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Screening Pittsburgh's underground film history

Children and teens look at a camera while walking down the street.
Courtesy of Pittsburgh Sound + Image
A still from Billy Jackson's documentary "Didn't We Ramble On."

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

The zombie films of George Romero — especially “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) — will always be near the top of any list of Pittsburgh’s contributions to world cinema.

And make no mistake, Steve Haines loves George Romero. He just knows there’s more to the story when it comes to local independent film over the decades.

“Really what I want to do is expand the idea of who the important filmmakers are in Pittsburgh’s history,” he said.

That’s the goal of Essential Pittsburgh, a monthly screening series that debuts this week courtesy of Pittsburgh Sound + Image, the nonprofit Haines co-founded with Steve Felix. The first edition of what Haines hopes will become an annual series will showcase the work of local independent filmmakers from the 1960s through the ’90s.

The works are all shorts, which is notable because, even in this streaming age, films shorter than feature length struggle to find a platform, let alone an audience.

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Moreover, the films are all really films — shot and screened not on video but on cellulose triacetate, in small formats like 16 mm, hand-threaded through old-school projectors.

The series begins Fri., May 26, with an appearance by Billy Jackson, an esteemed filmmaker known for exploring Black life and culture. Highlights include “Didn’t We Ramble On,” a late-’80s documentary on Black marching bands narrated by jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, and “We Are Universal,” a film about the Black arts movement completed in the late ’70s and featuring appearances by such luminaries as Quincy Jones, Nikki Giovanni, and Hugh Masekela. (While neither film was shot here, Jackson grew up in Pittsburgh and has lived here since moving back nearly four decades ago.)

The program only touches on Jackson’s long career, which has included work with award-winning production company Blackside, Inc. and celebrated independent filmmaker William Greaves as well as his own company NOMMO Productions. Jackson also founded Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Community Media, which did everything from neighborhood film screenings to training youths in video production.

He said he was eager for the rare opportunity to show “Didn’t We Ramble On” and “We Are Universal” on film.

“It’s a treat because so seldom do people care about film,” he said.

The series’ opening comes within weeks of the launch of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s new monthly screening series — curated, as it happens, by Tony Buba, an internationally known, Pittsburgh-based filmmaker in his own right.

But that's a coincidence. Essential Pittsburgh is an outgrowth of Haines’ ongoing project to compile oral histories of local filmmakers. Haines, a Canonsburg native, edged into Pittsburgh’s film scene in the mid-’00s, attending screenings at Pittsburgh Filmmakers venues the Regent Square Theater, Downtown’s Harris Theater, and Oakland’s Melwood Screening Room. He later volunteered at Filmmakers too.

Pittsburgh Filmmakers is gone now, and of those three venues, only the Harris (now run by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust) remains. But Pittsburgh Sound + Image is leaving its own mark on local film culture as a pop-up microcinema run out of Eberle Studios, in Homestead. It seats just 50, but programs like May 19’s “100 Years of 16mm Film,” with Filmo (a cinema-themed variant on Bingo) have been selling out, Haines said.

He said the filmmakers he has interviewed said they are happy to put their work back on screen. “It will be like, ‘Nobody’s noticed these in decades!’” he said.

Essential Cinema continues June 30 with a program featuring experimental filmmaker and self-styled “sprocket scientist” tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE. On July 28, Sheila Chamovitz presents her films “Murray Avenue: A Community in Transition,” a 1983 portrait of Squirrel Hill, and “Skokie: Rights or Wrong,” about an infamous 1970s court battle over a Nazi march in a Chicago suburb. Other featured artists include experimental filmmakers Henry Roll (Aug. 25) and Natalka Voslakov (Sept. 29), and the team of Evan Knauer and the late Alycia Crawley Knauer (Oct. 27).

Essential Cinema is a labor of love for Haines, a Pitt graduate student who also works at the university, and Felix. But for the immediate future, they plan to hold Essential Cinema and one other screening each month at 229 E. 9th Ave.

More information about the May 26 event is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: