Guerrilla film project changes boundaries of movie-going

Drive-By Cinema sets up at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in San Diego. (Photo by Kevin Walsh Photography.)

The cargo in Pacific Arts Movement's overhauled moving truck is a motley assortment: In front, a Wi-Fi hotspot, charger, chemical compounds and grease remover, a pack of cigarettes and DVDs. In the back there are three white lab coats, a coffee table and two rugs, a small white parasol, orange safety cones, and a generator (plus a custom-made padded box to muffle the sound of the generator).

Bryce Griffin, who holds the title "Electronics Wizard," drinks a can of Monster before taking the wheel.

"It's actually really physical and kind of mentally draining. I'm climbing up on the truck and jumping around and it's crunch time to get everything set up before the time we're supposed to start," he said. "And the stress doesn't really go away once we actually start because at any second everything can turn off I have to get it running again."

Griffin is part of a small team called Drive-By Cinema. It's a new initiative of the Pacific Arts Movement, a 12-year-old nonprofit arts organization best known for producing the San Diego Asian Film Festival. The truck is a hollowed out, painted-over U-Haul, tricked out to create cinematic experiences in unlikely places. Screens can go on any side of the truck—including on top where a modified scrap piece of sail becomes a two-sided projection screen so people can see films from either side of the street where the truck is parked.

 Pacific Arts Movement)
In one of four test runs, Drive-By Cinema projected a 1960s Hong Kong film onto a concrete wall under the I-5 freeway where local drummers used to gather. (They often don't publicize the titles of the films they show because they do not seek permission to show them. There is the problem of cost, of course, but there is also no well-understood distribution model. What would an overseas distributor charge a nonprofit organization to screen their films to an unknown number of people on the side of a truck?) The audience was commuters—who, "Digital Nomad" Christina Ree recalls, often looked perplexed but slowed down.

"This brings out Asian cinema to the streets," Ree said. "Being sheltered within the shell of an Asian film festival, you're going to be speaking to the choir. This is the opposite. We don't know who we're speaking to."

The official launch event was in February in the City Heights neighborhood at the former site of the Trieu Thanh theater. A visionary young Vietnamese man bought the theater in 1980 and made it popular by screening kung fu movies. The theater was demolished in 1987; Drive-By Cinema screened a Jackie Chan film that was popular during the years it was still operating.

Today, Griffin is driving through San Diego's rush hour traffic to the east side of the city. Tonight's show is in the roundabout driveway at the Salvation Army Kroc Center and the truck sets up in the red zone—where they will stay until someone tells them to move. True to form, the generator stops working so Griffin and the team scramble to connect all their equipment to an alternate power source from the building. Drive-By Cinema is guerrilla theater, an attempt to bring film back to the masses, to make it participatory and unstructured. There are no rules for viewers; they can come and go as they please and no one will shush them if a cell phone rings. It is a test of the power of the films they choose. If people do not pay, do not plan and are not confined to a movie theater, will they still watch?

The team explains another test run they took in December at "Boulevard Nights," a sort of block party for businesses on El Cajon Boulevard. It was raining—they brought umbrellas—and "conditions were designed expressly for Wong Kar-wai," as Ree describes it.

"High school students were the biggest surprise—a group of about 12 from Hoover High School became so engrossed that they stayed through the end of a pretty non-linear, moody, art romance film, and asked how they could see it again," Ree said.

"People are seeing the film for what it is, not for the label that's put on it," Griffin said. "It wasn't a matter of watching an Asian film—you're watching a film that has amazing content and is beautifully made, and you really like it just like it was a blockbuster in the theaters."

At the Kroc Center, Adrian, who is 6, says he hopes they will show the Disney animated film Finding Nemo. This is a family night so the team is screening short animated films and one short documentary about the lives of children. Small children sit at picnic tables with their parents and gradually move forward to a rug where they become, at times, transfixed to the screen attached to the side of the truck. Most of the films have very little dialogue and intense, imaginative storylines. They were created by filmmakers in the United States (several by local Asian Americans), Australia and Taiwan.

"The truth is, a lot of these shorts are shown once in a festival and then they don't see the light of day," said Ree. "One of the really nice things about this truck is we can bring these shorts out and keep their lifespan going."

Adrian did not see Nemo, but shrieked with joy and made predictions about what would happen in an animated short from Taiwan about a girl under academic pressure and her imaginative flights with a fish.

Future screenings over the next year and half will feature films from other parts of the world, locally produced films and, for some neighborhoods, international films subtitled in Spanish.

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