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Zeitgeist at 25 

Will Coviello profiles Rene Broussard, whose Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center has brought New Orleans unusual -- and controversial -- film offerings for 25 years

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We're the only theater in the world that doesn't sell popcorn," Rene Broussard says, smiling. Instead, the makeshift concession counter at Broussard's Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center includes traditional movie candies like Snickers and Reese's Pieces, along with Japanese rice crackers mixed with dried anchovies and wasabi peas, Lebanese sesame crackers, chocolates from Turkey, fair trade almonds and locally made Popstars gourmet popsicles in flavors like pineapple kiwi mojito.

  As ticket buyers approach the desk he uses as a box office, Broussard swivels in his chair to offer items from the array of concessions. At showtime, Broussard heads to the front of his large and minimally converted commercial space, facing an audience seated in puffy armchairs and sofas in front, rows of grey cushioned Office Depot chairs, and more rows of chairs from hotels. He previews upcoming films and events, and before flipping the light switch as he walks back to the projector, he reminds patrons of Zeitgeist's longstanding mission statement: "Something for and against everyone."

In Zeitgeist's 25 years, Broussard has presented such a wide variety of films, theater productions and music events that it's nearly impossible to characterize its offerings. The one common thread is that most of it would otherwise never have been presented publicly in New Orleans. While everyone can find something in Zeitgeist's programming that's appealing, it's far easier to remember the "against" items — the upsetting or controversial elements.

  "I get it from everyone," Broussard says with a bemused shrug. He's currently putting the final touches on December's New Orleans Middle East Film Festival. One of his goals is to bring Ahmad Abdalla in as a guest. The Egyptian filmmaker chronicled underground and rebellious street culture (graffiti, music) in advance of the eruption of the Arab Spring, which brought down President Hosni Mubarak and saw uprisings and demonstrations in many Arab nations. As he's tried to raise funds to fly in Abdalla from Egypt, he's been in regular contact. Broussard was very pleased with his poster art, featuring a keffiyeh, the headdress common in many Middle Eastern nations, wrapped around a film reel, and he emailed an image to Abdalla.

  "He didn't like it," Broussard says. "He said that it's black and white, which is really identified with Palestinians. He said it should be green, because that represents more of the Muslim world."

  It's not the first time Middle Eastern programming at Zeitgeist has roiled people. One pro-Palestinian slate of films drew thousands of emails and calls from pro-Israel people, he says. A previous New Orleans Middle East Film Festival resulted in complaints from Muslim attendees who objected to alcohol being available opening night.

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  "I was told I'm culturally insensitive," he says. "It's a Middle Eastern film festival, not a Muslim film festival."

  He rolls his eyes. You can't please everyone.

Zeitgeist's whiff of controversy always attracts attention, and some remember the theater's most notoriously disgruntled ticket buyer, or attempted ticket buyer: David Duke.

  In the mid-1990s, Zeitgeist screened the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993). The German filmmaker was exceptionally talented, but some of her best-known works were propaganda films for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, including Triumph of the Will (1934) and Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces, 1935). The first screening of the documentary sold out quickly, and Broussard had to tell arrivals the theater was full.

  "Just as I said that — I had no idea — the next guy in line was David Duke," Broussard says. "He thought I was not letting him in for political reasons. I showed him we were full. I said, 'Look, sorry, there are no empty seats.'"

  Duke left, and accounts of the event somehow made Broussard into a hero for entrance to denying the former Ku Klux Klan leader. But there was no principled statement in the works. Duke returned the next day — a half-hour early — in order to get a seat.

  "I'm not going to turn away anyone if they're paying," Broussard says.

  He once also had to turn away Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren after the couple rolled up in a limousine to see a compilation of short animated films by the Quay brothers, which already was sold out.

  There's no obvious formula for what packs the house at Zeitgeist. Sometimes it's obscure experimental films that appeal to cult fans, sometimes it's controversial films or events — the Sex Workers Art Show used to be an annual sellout. A more recent success was the debut and subsequent run of Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's documentary about the Seattle band's career. Zeitgeist was the only theater in Louisiana to screen it on the night of its worldwide premiere, and it was one of only eight theaters in the United States permitted to do a theatrical run.

  "It was amazing," Broussard reported after opening night. "We had an incredible line. I put food and drinks in a cart and went down the line while people waited for the second screening."

  But even Broussard isn't happy with every packed house. Where's the limit of his tolerance for popular subjects? Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, is one example. Gibney is the award-winning director of such films as Taxi to the Darkside, about the war in Afghanistan, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, about the company's accounting scandal. Gonzo was well reviewed by critics, and its only other local screening was in the New Orleans Film Festival.

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  "I ran it for like two weeks and made a shitload of money," Broussard says. "But I hate Hunter S. Thompson. The whole drunk gun thing — what a douche. Just trying to read him is one of the worst things ever."

  Broussard constantly scans film festivals and reaches out personally to directors for screening copies, but programming at Zeitgeist has always been feast or famine. The recent Samuel Goldwyn release The Whistleblower, which in years past would have been more likely to run locally at the Landmark Theatres chain at Canal Place, drew only a dozen people on opening night at Zeitgeist.

  While Broussard screens a lot of American independent films, a film from a major Hollywood studio isn't typical fare. Broussard takes particular pride in culling films that get positive attention at film festivals and foreign films not otherwise distributed in the United States.

  "I am very aggressive about our programming," he says.

  The result is evident in any sampling of Zeitgeist offerings. In recent months, he's presented the following:

  - Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz's sensuous debut feature about two Iranian girls love amid the hip-hop, house parties and illicit club culture of contemporary Iran.

  - Two recent foodie-friendly films: Toast, starring Helena Bonham Carter as the stepmother of future food writer Nigel Slater, and El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, an artsy documentary about the world's most famous avant-garde restaurant.

  - Archangel (Broussard's favorite film), one of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's eccentric black-and-white melodramas mimicking the style of the end of the age of silent films.

  - Waste Land, the Oscar-winning documentary about Brazilian artist Vik Muniz's collaborative profiles of garbage pickers living at Rio de Janeiro's largest landfill.

  - Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil is a recent comic horror film parody pitting misunderstood hillbillies against a bunch of preppy college kids camping in the woods.

  Zeitgeist also hosts music and film festivals, including showcases of experimental jazz, which have featured artists including James Singleton, Kidd Jordan, Andrew Cyrille, Helen Gillet and many others. Patois: The New Orleans International Human Rights Festival has used the theater as a participating venue. Other events have included the NOLA Veggie Fest and a recent Steampunk art and film showcase.

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While such diversity might seem like a natural asset, it also presents challenges. All the dissimilarity can be an obstacle to building an audience or identity, says Don Marshall, director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, and a founding organizer of both the New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) and the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. Lesser-known films may not stick out among the city's abundance of entertainment options.

  "He's showing some of the best films around, and unfortunately New Orleans doesn't seem to embrace that," Marshall says of Broussard. "He runs this as a personal cause. He doesn't want strings attached, and he makes unusual sacrifices to do what he does."

  Marshall suggests a location next to a university community would help the theater. But maybe also a university in a town with a different intellectual climate.

  "(Zeitgeist) would be packed with people every night if it were in Cambridge (Mass.) or Ann Arbor (Mich.)," he says.

  Although New Orleans used to be full of single-screen neighborhood theaters, art house offerings are slim. At Chalmette Movies, proprietor Ellis Fortinberry sometimes runs an independent feature or documentary on one of the theater's six screens. He recently screened the original Israeli version of The Debt in conjunction with the New Orleans Film Society, but for two nights only.

  "I'm not going to be able to play The Debt for a whole week," he says. "I'd be committing financial suicide if I do."

  In spite of all sorts of other technological advancements and the rise in competition from Internet downloads and Netflix, the industry standard is still week-long bookings, says John Desplas, NOFF's artistic director.

  "Short screenings work well (for the film society) but a lot of (distribution) companies won't do them," he says.

  Broussard books films for week-long stints, and he knows that sometimes that's a losing proposition.

  "Some films are worth screening," he says.

At times, Zeitgeist survives hand to mouth. The center has no paid employees, including Broussard, although it supports some of his expenses as director, for example, registration fees at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's a nonprofit, and since 1996, Broussard has not sought grants or public funding because he prefers to avoid any limitations on what he can present.

  In its early years, Zeitgeist applied for and received small grants from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and it received high recommendations by panel reviews for its programming. Then in 1995, he scheduled "Female Ejaculation Night," featuring a slate of films about feminism and female sexuality by filmmakers including Annie Sprinkle, Kathy Daymond (Nice Girls Don't Do It), Shawna Dempsey (We're Talking Vulva) and others.

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  "We sold out," Broussard says. "There were 600 people. We had to add a second screening."

  But the Louisiana Division of the Arts wasn't pleased.

  "Someone on the board got upset that its logo appeared on the same printed monthly schedule as Female Ejaculation Night."

  Rather than change his programming, Broussard resolved to not seek any more grants.

  One of the silver linings of not pursuing grants, Broussard says, is that he is often asked to judge, peer review or recommend artists for grants and fellowships.

  "I run one of the most prestigious arts centers in the South," he says.

  One of the experimental filmmakers he supported was Helen Hill, who was killed in her Marigny home in 2007, sparking a citywide crime march. Hill presented her films at Zeitgeist and eventually started hosting Home Movie Day events at the theater. (One of the films presented there was George Ingmire's Think of Me First as a Person, which was one of 25 films added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2006 after just two public screenings: one at Zeitgeist and one in a festival in Alaska.)

  Broussard nominated Hill for a Rockefeller Foundation-funded Media Arts Grant, which she received. She used the money to start the The Florestine Collection, an animated film inspired by a discarded collection of 100 dresses she had found, but she was never able to finish it.

  "(Broussard) was a great supporter of Helen and her art and independent filmmaking," says Paul Gailiunas, Hill's husband, who now lives in California.

  Gailiunas completed his late wife's feature. While he was working on it, Broussard held a fundraiser to help him finish the work. The film debuted at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and it recently screened in the New Orleans Film Festival, including a packed showing at Zeitgeist attended by Gailiunas.

  "It was a bit of a hard trip," he says. "But it ended up being worth it. Friends came out. Church members (of the congregation of the dressmaker) attended each night."

Most of Broussard's programming is simply not the most commercially available offerings, rather than explicitly controversial pieces, but in its early years, Zeitgeist was all about provocative subjects. As a student at UNO, Broussard had directed several short plays. For a class project, he set out to direct a full production of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Blood on the Cat's Neck. The piece features Phoebe Zeit-Geist, a character from a comic serialized in the Evergreen Review in the late 1960s. Zeit-Geist was a debutante who was kidnapped by white slavers and subjected to numerous humiliations by Nazis and various sexual freaks. When she was finally killed, the degradations continued as her corpse was sold to necrophiliacs. In Fassbinder's graphic continuation of her ordeal, Zeit-Geist is a zombified alien who returns to Earth. When word of the production got out, the administration wanted it canceled.

  "It got censored, so I took it off campus," Broussard says. The production ran at the Can Can Cabaret in the French Quarter. "It was a big, big hit, and that's how Zeitgeist got founded."

  He took Phoebe's name and created Zeitgeist Theater Experiments. (He actually chose between two names: Zeitgeist and Holocene, the term for the current geological epoch. "For 25 years, I have been kicking myself," Broussard says. "I went with Zeitgeist, but now 'zeitgeist' is everywhere. I can't get it as a domain name. Nobody is using holocene.")

  In 1987, Broussard incorporated Zeitgeist as a Louisiana nonprofit. Though there was ample space on the forms for a mission statement, he wrote simply "Something for and against everyone." It was simple, and he notes, very broad.

  "I was all about breaking the rules (then)," he says.

  Other early productions included a reworking of Max Frisch's The Firebugs, a parable about the rise of Hitler, which Broussard formatted like a TV talk show. He followed up with Shakespeare the Sadist, which in Act 2 turns the Bard's works into Swedish porn film scenes. The Commune, which views the Manson family and its murder spree as a metaphor for American history, was presented along with screenings of 16mm short films Brian De Palma made in film school. They were the first films screened under the banner of Zeitgeist.

  In case New Orleans wasn't clear that he liked provocative subjects, Broussard then scheduled a series of works by artists then under national scrutiny for works funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was the poster child of what critics deemed obscene art. Zeitgeist hosted filmmakers Leslie Thornton, Alan Sondheim, Tom Zummer and Julie Zando in a program he titled "The World Made Flesh: American Experiments in Marginality." Zando then recommended him to Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo, N.Y., one of the nation's leading contemporary arts centers, for a film curator position. Broussard had not graduated from UNO, but he was hired in 1990 and spent three years at the center, traveling home and keeping Zeitgeist screenings going during holidays and summer. Broussard returned to New Orleans to stay when his father was diagnosed with cancer.

  In 1993, Broussard began full-time programming for Zeitgeist, screening films on different nights in different locations, including the music club Muddy Waters and X Art Gallery in the Warehouse District. Over the years, he's screened films in many New Orleans neighborhoods, from Bywater (Pussycat Caverns) to Mid-City (Movie Pitchers) to the CBD to Lower Magazine Street and Central City, with his longest tenure being 10 years split between two locations on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard (he shared space with Barristers Gallery, now on St. Claude Avenue, before moving to his current space, owned by Saturn Screen Printing, which has its facilities upstairs).

  Besides screening films, Broussard became a filmmaker. His early projects included short features and documentaries. Tattoos for Tots is a seven-minute piece about a sleazy tattoo parlor operator who tries to convince kids to upgrade from gumball-machine temporary tattoos to permanent ink ones. Strangled By a Large Intestine was a documentary about Guy Maddin, and the title referred to a scene in Archangel.

  Broussard found critical and commercial success with his biopic trilogy The Fat Boy Chronicles, which addressed issues of being overweight and gay. The first installment was accepted and screened in more than 100 film festivals. The middle chapter, Boy With a Bugle, featured a series of discourses in which he imagined himself as the child of Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur. He took the roles they played in Mame (1974) and transformed them into an eccentric lesbian couple. The idea for the film came from a theater version he presented at Zeitgeist when the theater was on lower Magazine Street. He used that space to both to live and work, and theatergoers had to walk through his bedroom to get to the restroom. When he staged Boy With a Bugle, Broussard moved chairs into his bedroom and performed the piece naked while reclined on his bed.

  "It was a piece about revelation," Broussard says. "It was about going from being ashamed of my body to being an international male model." Broussard has posed twice for art photographers.

  Screenings and selling DVDs provided Broussard with an income as he maintained Zeitgeist as an artistic and free speech mission. He's also taught classes about film and theater. And when the levees failed in 2005, among Broussard's losses were 400 hours of footage for a documentary he was hired to make about the New Orleans Shell Shockers soccer team.

  Since the storm, he's focused mostly on Zeitgeist programming. The wave of AmeriCorps and Common Ground volunteers who came to help rebuild and the young arts and social entrepreneurs who have moved to the city have become some of his most familiar new regulars, he says. But his simple reason for staying was caught on film on the first day New Orleanians were allowed back into the city. The final scene of Eye of the Storm features Broussard outside his sister's flooded Lakeview home.

  "The only places I've ever been happy was in Buffalo and Berlin," he says. "I finally have an excuse to leave. But if all these artists and musicians leave, then there's no reason to rebuild the city. F—k! I have to stay."

Highlights of Zeitgeist's 25th Anniversary Schedule

  - Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. Constance Marks and Philip Shane's documentary chronicles the life of Kevin Clash, the man who made the squeaky-voiced Muppet a superstar.

  - Tyrannosaur. There's already Oscar buzz for stars Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan of this recent star of the Toronto International Film Festival.

  - Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis. The man behind the soundtracks of Top Gun and Flashdance added a rock 'n' roll score to this German arthouse classic silent film.

  - Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. A 30th anniversary screening of the documentary about local keyboard legends Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint and Isodore "Tuts" Washington. It screens along with director Stevenson J. Palfi's short feature The World According to Ernie K. Doe.

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