A man with a dream (and 3,000 films) powers the Berkeley Underground Film Society
FILM Gerald Santana is stoked about his new Vitamix. When we speak, he's juicing up breakfast for himself and his kids as part of their raw-food diet. "Overall, it gives me better mental clarity, a stronger ability to focus, and all of the things that I really need to get my business together."
His business includes movies. Lots of movies. The avid film collector is the founder of the Berkeley Underground Film Society, which has for the past two years hosted screenings showcasing gems from Santana's stash. It's held in a Gilman Street office space that transforms into a micro-cinema for BUFS gatherings.
Amateur film collecting is a hobby that's almost as old as cinema itself. "Home viewers [could obtain] 16mm film prints for the first time in the 1930s," he says. "In that era, people rented whatever was available, say, The Little Rascals from the New York public library, and then have a film party. There'd be, like, the neighborhood cinema guy. If you flash forward 90 years later, we have Craig Baldwin, [filmmaker and Other Cinema curator], who is pretty much that same guy."
Santana and the Artists' Television Access staple met years ago through an online forum for 16mm enthusiasts, when Santana contacted Baldwin about purchasing a film. Today, Santana considers Baldwin his mentor. "He's passed on a lot of film history to me," Santana says. "We meet several times a year, and he gives me a personal screening of films that are on the way out of his archive, and into mine. That's one way I started collecting."
Once Santana started acquiring films, he was hooked. "You start with buying one or two, and then suddenly you have 100. Then you have 1,000. And some people go much, much higher." (Santana estimates he owns "probably 3,000.")
He started a blog in late 2010, hoping to connect with other Bay Area collectors. "Lost and Out of Print," the name of BUFS' screening series, is an apt description of the works he favors. "These are obscure anomalies from eras gone by. Once I started building up my collection, I started realizing how many films are just not available. I need to preserve these, because sometimes I might have the only print in the state. Sometimes, I might have the only copy. So I went from hobbyist, to collector, to archivist, to preservationist."
Santana, who grew up in Los Angeles, has a background in video media, but he was always drawn to celluloid — a fascination that flourished once he moved to the Bay Area. "When I came up here, I found Super 8 films at thrift stores, and I wanted to try to project them. And then I wanted to know everything about film history, film stocks, projectors, and all these other things that make movies go."
The film club seemed a logical progression once his collection was ready for an audience. "When I started BUFS" — he pronounces it buffs, as in film buffs — "it was just me, seeing if anyone else was interested. And I had to wait until I had titles that were difficult to find, or that I thought were important, and that seemed to work if you grouped them together. That's when I learned that programming is an art," he recalls.
His collection includes silent films, home movies, B movies, made-for-TV movies, educational and industrial films, cartoons, and classic Hollywood films that aren't available on DVD. There are also foreign films that never made it into US theaters — like 1972's Godzilla vs. Gigan, which he's showing in 16mm July 18 — in their original, uncut forms. (Other BUFS screenings this month are July 19 archival shorts program "Cartoon Carnival #5: Kids and Pets," and a July 20 showing of Charlie Chaplin's 1921 The Kid.)