Following the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11, our national zeitgeist became a newfound jingoistic zeal. The American flag, suddenly planted in yards and on cars from sea to shining sea, symbolically embodied this, while a carte blanche support of President Bush's war on terror enforced it.
Inside a funky alternative art venue in Central City, however, Rene Broussard stood in stark contrast to this prevailing ethos.
"Most of the country's response to 9/11 was blind patriotism," says Broussard, founder and director of Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. "My response was to screen 'Why Do They Hate Us?'"
The collection of films and documentaries Broussard curated as part of the month-long series "demonstrated how terrorism has been an instrument of our government for centuries, and thus provided us a terrorist attack because of our foreign policy run amok."
Such subversion is hardly indicative of the American zeitgeist in the months following 9/11. But it is indicative of the iconoclastic Broussard's modus operandi as executed through Zeitgeist, the arts organization he has run on his own terms, with his own voice, since 1986. This month, Zeitgeist hosts its 20th anniversary retrospective with a calendar filled with the experimental films and music that are the trademarks of Broussard's artistic vision. And make no mistake about it -- that vision is undoubtedly, irrefutably and absolutely his own.
"I don't like meetings or committees," Broussard says while sitting in a folding chair inside the expansive 9,000-square-foot building which houses both Zeitgeist and Barrister's Gallery. (Barrister's, a visual arts gallery and host to such events as the annual New Orleans Book Fair, which brings a range of alternative and radical publishers to town, has proven an ideal complement to Broussard's programming for the past seven years in the current location.) Broussard's casual dress -- Adidas sneakers, shorts and a shirt emblazoned with logo of the Shell Shockers, the local soccer team he actively follows and supports -- meshes well with a cool, calm tone employed even while discussing his passions.
"I'd rather just do it myself," he continues in describing his committee-of-one approach to curating Zeitgeist. "That's why Zeitgeist does more programming than all the arts organizations in this city combined. I might be more successful with a board, if I had a committee to plan events. But alone, I'm willing to come out on a nightly basis, so there's a consistency of activity."
For the last 12 years, Broussard hasn't applied for any grant money to fund his operation, citing such entanglements as a potential threat toward self-censorship. He learned that lesson after receiving money from the Louisiana Division of Arts, which later objected to the inclusion of its logo on a banner promoting a screening of films by international directors. "At that point, I decided to survive without grants, or not survive at all," he remembers.
As a non-profit, Zeitgeist is required to have a governing board that meets regularly. Yet, he admits the board -- made up of his mom and sister -- is "completely a puppet board."
"I make all the decisions, and that's the way things get done," he adds.
While Zeitgeist's location might not have always been consistent -- in the early years, Broussard screened cinema regularly at the Masonic Temple, the Latin American Bar, Muddy Waters and Pussycat Caverns in the Bywater before moving to addresses on O'Keefe and Magazine streets and finally to Oretha Castle Haley -- the organization's mission has remained the same: "something for and against everyone."
That pro-active, provocative mission statement has manifested itself repeatedly over the course of Zeitgeist's 20-year history. Churches across the region bused in protestors to show their ire for Father, Son and Holy War, while the biggest, loudest crowd of protestors lined up against The Revolution Will Be Televised, a film about Hugo Chavez. In regards to attracting patrons and not protestors, Broussard estimates one of the most successful programs he's ever had came with "Female Ejaculation Night," a screening of films at Muddy Waters he says "explored, often explicitly, the myths surrounding the female orgasm" that drew a crowd of around 700 people, ranging from the Tulane frat-boy crowd to lesbians.
"It's a double-edged sword, showing films that are sexually explicit," he says. "On one hand, sex sells. Those nights are always going to be popular. But on the other hand, people try to pigeonhole you. 'Oh, Zeitgeist? You're the ones that show all those porno films.' To me it's not porn, but that's what sticks in people's minds."
Broussard says that 9/11 directly impacted his offerings in that he moved away from sexually themed work and more into films that cover political and human rights issues. But his response to Katrina takes a stance that once again is uniquely his own.
"Because of the technology, so many people are making films now," he says. "And because of Katrina, everyone here has something to say, and people are more activist oriented. It seems everyone wants to make their own Katrina video. At what point does it become overkill?"
Broussard does not consider Zeitgeist's 20th anniversary events a true retrospective because it's more than just a look back, as a number of new works and new artists will be featured. Yet, familiar faces abound, and together they paint a picture of loyalty, camaraderie and shared artistic principles.
"What we do is not conducive to a bar kind of environment," says guitarist and music promoter Rob Cambre, who has organized several mini-music festivals at Zeitgeist, including The Death Posture, a group featuring him and fellow improvisational musician Donald Miller paired to the Butoh dance movement of Vanessa Skantze.
While Cambre says The Death Posture is a poor fit at nightclubs because the focus on movement and lack of drum is different from what's seen and heard in most, he adds that the group found a home at Zeitgeist because it meshes with Broussard's mission.
"It's a place where people could try things out, where new work could be generated and created, as opposed to a more conventional venue that is only interested in the finished product," says Cambre, who performed during the first weekend of Zeitgeist's anniversary month.
Broussard is clearly pleased in his role of providing a venue for acts such as The Death Posture, noting the development of younger artists such as Skantze, who has relocated to Seattle but came back to New Orleans to perform multiple shows for the anniversary. "I've had the pleasure of watching Vanessa develop her form and fully realize its artistry, and nothing could please me more," Broussard says.
In turn, Cambre appreciates Broussard's efforts. "Rene has a real tenacious energy," he says. "He's very determined to present what he wants to present, and because of that, he feels very passionately about the stuff that he puts on."
"Rene is just such a force of nature," Brooklyn-based filmmaker Mark Street says in succinct summation of why he has continued to work with Broussard over the years.
In 1994, Street, then living in Florida, came to New Orleans to screen his work at the Pussycat Caverns in a Zeitgeist showcase that also presented Lynne Sachs, a filmmaker then living in San Francisco. Though Broussard booked the pair in two separate rooms at a local bed and breakfast, it was during that time that the pair, now husband and wife, conceived their first child, Maya. Beyond that connection, Street has returned to New Orleans multiple times, to film parts of his film City Symphony, a work that explores elements of urbanism through the eye of an anonymous voyeur, and to screen his films at Zeitgeist. Though privy to cutting-edge art and the scene surrounding it by virtue of being an accomplished filmmaker in New York City, Street has enjoyed his experiences in New Orleans.
"What you want when you show a film is for the audience to react and respond, and I've always had that with Rene's audiences," Street says.
Street's wife Sachs was also scheduled to make the trip to New Orleans as part of Zeitgeist's anniversary. Exploring the experimental fringe like her husband, Sachs feels Broussard's programming is a good match for her work.
"He has such a catholic taste -- and I don't mean catholic with a capital C," says Sachs, a Memphis native. "New Orleans is known for a lot of things, but experimental films is not at the top of that list. But Rene is willing to look at it all and put on daring programming, ranging from works that border on porn, to outright porn, to the popular, the cerebral and the outrageous, and put it all in a context that makes sense."
Perhaps Sachs' film STATES OF Unbelonging is one of the clearer examples of the complex duality of Broussard's "something for and against everyone" mission.
The film finds director Sachs seeking an understanding with someone across cultural and historical boundaries. The film's other subject, Revital Ohayon, is, like Sachs, a mother, a filmmaker, a teacher and a Jew. While pondering issues of identity, Sachs' work naturally explores the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
"I have a very pro-Palestinian stance, but I want to show things like States of Unbelonging that show the other side," Broussard says. "I have some responsibility to be balanced, to not just show things that support my point of view. If I want to stay true to my mission, I have to challenge all sides."
So how does Broussard achieve this assault?
"To show films people hate, films people love. To show films that are cathartic, films that are repulsive."
While Broussard has clearly risen to this self-imposed challenge over the 20 years he's run Zeitgeist, he now faces another challenge. The condo craze sweeping the local real estate market is helping evict Zeitgeist from its current space early next year as the building is carved up into condos. Despite the uncertainty of not knowing where his one-man show will land next, despite the fact that anniversaries tend to spark a look backward, Broussard stays confident and forward thinking.
"I'm not worried about the change," he says matter-of-factly. "Change can be a positive."