Talking with Warren Cockerham of the Florida Experimental Film/Video Festival

Seven questions with the man who coordinates the Feb. 6-10 festival.

click to enlarge Warren Cockerham takes a coffee break while coordinating all aspects of the Florida Experimental Film/Video Festival. - Ben Wiley
Ben Wiley
Warren Cockerham takes a coffee break while coordinating all aspects of the Florida Experimental Film/Video Festival.

FLEX, or the Florida Experimental Film/Video Festival, has just recently moved from Gainesville under UF auspices to UT/Tampa, under the direction of Warren Cockerham. It’s a juried festival of many moving parts involving diverse filmmakers, varied venues, American and international submissions, all with an experimental, avant-garde approach. This year’s inaugural event in Tampa, February 6-10, features 81 short films in 9 competition programs, plus 2 programs of expanded cinema, and 3 programs of juror selections. CL recently had an opportunity to talk with Warren, over coffee at Oxford Exchange and racing about UT campus in a golf cart, about FLEX and its presenting Tampa as a global center for showcasing artist-made films.

Tell me how a country boy from Brooksville ended up steeped in experimental filmmaking, both theory and production.
I grew up 30 miles from Tampa in Brooksville — a  place where independent, experimental film never gets shown — in the middle of lime rock, phosphate and blueberries. After Hernando High, I worked at a Walmart Distribution center there for 10 years of manual labor, 12-hour shifts... hard on the body and the mind. I had to wait till I was 24 to go to college: first Pasco-Hernando Community College, then transferred to UF as a Film Studies major and Anthropology minor. I got my BA there in 2006. Then on to graduate studies at the film school associated with the Chicago Art Institute where I received a MFA. I was adjunct at Bennington College in VT for two years, also did tech work. Later I lived in NYC but taught two days a week at Emerson College in Boston, so I spent lots of time on bus or train back and forth. Now I’m at UT where I teach courses in Experimental Film History/Theory and Experimental Filmmaking.

Are you an academic or a technician?
I straddle both academic and technical worlds, a theory professor that enjoys getting his hands dirty with machinery, equipment, cameras and computers. As the programmer and artistic director of FLEX, I bring dual skill sets in theory and production to the table, able to place these films in historic context, and also able to diagnose and repair equipment.

Explain the terms “underground,” “avant-garde,” “experimental,” and how it should appeal to the “basements to biennials” FLEX audience?
Though slick is good and commercially viable, experimental film intentionally distorts the medium, tortures the projector, shatters the splices, hand-paints the frame, uses the camera less for filmmaking, but jostles or corrupts the film or video, maybe even processes it in instant coffee, for example. I want FLEX to have wide appeal, all the way from the underground (basements) filmmaker and audience to the biennial (like the Whitney Biennial or Venice Biennial) audience and filmmaker. Hollywood editing supposedly makes the apparatus invisible, but avant-garde often makes the apparatus very apparent with aesthetics getting messier and messier, intentionally.

Now that FLEX is at UT, what are the plans for subsequent years?
In subsequent years, we want to tour the festival, take it back to Gainesville, take it other places too. We want to have Competition in odd-number years, Invitational in even-number years. So next year, 2020, should be Invitational, where filmmakers come to Tampa to show their own films and films that influenced them.

click to enlarge Warren Cockerham outside Falk Theater on UT Campus, just one of the various venues for the FLEX FILM FEST, Feb 6-10. - Photo by Ben Wiley
Photo by Ben Wiley
Warren Cockerham outside Falk Theater on UT Campus, just one of the various venues for the FLEX FILM FEST, Feb 6-10.

What is it you want FLEX in Tampa to do?
FLEX is a showcase for experimental, underground film with multiple venues for people to explore their creative approaches to film making, both filmmakers and audience in a communal experience. I want people to sit together in a darkened room for a collective experience. I’m afraid that the shared experience of film is slipping away because of iPhones and individual media. FLEX means that students and the film-going public and filmmakers can share and converse and argue and inspire one another.

What advice do you have for student film makers?
Make what you want to make. You might not go to Hollywood and be gigantically successful. So make what you want to see. Even Moonlight began as an experimental project where plot was subsumed by cinematography, structure to poetry.

What avant-garde highlights are you looking forward to experiencing at the film festival?
The Thursday evening event of nine shorts should be labeled "For Mature Audiences" [and also] Scott Stark, a Whitney Biennial presenter, will bring his Love and Epiphanists (Part 1), a 30-minute, 35mm film projection and 35mm slides, live score and digital titles. It’s essentially collaged film trailers that he's collected with anamorphic lens to project the pieces properly. Mike Morris is driving from Dallas with his double 16mm projector for a showing of his A Chorus of Black Voids Sings in Rays of Unseeable Light. Also for mature audiences are films by Nazli Dinçel, one of FLEX’s jurors. She’s Turkish, Muslim and her films offer a feminist critique of behind-the-scenes at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and how women are treated there.

There are numerous Florida connections to the films in FLEX this year:

• Georg Koszulinksi, born in Miami, offers his Continents Quiver as Memories Erupt into Earthflames.

• Kristen Reeves, graduate degree from UF, will offer her What Is Nothing (After What Is Nothing), a 16mm with nine projectors.

• Mike Stolz, who grew up in Florida, shot Half Human, Half Vapor, in Lakeland.

• Lisa Danker grew up in Miami, now lives in Orlando, will show her Foreclosed Home Movie.

• Noelle Mason, USF faculty, will show her I Like America and America Likes Me.

• Jimmy Schaus grew up in Tampa and is showing his My Daddy was a Gunman.

View the festival schedule.

Ben Wiley taught literature and film at St. Petersburg College. At USF/Tampa, he was statewide Director of the Florida Consortium/University of Cambridge (UK) International Summer Schools. His interests are film, theater, books, and kayaking Florida rivers. He also writes the BookStories feature in Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact him at [email protected] here.