Alabama Filmmakers Co-op

Founded in 1976 by a small group of filmmakers and film supporters in north Alabama, the Alabama Filmmakers Co-op was among the largest of the media arts centers supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) during the early 1980s. The list of independent filmmakers and videographers affiliated at various times with the co-op represented many of the leading filmmakers in the region.

The organization was most active in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it had a screening room and workshop facilities in Huntsville, a staff of seven, and satellite programs in Birmingham and Anniston. In 2006, it celebrated 30 years as an alternative screening society presenting independent, experimental, and foreign film and video in Huntsville as the Alabama Film Co-op.

The co-op incorporated in January 1977 as a nonprofit media arts center to provide public film screenings, instruction, and access to film and video equipment. Its initial board included Jimmie Dawkins from the art department at Alabama A&M University, Jack Dempsey from the art department at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and Tim Bennett and Yvonne Hegney from the Army Motion Picture Production Unit at Redstone Arsenal, with Alabama A&M telecommunications professor Wade Black as executive director. Its first public program was a film festival featuring works by experimental filmmaker Will Hindle; Frank McGeary, president of Motion Picture Labs in Memphis; film editor Neale Traugh from the Army Motion Pictures Production Unit; and freelance screenwriter Bill Irwin. Despite limited publicity, the festival drew audience members from as far away as Birmingham and middle Tennessee. Hindle, an award-winning filmmaker and Guggenheim Fellow whose works are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, was the major draw. The enthusiastic reception he received led him to become a long-time supporter and mentor for co-op members.

Funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and local donors eventually permitted Black to become a full-time director for the co-op and attracted other Alabama filmmakers from Birmingham, Anniston, and Tuscaloosa. The co-op's first filmmakers-in-residence were experimental filmmaker and sculptor Ralph Ambrose and animator Greg Killmaster, a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts and now a senior animator for George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic. Will Hindle became a frequent presence and major artistic influence during his breaks from teaching at the University of South Florida, which he spent at a wooded retreat in rural Blount County.

By early 1978, the co-op acquired Super 8 film equipment and offered instructional programs in filmmaking to schools statewide, as well as public access to basic 16mm film equipment. The organization began to network with other media arts centers in the Southeast and was actively screening foreign and alternative films. In 1979, the NEA funded a major summer residency program, "Baillie, Bartlett, Brakhage, and Hindle, in Alabama," that attracted national attention. Shortly thereafter, the co-op piloted a regional fellowship program for film and video artists that later became the NEA Regional Media Arts Fellowships.

The co-op moved in 1980 from its makeshift facilities on the courthouse square in Huntsville into the Huntsville Arts Center and began regular weekly screenings, with additional monthly screenings in Birmingham and the "Movies on the Mountain" series during the summer. By 1981, the co-op also provided short-term residencies for media artists such as Bruce Baillie, Stan Woodward, Chuck and Eloise Philpott Black, and others. It also produced a documentary series on Alabama folk artists that included Sacred Harp singer Dewey Williams, bluesman Bunk Pippins, oysterman Jim Lilly, and others.

Film and video projects tended to focus on documentary, animation, and experimental works rather than on narrative drama. Artists associated in various ways with the Alabama Filmmakers Co-op have included Will Hindle (Watersmith, Chinese Fire Drill), Bruce Baillie (Castro Street, Roslyn Romance), Stan Brakhage (Dog Star Man), Stan Woodward (It's Grits!), Greg Killmaster (Possum O'Possum), Peter Bundy and Bryan Elsom (Alabama Departure), Stevenson Palfi (Piano Players Hardly Ever Play Together), Wade Black (Dorothy Molter, We Dare Defend Our Rights), Chuck and Eloise Philpott Black (Blackbird), Ralph Ambrose (Jim Lilly, Oysterman), Scott Didlake (experimental videos and works for Mississippi Public Television), Art Humphreys (Bunk Pippins), Marge Dean (Autobiography of a Fat Girl), Landon McCrary and Charlie Burruss (Dewey Williams), and others. Other individuals associated with the co-op included workshop and screening programmers Kathy Woodward, Tina Petrig, Julie Albright, and Isabel Hill. Barbara Kopple, Academy-Award winner for her documentaries Harlan County USA and American Dream, used co-op facilities while filming at the mills in Huntsville.

Co-op activity gradually declined in the 1980s owing to several factors. Wade Black departed in 1982 to become administrative director of Film in the Cities in St. Paul, Minnesota; there were funding cuts in the NEA; the economic recession of the early 1980s hit Alabama especially hard; and Will Hindle died in 1987. After a name change to the Alabama Film Co-op in the late 1980s, the organization became primarily a screening society that recently celebrated 30 years of alternative film screening in Alabama. It is now located at the Flying Monkeys Arts Center in Huntsville.

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