Jazmyne Moreno (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Jazmyne Moreno has a “big girl job” now. It’s evident by the number of notifications that ping throughout our Zoom call. “I’m in Slackland,” she sighed as she paused to respond to an email. Since beginning her position as a full-time film programmer at the Austin Film Society last September, the 30-year-old has had to worry about administrative duties, how many people show up to a screening, and addressing new audiences.
“It’s 7pm, and they are having no jokes,” she said of the more mature crowds to whom she now presents films, while continuing to book the Lates programming, which she took over in 2018 after programming the short-lived Deep End. Lates, dedicated to what AFS calls “the new cult film canon,” draws in younger cinephiles curious to delve into cinema’s more obscure meanderings. The springboard is Moreno’s prologues, which provide both context and comedic relief. “I’d rather you think I were an idiot than to feel like an idiot while you’re sitting there trying to watch this little Czech movie from the Seventies or whatever the hell it is,” she said. This nonchalance may be a bit of a shock to the audience of a Fellini retrospective, but Moreno isn’t about to change for them. “I clean it up a bit, but overall I’m going to be me. I was hired to be me and to do what I do.”
“I was hired to be me and to do what I do.” – Jazmyne Moreno
Moreno’s film-curating career began in a more intimate setting than the AFS stage. After graduating from Evergreen State College, she moved down to Austin and got the first job she applied for, at Vulcan Video. While working at Austin’s dearly departed film rental haven was nothing like Empire Records (“It’s just old guys yelling at you to get some World War II doc or something a lot of the time”), she got to know people’s real taste in video content. “Everyone wants to tell you they’re watching Truffaut,” she recalls. “No, you’re not. You’re watching six seasons of Friends, that’s what you’re watching.”
She was at Vulcan when Mike Nicolai, production manager for iconic bar the Hole in the Wall, stopped by asking if anyone would want to curate and host film screenings at the dive bar. Moreno accepted the challenge, seeing the Drag institution as the perfect training ground to decipher what gets people’s attention (tits and ass, folks). After that experiment, Moreno moved her niche film proselytizing to Alamo Drafthouse before landing at the Austin Film Society.
Accessibility is important to Moreno. “I want people to just feel like they can walk in, and that they don’t need four years of study plus an additional six,” she said. But she doesn’t program films with everyone in mind. “You’re never going to appeal to everyone,” she urges from across the screen. “And if you’re trying to be as inoffensive as possible, there’s always something … The art itself is aiming to challenge. So why am I going to water that down for someone? Why am I going to try to only expose them to things that’ll make them comfortable?”
If there’s a goal underlying Moreno’s programming, it’s to shift viewers away from the belief that seeing a movie is about pure entertainment. The films she selects – whether they’re about a Nazi pedophile doctor, trash humpers, or Serge Gainsbourg’s infamous Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus – probe dark aspects of the human psyche and can cause discomfort while doing so. In January, she showed Innocence, Lucile Hadžihalilović’s disturbing fairy tale revolving around a school where young girls are trained for a mysterious fate. “You’re watching little girls twirl around and run around naked in certain scenes,” she explained.”The point is sort of, why would you look, right? And questioning you and questioning your gaze.”
Earlier this month, Moreno presented two films that carry significant baggage. Himizu, Sion Sono’s 2011 dystopian coming-of-age tale, is better known for being the terrorist and white supremacist Dylann Roof’s favorite movie. The film is the ultimate case study in the danger of releasing work into the world. “I think once a piece of work is out there, it doesn’t belong to the artist,” she said. “It’s no longer up to the artist to dictate how people interact with their work.” Roof’s instrumentalization of the film also challenges Moreno’s own beliefs: “It’s like, how far can you go with saying, ‘Well, it’s all up to you’?”
Romance, Catherine Breillat’s already subversive erotic melodrama from 1999, stirred controversy in February when its lead actress Caroline Ducey came forward with the allegation that Breillat had incited a male actor to “actually try to penetrate” her in a rape scene. Introducing the film and its context gave Moreno an opportunity to question Breillat’s characterization as a feminist filmmaker. “Just because something is made by a woman, that woman doesn’t always have every woman in mind. … [Breillat] has no other interest in mind but her own.”
Moreno objects to any one individual being asked to represent a community. As a Black woman interacting with Austin’s overwhelmingly white audiences, she’s regularly confronted with how willing people are to give her authority over the Black identity as portrayed in film. “I call it being the Black sherpa. I’ve got to guide sort of hapless white people to enlightenment. And that’s an uncomfortable position for me to be in.” She doesn’t want to be anyone’s guide, especially for audiences that rarely show up for films that feature more complex Black narratives. “People will come out to watch poor Black people. People will come out to watch whatever sort of Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated something. But they’re not just going to go out and watch most Black films,” she said “You’d like to think people would like to experience other cultures through film, and you realize maybe [it’s] just some cultures.”
Contemporary cinema’s embrace of moralizing undertones, and the correlation between content and political identification, bothers Moreno. “You’re either here or you’re there, and it’s black and white, and you support this or you support that,” she said. “It’s about morality and showing we’re good people through the art that we support and through the filmmaking that we support.”
She compares watching today’s films to “reading an essay” and being bludgeoned over the head with pre-digested theory. “I don’t feel like there are questions anymore,” she said. “I don’t feel like people are questioning. They’re just yelling the answers at you constantly.” As a viewer and a programmer, Moreno refuses tidiness and “faux-deep” narratives. The films she shows are often radical, but perhaps the most revolutionary gesture she makes is in taking her viewers seriously by not imposing interpretation on any of them. She offers the space for an experience, with the freedom to hate, love, or not quite get it. “The things I program are not subtle. But I think the approach is a little different in that there is some ambiguity.”