Last month, pre-Sundance, I had a great conversation with Imani Davis, programmer at the American Cinematheque in LA. Based out of Chicago, and known for her programming work and connections at universities such as UChicago and Northwestern, she caught the attention of K.J. Relth-Miller, who is currently a programmer at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles. Her relationship with K.J. led to this dream programming position at the American Cinematheque.

During our interview, we talked about what brought her to this opportunity and how she hopes to bring fresh perspectives through programming that is more accessible to diverse audiences. She has started initiatives at the American Cinematheque like, “Here’s to Her!”, a retrospective with female filmmakers, that kicked off this month with Ana Lily Amirpour. She is also planning a “Women in Blaxploitation” series coming up this spring.

I wish I lived in LA so I could attend all of these events, but in the meantime, I love hearing about her passion for the work. Imani is also a great writer who is passionate about film criticism and screenwriting. She hopes to develop her writing work along with her innovative approach to programming.

Imani Davis

How did you get into programming?

I owe a lot to Chicago for getting me into programming. I did my undergrad in film studies at Ohio State, and then I did my masters at Northwestern. I always had a love of film history and theory. I really loved writing essays about film in my undergrad work. When I came to Chicago, I was inspired by all of the alternative venue spaces where people were screening their films, like at abandoned store fronts, spaces like that where you would not normally screen films. I also was seeing a lot of older films being screened that were being rediscovered, which also really inspired me. 

I got involved with Doc Films at University of Chicago, where they have a space for community members to pitch series. That was where I really got my hands dirty. People started seeing that I had a lot to offer with these programs. I also got involved with a theatre company called Facility Theatre. The theater had just found the space and I suggested that this would be a great space to show movies. That space gave me the opportunity to play around and do many different kinds of programming. The films I was finding were not of the best quality, because it had to be in fair use, but everyone had a great time.

Can you talk about your work at UChicago with Doc Films? I love their programming.

The group is completely student-run. Like their exec board, it is comprised of students, along with the people who are sending the prints, and doing 35mm prints. It’s very impressive, and I was observing a lot of what was done there. They have kind of a quirky style of programming that includes filmmaker retrospectives with directors whose body of work has not been seen in a while. More students were trying to bring in filmmakers who are women and people of color. They also brought different angles to their programming that I had not seen before with their themes and time periods.

One theme that I pitched that I was especially proud of was looking at hotels in movies, and specifically the hotel as a main character, like in “The Shining”. Doc Films centered on concepts like that, and what it looks like when you spin off these themes and look for films that had not been seen in awhile. The work inspired me and made me want to get into programming. These styles of programming really shaped and influenced the style of programming I do now at the American Cinematheque. I try to make sure that within the themes I program, I cover a range of time periods, like it’s not too 2000s heavy or too 1980s heavy. I focus on making sure the concept of the theme is clear. So those were the things that I learned at Doc.

Imani Davis conducting a Q&A with filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour for American Cinematheque’s “Here’s to Her!” series

Talk to me about how you got this new position at the American Cinematheque. 

It’s actually such a funny story. I was going to screenings at Block Cinema at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern, and it’s a great place to be. Michael Metzger and Malia Haines-Stewart do a great job at programming there. They screen 8mm and digital film as well. I would just go there any chance I could get. And there was a Barbara Hammer retrospective at the Block Cinema with a guest programmer, K.J. Relth-Miller. She used to work at UCLA, and now works at the Academy Museum doing programming. I went to that event with Kat Sachs.

I love Kat.

Yeah, she’s awesome. I very much try to surround myself with brilliant film people. K.J. did her intro, and Kat encouraged me to go speak with her. So I went to talk to her, and we stayed in touch. I did a professional interview with her for our grad program, so when they were looking for people to program at the American Cinematheque, she put my name in the ring.

What do you hope people see in your work?

I like to approach things from an educational stand point, and I like to build film lover communities while spotlighting emerging filmmakers. I also try to make film programming more accessible. When people ask me about my work, I’m always happy to share. There is a place for high-level academic curation, but I try to make things accessible in the way I write about films or present them. I try to bring humor to programming, like we’re doing a series that is about to be announced, “Happy Valentine’s Day,” with female ensemble comedies.

I love that, what films will you be screening?

Films like “9 to 5”, “A League of Their Own”, and “Mean Girls”

Some of the best! I hope to make a trip to LA soon and attend some of these events. Thank you for speaking with me Imani!

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