Free Press Houston recently spoke to Richard Herskowitz, the Artistic Director of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival. Among the topics were pioneers of avant-garde cinema and interactivity between the festival and the community. For instance the festival promotes some of its movies and seminars by busing in local high school groups as part of its Film Festival Field Trip Program.

“From the foundation of the festival we were aware that Houston has an extraordinary arts scene, and that’s what lead to the Cinema Arts Festival with all these collaborating organizations contributing and owning different pieces of the festival,” says Herskowitz. “This year we’re doing a spotlight on Houston, a self-contained mini festival at the end.”

“We also have educational programs to build new audiences in the community. To me this is part of the mission of a film festival in promoting film culture for the future,” says Herskowitz. “We have lots of filmmakers coming in from out of town and usually they’re thrilled when we ask if they would do an extra program for school children.”

Some of the guests include Thomas Haden Church, Al Reinert, and Tracy Letts, the latter attending the November 7 (5:45 pm.) screening of a film he wrote based on his Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County. Reinert will present his latest documentary An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story, which chronicles Morton’s 25-years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Morton was released in 2011. Reinert’s credits include directing For All Mankind, and screenwriter on Apollo 13.

“This year there’s an emphasis on the pioneers of avant-garde cinema with guests like Jonas Mekas and Barbara Hammer. Mekas is called the godfather of American avant-garde cinema because in the 1960s as the film critic for the Village Voice, the founder of The Film Makers Cooperative, and later the founder of Anthology Film Archives, and as an important filmmaker himself, he was everywhere. Mekas was absolutely instrumental in that scene becoming a movement, becoming institutionally viable.

“Hammer really got started in the early 1970s and she pioneered a branch of queer avant-garde cinema, with strong lesbian content before anybody else was doing that. Hammer expressed her sexuality in formally innovative ways so that not only was the content rule breaking but the form in which it was told was unconventional and expressed her emotional experiences directly in the filmmaking process itself,” explains Herskowitz. “Another person who was an earlier pioneer, who inspired both Hammer and Mekas was Maya Deren, and one of the films we’re showing in the festival, by Hammer, is Maya Deren’s Sink. Another film we’re showing is Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton. Broughton was a contemporary of Deren. If people are interested in the history of avant-garde film in this country there’s a lot to gain by going to these various films. We’re calling attention to the legacy of these pioneers and connecting them with newer experimental artists like Scott Stark from Austin.”

The Houston Cinema Arts Festival runs from November 6-10 at various venues around town, which includes theaters at the Sundance Cinema and MFAH, as well as the Asia Society Texas Center and The Aurora Picture Show, and others. One unique film, North of South, West of East, unwinding at the film festival office (1201 Main St., Suite 110), projects on four screens at once. The small theater has 25-seats with swivel bases so viewers can watch all four screens with ease.

A full schedule can be found on their website.

-Michael Bergeron