Essential SF Q&A: Joel Shepard

By Pam Grady

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Joel Shepard, Film/Video Curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts might have begun his career in his native Minnesota, but in the two decades plus that he’s been in the Bay Area, he has woven himself into the fabric of our cinema lives. It was the Cinematheque and a job as associate director there that first lured Shepard here, but he’s made his greatest mark at Yerba Buena with his adventurous, engaging programming. While evolving into an essential part of the Bay Area film scene, Shepard was doing the same for Yerba Buena. It’s impossible to imagine San Francisco without them.

Q: You went to the Art Institute of Chicago. What did you study there?

Joel Shepard: Yeah, it’s the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I got my degree in film there. It was just called ‘film’ then. That was a really good place to study film, because it was kind of grounded in experimental cinema, but not only. It was broader than that, but that’s kind of the center of where their approach is. You really learn how to break down cinema into its most basic elements, take it apart and learn that way.

I was a part-time secretary in the film department. Part of my job was to open the mail and I got an announcement for an internship in film and video exhibition. This was in 1990. The National Endowment for the Arts then had internships in different fields in the arts. There was one available at this place called Film in the Cities, which was in St. Paul, MN. I grew up in Minneapolis. I actually never intended to go back there after I left, but I ended up getting the job.

Film in the Cities was kind of like—do you remember Film Arts Foundation?

Q: Yes.

JS: Film in the Cities was kind of like a combination between Film Arts Foundation and a movie theater. They taught classes in production and screenwriting and stuff like that. They also had a little photography gallery and they had a full-time, year-round movie theater. My internship was to be assistant to the director of the film exhibition program. My internship was just a one year thing, and right around the one year mark, the director of the program decided to resign and they gave me the job. Just about a year out of college, I was a fulltime film curator.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: What was that initial job like?

JS: It was not that different from what I’m doing now. It was the usual, sort of crazy, putting together the best film program you can and competing for things with other venues and doing as much outreach as you can to get audiences to show up. I learned everything. I learned how to write compelling film blurbs and work with the press and put on press screenings and write small grants, kind of everything that’s involved in exhibition. It was very challenging, because the theater was in downtown St. Paul, which does not have a lively kind of nightlife. Minneapolis is more the place for that. It was always kind of a struggling venue, but that’s kind of how you learned how to get people to pay attention to what you were doing.

There was a young woman who lived in Minneapolis then, Jenni Olson (Essential SF 2015), who is here now. Jenni and I actually worked together for a number of years doing—she started it herself, but I came in, I think after the first year, and we actually did the Minneapolis-St. Paul Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the venue. That was an annual event that was the most popular thing that we would do. The revenue from that would pay for all the stuff that not as many people came to. Two people put on a film festival together.

Q: Was it the job at the Cinematheque that brought you out here?

JS: Film in the Cities went bankrupt and my job ended there. I moved over to the University Film Society, which is a two-venue exhibition program, connected to the University of Minnesota…After about a year of that, I was ready to leave. I heard about the job at the Cinematheque, which was associate director, working with Steve Anker, who was the artistic director, and Irina Leimbacher was the other staff member then. I kind of had the perfect resume for the job, because I had studied so much experimental film and I had several years of exhibition experience.

I worked there for three years. I wasn’t really a programmer then, although Steve Anker always encouraged me to do programming. I did some, but that wasn’t really my main responsibility. I had to run the office and write the grants and do the bookkeeping, and stuff like that…I learned a lot. I got a lot of skills I didn’t have before. Then Yerba Buena decided they were going to hire a fulltime film curator and actually have a film department, which they didn’t have before. They would do occasional screenings, but it wasn’t a fully developed program at all…I’ve been here since. It’s been almost 19 years. I can’t believe I’ve been here that long, but I have.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: What keeps the job fresh for you after all that time?

JS: Cinema keeps me excited. That’s it. It’s still hard. There are a lot of the same problems I had when I was starting doing this. It’s always hard to try to get people to care about something as much as you do. That’s kind of always the challenge. Cinema and the experience of participating in cinema is what keeps me going. People talk a lot now about how this is the golden age of television, and I like all that stuff, too, but there’s still no experience like seeing something properly in a theater and having a quiet time and space to really be with something and experience that. Ultimately, that still keeps me going. I still love it as much as I did when I was a little kid.

Q: Over the last 19 years, what are some of the programs that stand out for you?

JS: One of the things that I started doing here that we’ve now done for five years is the showcase of New Filipino Cinema. About seven years or so ago, I started traveling to the Philippines, because I kind of discovered this really vibrant independent film scene there. The films were not being shown hardly at all outside the country. A couple of things would make it, here and there, at film festivals, but this was really like an unknown cinema…It’s changing, things are getting out there more, maybe a little bit due to what we’ve done here. I am proud of that. It’s the biggest showcase for Filipino cinema outside of the Philippines.

The film Zidane about the soccer player, the Douglas Gordon/Philippe Parreno film, we debuted that in San Francisco and it became the most popular film we’ve ever shown here. We showed it for a weekend and it sold out every screening. We brought it back for a one week engagement, and sold out every screening. Then we brought it back for two weeks and sold out every screening. It was 47 sold-out screenings or something.

We’ve had a lot of great visiting artists and artists-in-residence here over the years. We had Charles Burnett; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai filmmaker; Miranda July; Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. We had a great South African filmmaker, Ian Kerkhof. Those were all really special projects.

The very first program I did here—it was kind of a different time then—it was easier to be a little bit more scandalous than it is now. The first program I did here was called ‘Say You Love Satan.’ It was a month of a whole bunch of different films about the devil and Satanism. Some classic stuff, but also some aggressive, confrontational, transgressive cinema stuff. That was great. We started out with kind of a good thing that got a lot of attention and a lot of weird people here.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker Peter Bratt, film organization Center for Asian American Media, festival photographer Pamela Gentile, documentary filmmaker Carrie Lozano, entertainment attorney George Rush, and film programmer Joel Shepard—were honored at the annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.