was named the director of the Denver Film Society in January, the just-wrapped 39th annual Denver Film Festival was, in some ways, a coming-out party for him. And he certainly made an impression.

As we've reported, Rodgers, who moved to Colorado from North Carolina, where he oversaw the River Run International Film Festival for ten years, spoke prior to November 12's closing-night event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. But rather than devoting himself to ballyhooing the feature presentation (Jackie, the iffy new Natalie Portman film about former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of President John F. Kennedy's assassination), Rodgers chose instead to speak eloquently and from the heart about the role of the arts following the election of Donald Trump a few days earlier.

Rodgers never mentioned Trump by name. Instead, he used reports of post-election hate crimes as a jumping-off point for a passionate and eloquent discussion of artistic ways to fight against the sort of ignorance and prejudice many fear Trump's elevation to the presidency has unleashed.

Bringing up these topics in the context of a film-festival gala was a bold decision, and not everyone was happy about it. Rodgers, who's also a moviemaker (he's directed two short films, Crooked Candy and Dark Station), notes that while he mainly garnered positive feedback for his speech, he also received one demand for his DFS resignation and a letter from a benefactor promising to withdraw financial backing from the organization because of his words.

He definitely didn't swallow any of his remarks in the following interview with Westword. Instead, he underscored and expanded on the subjects while offering some insights about the balancing act nonprofits must walk when reacting to political events.

Including what may happen in Colorado and beyond now that The Donald is about two months away from becoming The President.

Westword: What inspired you to take on the subjects you talked about prior to the screening of Jackie?

I had prepared some remarks preliminarily to say at the closing, and they were pretty typical closing-night fare, thanking folks for being there and recounting some of the highlights of the event and a couple of quick stories. Then we had the election, and the results were what they were.

In the wake of that, to me, it seemed like a bit of a punctuation on a year of intolerance of people who were different or other. We were seeing a continuation of that after the election — of hate crimes seemingly being reported daily. I don't know if it was a true uptick or if it was just a continuation of election coverage. But certainly there was more coverage of hate crimes in the media and exceptional coverage of people doing horrendous things. And it just sort of struck me that the year has been rough for a lot of people and we've seen a lot of frustration and fear among ethnic minorities, different religions.

It all seemed to me to be part of a bigger picture of fear and intolerance among people who are different. And to me, film has always been a medium that creates empathy. Whether that's the central goal of it or not, when you dive into a movie, you watch a film, depending on what it is, you come out of it with a greater appreciation for a different culture, different ideas, different ways of life. I've seen that in myself and students and kids and regular audiences. It can have a profound effect and really change the way people look at the world.

Putting those things together, it struck me that this could be an opportunity to say something that calls out the need for art to assert itself at a time that seems to need more patience and tolerance for different ideas and perspectives.

Did you float your ideas to other folks at the Denver Film Society? And if so, did they encourage you to speak on these subjects?

I wrote a first draft of my remarks and sent them the day before, I think, to three key staff members to solicit their feedback. And we had an external marketing partner, and I sent it to them to get their feedback. They all had some constructive responses. There was one section in my speech that was a little long in the tooth initially, and I did trim that a bit. And there were also some concerns raised that this might be perceived as overly political and might turn some people off.

I took that into account and thought about it and decided, after talking it through with some people, that I was going to go ahead and do this. We're not a political organization, nor do we intend to be. But at the same time, the arts mean something, and the arts have a voice. I thought this was an opportunity to share that.

In one section of your talk, you addressed how the arts can inspire social change — and you used three different examples from the early 1990s to discuss the ways they impacted views about homosexuality in society as a whole.

I had to go back and do a little bit of research, looking at some timelines, looking at some media coverage. I even glanced at a couple of surveys from the early 1990s, which surveyed attitudes from that time about homosexuality and AIDS and HIV. And the impression that I'd had was at that time, during the late '80s and early '90s, perhaps even a majority of the country was intolerant or afraid of homosexuality, homosexuals and particularly people who had HIV and AIDS. And there'd been a lot of advocacy and attention and efforts to turn that tide and raise awareness....

The point I was trying to make was that in the early '90s, during a very short period of time, eighteen months or so, there came a number of pieces of work on these issues — notably, Tony Kushner's Angels in America and Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, both of which had very wide commercial success and critical acclaim and were considered excellent pieces of work at the time. They won the highest awards their respective industries offer. And then there also was MTV's Real World, which is a different sort of beast entirely. They took a very unusual and interesting approach in one season, the season in San Francisco, and included an openly gay cast member who had HIV and was an AIDS activist [the late Pedro Zamora, who died in 1994 a few hours after the season's final episode aired].

A number of people — and I'm certainly not the first to do it — have looked at the timeline of awareness, acceptance, tolerance of HIV, AIDS and homosexuality, and pointed out that those works of art had tremendous exposure across our country. And Real World was the first time many people had the opportunity to have someone in their life, so to speak, who was gay and had HIV or AIDS. And these works built a lot of empathy. I think that, in addition to many other things, they were part of what helped change opinions, change minds and change perspectives for so many people in this country about tolerance toward those with HIV and AIDS and homosexuality in general....

That kind of thing has been happening for the entirety of our country's existence. Look at Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which prompted a lot of enthusiasm and stirring up of abolitionists to take up the anti-slavery cause, Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit," which was very important to the Civil Rights Movement and helped spur on many of those fighting for equal rights, and, on a much smaller scale, Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which ended up freeing a man who'd been sentenced to death. So film and art and culture can have a profound impact on our society, and it's always had that capability. What I spoke of was not a new thing. I wasn't calling for something new and fresh to start. I was simply saying please be aware that the arts and our artists have tremendous ability to affect change, and if that's something you're interested in, perhaps now is a good time to pay attention to it and support it.

You also addressed the question of what people can do now when it comes to these issues in the wake of the election. You acknowledged that, in some ways, you were preaching to the choir given the makeup of the audience at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. But you also addressed how those folks could reach out to others who might feel differently — and how they could use the arts to do so.

Just about everybody knows someone in their life who has strong or divergent opinions. Whether it's a family member, a friend, an old high-school acquaintance on Facebook. Whatever it is, we all have somebody in our lives who seems to have, in our personal opinions, more limited views based on the perspective they have. My observation is that the arts are a great opportunity to help expand those people's worldviews. The joke I made is that sharing art can be one of the most subversive acts we ever do.

Inviting somebody to go experience something — a piece of work that we love — can also have the double effect of helping to change someone's mind or their perspective on something or their opinions about a country, a culture, a people, whatever. I was just pointing out that we're not all built to be activists — but at the same time, sharing the art we love can affect tremendous societal change....

For example, you could present it as wanting to check out the new Star Wars exhibit [at the Denver Art Museum], which I'm fascinated to check out, too. That's a great way to get someone to see something they might not see otherwise. And when you're there, you can say, "Hey, by the way, why don't we check out this pre-Colombian exhibit down the hall?"

Going to the Sie FilmCenter can do the same thing. Like, "Hey, there's a new movie playing. You may not know this country, this person, this culture, but it's a movie, so it's fun." And coming up at the Buell at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts are Kinky Boots and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Both of those are all about inclusivity and tolerance and acceptance and are musicals that anybody can enjoy, and perhaps somebody can soak up a message of tolerance from them, too.

You mentioned earlier that you heard some concerns from folks in advance of your speech that the content might be too political. What kind of feedback did you get from members of the audience afterward?

I've heard from probably two or three dozen people, and anybody who contacted me or spoke with me directly had very positive things to say, ranging from "That was a very interesting talk, I appreciate you giving it" to "That was just what we needed." Any number of things. Everyone on the board from the Denver Film Society who's contacted me has been very supportive, and members and even sponsors were, too. So that was encouraging.

We also received a couple of anonymous letters, which I don't ascribe a lot of credence to. If you don't have the balls to put your name on criticism that you want to lob, I don't feel I need to take it that seriously. But one called for my resignation, and the other said they were a supporter of the film society and they'd be ending their support of the organization.

So be it. If you take from what I said a message of my intolerance toward your worldview, you probably don't belong at a film festival.

Would you encourage folks at other arts organizations in the city to speak out as well and touch on similar themes?

I'm a little naive on that point. I'm new to the community, and I don't really know the degree to which that kind of thing may already be happening. I guess I would hope it does, but I have no knowledge one way or another.

Obviously, nonprofits have to walk a delicate line. We can't be overtly political, and legally, we can't go out there and endorse candidates and advocate for very specific things. But we can support ideas and we can support things like acceptance, tolerance and awareness. I don't view those as political ideas in the least. I've seen arts organizations across the country offer programming and information and resources that help build that empathy. I guess I assume it already happens in Denver. That's my default position — and my ten minutes at a twelve-day festival was just one moment of many that were about building awareness and empathy for other people.

Have you been thinking about how programming by the Denver Film Society after the festival might reflect some of the things you brought up?

The Denver Film Festival in particular had films from something like forty-plus different countries included in the program. So annually, it's an incredibly diverse array of films and voices from around the world. If you point your finger at a map, we almost always have a film that deals with issues from that place. I have some experience in the film festival world and the independent film community, and that informs my own worldview, having had so much exposure to so many different ideas.

The big challenge for arts organizations is providing context — and we don't do as good of a job as we could at that. We're showing a couple of hundred movies at the festival and hundreds more throughout the year. So we need to do a better job of providing context, saying why something is important, why it's a great piece of art, why audiences should spend their money and take their time to view it and participate in it. That's something we're looking at in terms of sponsoring discussion groups and panels — kind of framing works that we present almost like a museum would mount an exhibit. I think that's an approach we're going to be talking about in the weeks to come as we look at our programming with our fortieth anniversary coming up — think about how we might want to tweak things and present them to our audience.

I know you start planning the next year's festival almost as soon as the most recent one is over. Are you already thinking about scheduling things based on current events? Or is there a voice in your head saying, "We're in the heat of things right now. Maybe it would be better for us to wait and catch our breath before we make big plans," as opposed to plunging ahead in a way that assumes what's happening now will be happening in exactly the same way a year from now?

Personally, I think we're in a moment of pause. We're all kind of waiting to see what comes from the results of this last week. We don't know what the next twelve months are going to look like. None of us, and particularly me, are thinking that far in advance — like, "Let's map out a series of films on these topics and specific issues." The way we approach programming curatorially is looking at what is interesting, what we have a strength in that we think we can do, what we think the community would like or could use. And we'll take current events into consideration as we progress next year and beyond.

A number of years ago, there was a whole lot of attention paid to illegal border crossings in Mexico — and obviously that's been in the news recently as well. But there was a massive response from the filmmaking community to that, and there were a lot of border-crossing documentaries made. Well, as someone who's putting together a film festival, if you suddenly have a massive influx of films related to a specific country or culture or topic, that's a moment — and it's our job to recognize that and help frame it. But part of our job is also to wait and see how the filmmaking community responds to current issues and find ways of presenting and offering context for those, as well.

That's a long way of saying we don't have touchstone specifics or issues that we're looking to plug in that are related to the comments I recently made. But at the same time, as we look forward to the next year, we already have some programming in place, including our mini-festivals — things like our Cinema Q festival, which is geared toward LGBTQ films and filmmakers. We have our CineLatino festival, which is about Latino films and filmmakers, and Women+Film, which is about films by women and about women's issues. So we have standard programs in the hopper that we'll be programming for and that speak to the ideas of inclusivity and cultural awareness. But beyond the already scheduled and slotted things, we'll be keeping our eye on the zeitgeist and cultural events and figuring out ways we can respond and present new films and classic films that can hope to provide some context to the situation.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts