(Photo: Alex Sherman)

The snug but well-appointed microcinema features a full bar and food pop-ups complementing what’s onscreen.

Hamtramck, the 2-square-mile city bordering the General Motors plant near the center of Detroit, is known to many as a historic Polish enclave, an epicenter of “Paczki Day” and — during festivals — a parking headache. But those who don’t dig deeper are missing out: not just on simpler parking, but on countless other jewels, too.

Among the newest is the Film Lab, which opened October 2019 in a former Polish Legion of American Veterans hall on Holbrook Avenue. It’s a joint project of Josh Gardner, a Jewish Washington, D.C., transplant with a hand in film programming since age 19, and Lara Sfire, a filmmaker and native Detroiter who returned to the area after years on New York sets.

The snug but well-appointed microcinema features a full bar and food pop-ups complementing what’s onscreen. Lacking proper street signage, it’s easy to miss despite its ornate, red brick façade (the building dates back to 1925). But with a special focus on world cinema, the programming centers on work unlikely to play elsewhere around Detroit.
Gardner sees signs that the pair are successfully growing an audience.

The Film Lab in Hamtramck
The Film Lab has temporarily shut its doors due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but still offers virtual screenings. (Photo: Alex Sherman)
The Film Lab in Hamtramck
(Photo: Alex Sherman)

“The number of people who come where it’s their first time seems to be a lot. It’s still new, so that gives me hope that we haven’t tapped out with the audience yet,” he said. “I think we’ve reached the core, art-cinema kids [who] know this place exists. But I think there are still a lot of people who would be interested, who haven’t heard about it yet for whatever reason.”

The Film Lab’s selections, including Georgian coming-of-age LGBT drama And Then We Danced and Chinese neo-noir thriller The Wild Goose Lake, reflect Gardner and Sfire’s broad aspirations to build a community around offbeat, sometimes bawdy global filmmaking.

A Film Community with Jewish Roots

Gardner, who’s 33, grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and cut his teeth working at the Washington Jewish Film Festival (WJFF). That was also where he first experienced the thrill of programming movies with a particular culture and audience in mind.

“I know it meant a lot for my parents whenever there was a Jewish actor … or a Jewish scene in a movie,” he said. “That really resonated with them.”

They enjoyed Israeli cinema, too. Yet the festival he came to coordinate was often the only nearby spot they could find Israeli works.

“We weren’t renting it — VOD didn’t exist then. And it wasn’t at Blockbuster, so there was like one week a year you would see these things,” he said. “And that became a really big event.”

After coordinating the WJFF, Gardner served as an associate programmer and, eventually, PR and marketing manager at the American Film Institute’s AFI Silver Theatre, a restored Art Deco space in Silver Spring, Maryland, that he compares to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theatre. Over six years there, he programmed Latin American, Caribbean and New African-focused festivals — working, as at the Film Lab, to expose viewers to works and cultural experiences they might not discover on their own.

“Doing these deep dives into cinemas from other places around the world really got me interested in engaging local communities,” he said. “It was a fulfilling experience for us (as programmers) and for them (as viewers) to be able to see themselves represented on screen.”

The Film Lab in Hamtramck
Film Lab co-founder Josh Gardner, who previously programmed the Washington Jewish Film Festival, says he’s interested in “engaging local communities” through movies. (Photo: Alex Sherman)

When Gardner’s wife, Maya Barak, was offered an academic position at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 2016, they relocated to Metro Detroit. Not long after, he founded the nonprofit Cinema Lamont, which organized festivals and world cinema pop-up events around the area. The entity’s stated mission: “To foster cross-cultural understanding through the power of world cinema.”

Spaces like Hamtramck’s Oloman Cafe, Eastern Market’s Trinosophes café and the restored Schvitz bathhouse in Detroit’s North End all played host to thoughtfully curated screenings, as did more traditional theaters like the Senate Theater and Cinema Detroit. The Schvitz, for instance, played the 2007 mob film Eastern Promises, notorious for a lengthy bathhouse fight scene; Southwest Detroit’s Pizzaplex showed low-budget spaghetti Westerns.

A Filmstrip Partnership

In 2017, Cinema Lamont won a grant from the Knight Foundation for Cine Mexico Now, a film festival first hosted at Cinema Detroit. At the awards ceremony, Gardner was introduced to Sfire, who’d won an award the previous year as part of the feminist filmmaking collective Final Girls; she was looking to start a theater as well.

Today, Gardner and Sfire describe their partnership in similar terms. Over coffee, on a bright, chilly afternoon at Oloman Cafe pre-pandemic, Sfire said they make a good yin and yang. She values his holistic approach to programming and ability to curate a balanced slate of works spanning languages, cultures and authorial perspectives, representing without tokenizing.

“He’ll do an entire grouping of Korean cinema to show the balance of what that means, so there isn’t just one movie representing an entire country,” she said. The same principle goes, she said, for LGBT-centered works and films by women.

“Josh is not a bro,” she said, laughing, when asked about the role of gender in their partnership. “He may be more of a feminist than me.”

Sfire’s grandfather, who emigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon, started working at Eastern Market at age 11 before learning English. He then started a string of grocery stores, eventually coming to own seven across Detroit and Birmingham. Lara still works in Detroit real estate development with her family and brings what she and Gardner both describe as a more business-minded approach.

The Film Lab in Hamtramck
“The Film Lab’s audience is never what you think it’s going to be,” says Lara Sfire, The Film Lab co-founder. (Photo: Alex Sherman)

Though the Film Lab is the first business Sfire’s started herself, having a hand in development and growing up around entrepreneurs helped her grasp that bumps are expected in any business.

“I never know what the hell is going to happen,” she said of what lands with audiences. Specifically, she recalls a screening of Bong Joon Ho’s cult-favorite class satire Snowpiercer, which she and Gardner programmed when they couldn’t book the director’s newest, Parasite, near the height of its Oscar campaign. Expecting a small, early-30s male turnout, she was shocked to find their space packed with middle-aged women.

“It’s never what you think it’s going to be, and so it always ends up being really fun,” she mused. “I love being wrong.”

A Bridge in Hamtramck

Despite the Film Lab’s mission of cultural exchange, reaching across audiences — even in its own small, dense neighborhood — can sometimes be a challenge. Though Hamtramck’s often thought by outsiders to be a Polish community first, Polish-descended Americans now represent only a fraction of its population, having migrated over several decades to suburbs like Madison Heights.

Meanwhile, Hamtramck’s become majority-Muslim, rich in Yemeni and Bangladeshi shops and restaurants. Its residents speak more than 40 languages, according to a 2019 Hamtramck Review article. Countless communities co-exist alongside an extensive network of bars and arts spaces; it’s the rare Michigan neighborhood in which residents can walk to work or school.

According to Gardner, the neighborhood stood out for its sense of community and how well its makeup suits it to the Film Lab’s mission.

“We’re focusing on world cinema, and there’s such rich cultures here from all over the world,” he said.

Bridging Hamtramck’s arts scene and immigrant communities has always been a priority for the founders. With their focus on world cinema, Sfire expresses a shared desire to “show films that appeal to everybody,” though not in the Marvel manner. Drawing people in, she said, is “how we’ll get to know the community, and then they’ll probably tell us what they’re interested in.”

In time and once re-opened, the founders plan to expand their space into a two-screen theater with a full food and beverage program. Sfire hopes in time that Film Lab’s expanded space will serve filmmakers and become a hub for productions and classes.
“It’s nice to feel wanted,” she said of opening a business in Metro Detroit, “and also that you might actually be able to do something that makes a difference.”

But diversifying their audience has remained a challenge. The Film Lab offers drinks, but many of its Muslim neighbors abstain from alcohol.

The Film Lab in Hamtramck
Housed in a former Polish Legion of American Veterans hall, the exterior offers little indication of the world cinema inside. (Photo: Alex Sherman)

One solution may be partnerships. At Cinema Lamont, Gardner collaborated with Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum and Detroit’s Mexican consulate. He expresses similar hope for extending the Film Lab’s reach.

“It’s something we’re still working on, and perhaps people aren’t necessarily used to the opportunity to see films like that or used to coming to places like this,” he said. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. We certainly haven’t reached our goals.”

Gardner describes engaging the broader community — not just in Hamtramck or Detroit, but across counties — as a welcome challenge and a chance to give others the same feeling of recognizing their identity through film that he saw in his parents early on.

“(There’s) the importance of seeing yourself represented on-screen and how that can mean something to you when you saw, like, someone saying a Hebrew prayer and you recognized yourself in it. And it seemed kind of weird and special,” he said. “And that’s kind of imparted on me that other people might feel the same way.”

A project like the Film Lab takes a leap of faith to try. But both Gardner and Sfire express a faith, too, that world cinema can touch people — and that taking the time to showcase what Gardner calls “divergent experiences” is valuable and worth the risk.

“People had told me that there wasn’t such an audience for foreign-language cinema, perhaps outside of the DIA,” he said. As the Film Lab’s audience grows, Gardner reasons, so, too, will their trust in its programming.

“If they see something,” he said, “they’ll take a chance on it.”

Virtual Cinema: Supporting Theaters from Home

During the COVID-19 outbreak, all movie theaters have closed their doors. So the Film Lab has pivoted to a “virtual cinema.” A slate of current arthouse releases are available for rental as video-on-demand (VOD) programming options via the theater’s website, thefilmlab.org.

The option is available thanks to the theater’s partnerships with indie distribution companies like Kino Lorber and Film Movement, who are offering the films as VOD rentals in order to support independent cinemas across the country during mass theater shutdowns.

Several other local theaters, including the Detroit Film Theatre, Cinema Detroit, the Emagine multiplex chain and the Michigan and State Theatres in Ann Arbor, are also offering virtual cinema options.

“It’s been really fun to be able to offer a wider variety of programming than we normally do because we’re no longer hindered by physical constraints,” Gardner said, noting that a virtual cinema could have potential even after the Film Lab reopens.

“Obviously, the in-person theatrical experience is the primary way to do things, but perhaps with some of these smaller films and smaller distributors, they’d be open to an online virtual cinema to continue (their) run for additional weeks, or even potentially films that we didn’t have the time to run.”

Prices and rental periods vary, but most films are $10-$12. Check your favorite theater’s website for more details.

The Film Lab

3105 Holbrook Ave., Hamtramck


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