In 1979, Gary Cunningham was working as a research technician for new product development at Pillsbury. In the evenings, he volunteered as an organizer for the Northern Sun Alliance, addressing the crisis following the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, and for the Twin Cities Committee for the Liberation for South Africa. Through his work at the Northern Sun Alliance, Cunningham connected with two other young organizers who were working with film: Neil Sieling and Denise Mayotte. That year, Sieling and Mayotte had attended the Alternative Cinema Conference at Bard College and were exploring what Sieling called “the nascent independent media culture.” Sieling explains, “Northern Sun Alliance was always trying to figure out how to do to media education about alternative energy, anti-nuclear media—social organizing around that. And, I remember being full of like, ‘Well this is what Northern Sun could do is using media to both educate and make money instead of bake sales; instead of passing the hat at rallies or different things like that.’” From that ethos and environment, came the Neighborhood Film Project (1979–1982).
As Cunningham describes it, the project began organically: “A group of us got together and said, ‘Hey, you know, what if we were using film as a vehicle so people could tell their own stories about taking control of their media?’ The project took a name and method inspired by the Neighborhood Film Project of Philadelphia, as outlined by its founder, Linda Blackaby, in her book, In Focus: A Guide to Using Films, a sort of how-to guide for community screenings and media-related organizing. Cunningham explains, “We would have very diverse audiences, which isn’t always true of media projects. We were initially the Film Project, but we changed our name later to the Media Project because we were in a lot of different medias.”
From there, the project moved fast. “It was only a three-year—or maybe four -year—kind of window that we’re in,” he says. The idea was, as Mayotte put it, to “go where the people are” and use media to educate, raise consciousness, organize, and, connect people across political points of view. As Sieling describs, media is a neutral way to get people to show up to something. Using spaces like community centers created feelings of safety for audiences, especially if the film tackled a difficult topic. Sheryl Mousley, Senior Curator for the Walker’s Moving Image department, says of the project, “You feel like you’re at home watching something—if it’s in your place, bringing it to you.”
Early screenings were held at the Suburban World Theater, where the project struck a deal with theater management: “You do what’s called four-walling the theater,” Sieling recalled. “You guarantee he’ll make money for the overhead—and a tidy sum. So, then you’re bringing new people to his theater so then they know where it is for his future stuff. And this movie ran for months. And the tickets—a percentage of it would go to local community groups. So they could do fundraising just by showing up or telling people to go see this cool movie.”
The goal of the Neighborhood Media Project was to take the excitement and political idealism surrounding media and share it with communities of color that were often overlooked, even as media-making efforts were becoming more democratic. Cunningham explains, “While there’s a lot of art stuff, most of it doesn’t impact those communities. It doesn’t go into them. And it doesn’t speak to them from a cultural perspective.” The trio worked with community groups to select films to show at various community centers. At the beginning, most people requested martial arts films, comedies, and blaxploitation films. “We had to go rent a projector and do all this stuff,” Cunningham recalls. “We had showed some Richard Pryor movie and a couple of other shorts and the place was just packed. We had 1,200 people each paying a dollar apiece to get in to see a rerun of a Richard Pryor movie. People in the community were dying for this, but they had nowhere to go. There was no venue.”
Things moved fast after the initial screenings. Cunningham explains, “So then we—believe it or not—started doing a regular schedule and we’d have all these venues, but we didn’t have a home. We got an office at Sabathani Community Center on 38th and 3rd Avenue. Then, in 1980, we were asked to come to the international survival gathering at Pine Ridge”—a convening of activists against uranium mining in sacred grounds in the Black Hills. I was a formative event for Cunningham, personally, and for the Neighborhood Media Project, as a whole, he recalls, noting that following the gathering, the project became more in-depth. “There was a lot of kind of creative energy around it. We couldn’t wait to get off work to go actually go do this stuff.” After about a year of consistent programming, the organizers still had their day jobs, but the project was their driving priority.
Soon after, the project got funded. “I wrote a grant for $10,000 dollars to the Minneapolis Foundation,” Cunningham says. “And the woman that gave me the grant—I’ll never forget it—she said, ‘Hey, you may not do this for the rest of your life but, once it stops being fun and you stop doing it, you can go do something else. We’re really just investing in you, and here’s $10,000.’ And I took the $10,000 to my colleagues and quit my job at Pillsbury. And we started doing the Media Project because that’s really where my passion was. It wasn’t making new products for Pillsbury.”
The project continued on and grew with more and more requests of the project to do community screenings across the Twin Cities—first for free, then for a dollar or two per attendee. “It really wasn’t any money,” Cunningham remembers. “We just started getting people to show up because of this value. I learnt a lot about how people value things. So if you show something for free, people don’t actually value it as much as if they pay a little bit of something for it.” As Sieling explains, the idea behind this small charge was to send the money spent on entertainment back into the community. “By and large, what was happening was, with a Spike Lee or Shaft movie, all the money is going from the black community to the downtown theater and distributor of the movie. It’s not staying there. It’s not reverberating in the community. And that was a little of what the Neighborhood Media Project aimed to do. You’re showing it where they live. You’d get few more people. You’d get friend of a friend, and people who couldn’t get downtown, or— just the sense that the proceeds from it would go to the American Indian Center or the Leonard Peltier Solidarity Committee.” Cunningham agrees: “It really was a civic engagement project, so none of us was really making a lot of money.”
Despite financial hardship, Cunningham described the work as incredibly rewarding. “Oh yeah, it really felt good because people would work on stuff. It also taught you how to plan things and how to think about what we need to do. And then you’d get done and we’d have conversation about what we learned. What happened? What didn’t go right? How did that happen? Et cetera, et cetera. Neil would bring his various films and, at first, our bulbs would go out. Like, ‘Oh! Did you bring an extra bulb?’ Stuff like that would happen.” Cunningham remembers the excitement around each screening. “We got through it but there was all this intensity in the moment because you’re putting on a production. It’s just like any other production: there are all these steps, and it took us a lot of time to figure out how to get it right. Because we weren’t technical experts. We didn’t know anything. We were just doing it.”
Beyond the work of coordinating the locations and keeping the equipment working, selecting the best films to screen was a major part of the process. Much of the process was based in survey and conservation. ”With the Neighborhood Media Project, the idea was somewhere between give the people what they want and get the people what they need.
says Sieling. “You think you know what they want, but you have to ask them. So we would go door-to-door, or we would have little public sessions like, ‘Do tell. Come in.’ We’d say, ‘What do you want to see? What do you feel like you’re missing?’” As most folks would primarily be drawing their film and movie knowledge from the mainstream, the work of the organizers was to balance community requests with content from independent makers. Sieling describes the process: “We’d do a little of what people wanted, a little of what we thought they wanted, and hope that that would blend over time. So that’s my answer to that. So it’s half-populist, half-prescriptive. And hopefully, that’s the right balance.”
During the Neighborhood Media Project’s tenure, it worked with other major organizations around the Twin Cities, including Film in the Cities, Intermedia Arts, the African American Cultural Center, Minneapolis American Indian Center, Walker Community Church, and many others. It established regular series and programs for Black History Month with musicians to play jazz along with the screenings. It brought in major filmmakers like Haile Gerima, John Sayles, and Spike Lee, and even organized concerts with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Floyd Westerman, and gospel choirs. They showed films by Charles Burnett, Roy Campanella II, and Julie Dash. “We did a lot of different stuff,” Cunningham says. “We’d have political stuff. We’d bring in all these politicians. Or we’d have artistic stuff. We went to Stillwater Prison and showed films. We’d get media in places that it wouldn’t be designed to go.” With each screening, “we were like dream makers. We’d come in with these movies and blow people’s minds and we’d bring in filmmakers.”
Everything with the project happened so quickly. By 1982, the project had dissolved. “The issue that got us was sustainability,” says Cunningham. “Because we didn’t have a big fundraising arm like the Walker. We didn’t have fundraisers. In fact, I didn’t know anything about fundraising, really. So, to try to keep the momentum, we had to raise money. I don’t think we ever set up a way to do that, because you’re not going to make it off the gate. You’ve got to be able to be subsidized and, after a while, you start writing grants and you start being a grant-writer instead—that was the passion thing for me.” The time to do administrative and fundraising work was taking over the time to actually host the screenings. “You end up going in directions that are not your heart. Yeah, we probably could have kept going, but my energy for that was waning.”
When it was time for the project to end, it was clear. Just as the original grant officer had said, “When it stops being fun, stop doing it.” There were struggles between the trio, but as Cunningham explains, “It was a fun experience. And we struggled with each other and we went through a process.”
“It had its ups and downs. At the time, it was just a great, fun, sometimes difficult, challenging thing to do. I learned a lot. I sacrificed a lot for it at the time. And I think everybody in the project did. And we’re all still good friends.”