After a two-year pandemic break and change of location, Digital Gym Cinema reopens this weekend with the independent, internationally produced film "Memoria." The film sets the perfect tone for what this microcinema brings to San Diego.
A little history
When Ethan Van Thillo, executive director of Media Arts Center San Diego, decided to open a tiny cinema within its El Cajon Boulevard facility back in 2013, I was thrilled. Van Thillo, a true champion of cinema in San Diego, wanted it to be a community space where people could watch foreign and independent films from 10 a.m to 10 p.m. every day of the week. It was a haven for cinephiles who wanted to find more than just mainstream movies.
The intimate 49-seat venue also provided a home for Film Geeks SD, a group of volunteer programmers — of which I am one — who wanted to do late-night horror films, low-brow schlock cinema, year-long film series, and events bringing food, film, and guests together. Van Thillo was kind enough to let us program whatever crazy event we wanted without ever passing judgment on the content. His passion for film was all about offering choice and allowing films that were not being shown anywhere else to have a venue.
But the microcinema had to leave its El Cajon Boulevard location and then the pandemic hit and forced it to go virtual for two years. Now it is fully opened at its new location inside UC San Diego at Park and Market where it has gained about a dozen seats but is still intimate and dedicated to offering diverse and exciting cinema.
New state of the art facility
"It's really exciting to finally be able to reopen the Digital Gym Cinema," exhibitions manager and programmer Moises Esparza said. "Officially, we did a soft launch back in January to coincide with our participation in the Sundance satellite screens, and since then, we've made some additional renovations [most notably improved seating] to our cinema. And I'm happy that it's finally showtime."
Although the cinema will not initially be screening films from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., its mission remains the same.
"We're first and foremost looking for independent films and world cinema," Esparza said. "I want to know what auteurs are releasing, what new voices are saying or adding to the cinematic lexicon. I'm all about just looking for cinema that I think will not only speak to cinephiles but also to the San Diego community at large. I don't pretend to be the authority of taste on what's good cinema or bad cinema, but I do think that programmers, at least here locally, have to push to expand the public's definition of what cinema means."
And that's what I love about Esparza's programming, you can always expect to find something fresh, exciting, and innovative, which leads to the film that will be the cinema's first offering — Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Memoria."
'Memoria' opens at new venue
"Memoria" begins with a sound that wakes a woman named Jessica and then consumes her. At one point she tries to get a sound designer to recreate the sound and she describes it as "like a rumble from the core of the earth."
Jessica, played to quiet, intense perfection by Tilda Swinton, sets off on a journey to discover what the sound means, why it obsesses her, and if other people hear it too. Is it a sound of something coming? Or is it a rumbling from the distant past? She's driven to find an answer and we become consumed by her passion as well as Weerasethakul casts a hypnotic spell on us.
The film revels in long static shots and silences broken by carefully orchestrated sound design. In our fast-paced world, it may test the patience of some filmgoers because it asks us to slow down and think. It is a film that asks you to surrender to its contemplative curiosity and if you do you will be rewarded. But don't expect to be spoon-fed any message or to even find a conventional narrative plot, this is a film that asks you to find its meaning.
For Esparza, it is a film that perfectly sums up the kind of audacious filmmaking that Digital Gym Cinema wants to provide.
"I think it really speaks to what we're trying to accomplish here at the cinema," Esparza said. "It's by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is widely recognized for being an avant garde but deeply philosophical and deeply thoughtful auteur. It's set in Columbia, it's in Spanish and English, and there are moments of beautiful silence. It's this perfect Venn diagram of the film that I'm always looking forward to introducing to San Diego audiences."
The fact that "Memoria" opens the same weekend as Marvel’s "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" highlights in bold detail the contrast that Digital Gym Cinema offers. It’s not that one type of film is better than another but rather that filmgoers deserve to enjoy diversity and choice.
"There is no box office battle between the Digital Gym Cinema and the Marvel Cinematic Universe," Esparza said with a laugh. "We are totally operating on a different field. But I think 'Memoria' in itself is maybe opening up the possibilities of other multiverses that exist within more independent film. I think it's definitely boundary-pushing, definitely a film that's contemplative, and that is really a gift to people who love deciphering cinema, who love thinking about it afterwards. And what I look forward to the most is people coming out of 'Memoria' and talking about it amongst themselves in the lobby. That's what excites me. I want people to have these discussions to try to decipher what the film was about."
So push your boundaries and your definition of film by stepping into the new Digital Gym Cinema at Park and Market and experiencing "Memoria."