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The Reemergence of the Millennium Film Workshop

By Irene Lyla Lee

Photograph of the back of an audience, watching a screen hung on a black wall in front of them.

A screening of Millenium Film Workshop's COSTUME / CONSUME film series from fall 2022. Courtesy of Joe Wakeman

Millennium Film Workshop is a cinema and gallery space dedicated to showcasing avant-garde, experimental, and noncommercial films and moving images. Since its opening in 1966, Millenium has aimed to show and support all filmmakers, from beginners to professionals. This has been accomplished under the program’s five main tenets: the personal film focus, equipment access, workshop programs, the Millennium gallery space, and the Millennium Film Journal. After years of operating as a nomadic organization throughout New York City, in June 2022, Millennium Film Workshop opened a new space on Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, under the leadership of Joe Wakeman. 

The Workshop’s history traces back to 1966, when Ken Jacobs began teaching filmmaking classes at St. Mark’s Church. Students in these workshops were invited to present their films, beginning the tradition of Open Screenings, which continue to this day. These events are held once a month and include films that have been sent by filmmakers of all experience levels with the only requirement being that they are under 20 minutes long. Famously, Ken Jacobs said of the program, “If you have a film, we’ll show it.” Jacobs went on to name the project “Millennium,” signifying a time of great happiness or human perfection. To this day, the Open Screenings provide the foundational spirit to Millennium’s programming of accessibility, low cost, and the inclusion of everyone. 

In 1974, Millennium moved to a full cinema, editing room, and gallery space at 66 East 4th Street in Manhattan, where then–Executive Director Howard Guttenplan oversaw the expansion of Jacobs’s original programming, including the creation of the Millennium Film Journal in 1978. The workshop grew in popularity as such influential artists Carolee Schneemann, Stan Brakhage, and Andy Warhol, among many others, screened there. 

However, like many scrappy nonprofits, over the ensuing decades, due to financial precarity, nearly all of Millenium’s valuable assets were sold or given up. Its archive was sold to MoMA, its space on 4th Street was lost, and its community was spread thin. Programs were almost entirely paused. In 2017, the board brought in a new executive director, Joey Huertas, who adapted to the lack of permanent physical space by conducting a nomadic program of pop-up screenings known as “HIJACK Open Screenings.” Because of COVID-19, in 2020 events were moved online and gained a new international audience alongside an expanded local one. In 2022, Joe Wakeman took over as executive director. He lived next door to an empty former antique store and negotiated an affordable sublet rate with its owners. Within a matter of months, in June of the same year, Wakeman and a crew of 12 volunteer staff who were enlisted as the “Programming Committee” coordinated the opening of Millennium at its new home on Wilson Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

Millennium Film Workshop is now run by Wakeman, Program Director Anto Astudillo, and Administrative Assistant Zeina Abedrabo. Even though none of the staff is making a living through Millennium, there is no shortage of love for it. On the storefront at Wilson Avenue is an awning with the word “Millennium” in the organization’s futuristic block letters. One may recognize the mirror hood on the mannequin in the window from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). As a storefront, it’s an easy place to walk into. Passersby can enjoy the videos from outside. There is a flexible and handmade feel to the place—because it is both. 

To help ensure steady programming, in the months before the opening of the new Wilson Avenue space, Wakeman invited a group of artists with varying skills and experience to make up the core Programming Committee. They structured the space by painting the walls, setting up screens, building the front desk, and installing the equipment. The viewing area, typically set up for 40 people, can be separated from the small gallery with a curtain on runners. The entire space is not much more than 400 square feet, but it teems with activity throughout the week. When Millennium is open, the staff set out a single table on the sidewalk over which people congregate to “talk, not just about film, but about life,” describes Helena Deda, a writer and filmmaker who has shown work at Millennium. The Programming Committee holds events with a suggested donation in an effort to keep the screenings affordable. Since its reopening in 2022, many of these events are so well attended that the viewing room and gallery space are full to the brim. 

Wakeman’s Programming Committee continues to provide a key feature to the organization. To create a more structured nonprofit organization, one of the original volunteer participants, Astudillo—a filmmaker, organizer, and independent film curator—took on the position of program director in 2023. The rest of the Committee continues to meet most months, to plan programming, bring in their own films, or invite filmmakers who share their practice or interests. Among them are Erica Schreiner, who champions allegorical feminist VHS films, and Ari-Duong Nguyen, who is developing a book club and film series featuring films that were not originally meant for public consumption. In this way, Millennium is continually bringing in a diverse range of filmmakers and artists, along with the cultivation of a space for dialogue. 

Millennium Film Workshop is not the only organization that has fostered a community around personal avant-garde filmmaking ranging from experimental, personal documentary to diary film. However, it is one of the only spaces in New York City dedicated to it, so it holds a vital role in hosting programs. Many organizations without space coordinate events with Millennium, including Film Diary, which is run by program committee members Saint Piñero and Sage Ó Tuama, who have held the majority of their festival there since its opening in 2022. In 2023, the Trans Film Collective began holding film workshop events twice a month. These links to like-minded organizations build a strong sense of community, not only for Millennium but also for those who work with them. Together these partnerships provide unique opportunities for experimental filmmakers who may not have formal film education, or who create films that are too short for festivals (some are 10 or 20 seconds long) to showcase work. Because the organization’s barriers to entry are so low, it encourages “alternative ways of looking at media,” Abedrabo said. 

Despite an influx of new faces, Wakeman is determined to keep the original ethos Jacobs set decades ago. “If the only programming was Open Screenings, I would still be happy,” Wakeman said. Yet the staff is expanding its programming. In 2023, they fiscally sponsored MM Serra for a film project about her community garden. Serra is a filmmaker, the previous executive director of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative and a longtime member of the Millennium community. She has described some of her filmmaking practices as “licking the walls.” 

In alignment with Serra’s direction, many of the films Millennium shows are nearly visceral, as a result of hypersubjective and experimental forms of filmmaking. The camera operates to trouble traditional forms of video production and storytelling. The programs are also supporting younger artists like Jard Lerebours, who showed their short film Coconut (2022), a love letter to their grandmother in Jamaica. In addition, in 2023, Lerebours hosted a screening for their friend and fellow filmmaker, Xenia Matthews, in conjunction with Film Diary. Lerebours described the conversation after the screening as “more like a group therapy than a Q&A.” While technology has allowed for quick and easy video editing and publication, it is still a unique opportunity, especially for emerging filmmakers, to see their work in context with other artists’ films. Film Diary’s Ó Tuama described this feedback loop of postscreening conversations as an education: “Millennium and Open Screenings existing gives people that platform and motivation…which results in them experimenting and evolving more in their own practices.” For Millenium, film editing workshops are now on the horizon after receiving an early 2024 donation of a Steenbeck 16mm flatbed editing table.

Even with the legacy of Millennium Film Workshop, grants and financial support have been slow to accumulate. “I’ve been part of the beginning of different groups and I know that it takes years to develop,” Astudillo mentioned. They want Millennium to find a stable audience, and importantly, an audience that serves people who may not have access to mainstream outlets for media. They see the importance of finding stories to connect with from one’s own community, background, and experience. At the organization’s regular programming meeting, Astudillo reflected on how sharing memories in community allows us to remember events more clearly. Film is an opportunity for collective memory to manifest.

Millennium’s stability remains tenuous, but with any luck, the future for Millennium will not be too different from the present. In 2023, the organization completed a GoFundMe that raised enough to secure a long-term lease. Wakeman, for one, breathes Millennium, but he is determined to hold it lightly until it is “structurally sound enough that if someone else takes it over I can feel comfortable with that,” he said. The inherent ethos challenges the people who work there to accept all of the work that comes to them; breaking down this form of gatekeeping challenges them to reimagine what an art space can look like. Its impact is hopefully carried far beyond the staff. In this vision of its programs, Millennium is not only a single instance of human perfection, but an angle of light, emitting like mirrors from one artist to the next, emitting from all the people who engage with these films who carry the ethos of the space forth in their practice, so that, no matter what happens, Millennium will persist. In Ó Tuama’s words, “[Millennium] has risen from the ashes before.” 

Irene Lyla Lee is a writer, educator, and book artist who lives on unceded Lenape land (Lenapehoking, Brooklyn, NY). Her writing has appeared in Visitant, TOPIA Magazine, the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and more. She writes What’s that plant?! and organizes with the Brooklyn Women’s Writing Group.