Lawren Desai is the executive director and curator of a/perture cinema in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In January 2020, a/perture cinema celebrated its 10th anniversary of serving the Winston-Salem community the art of film and providing a communal cinematic experience. As an art house cinema, a/perture’s mission is to entertain and engage the community through the art of film by showcasing informative, educational, thought-provoking, and inspiring films—the films that enrich our lives, engage our minds, promote diversity, and build community. Desai spoke with us about the inception of a/perture cinema, the organization’s adaption to COVID-19, as well as the organization’s plans going forward.
How did you initially become interested in the art of film?
My favorite subject in school was always history. For a high school project that was going to require me to speak for 20 minutes in front of the class about Golda Meir, I decided to buck the rules and make a very rudimentary “documentary” instead. I was introduced to the idea of film being a tool to share knowledge and information in a different way to reach audiences artistically and creatively. That’s when I think my interest in the art of film was born and it just grew from there. After graduating from college on the east coast, I moved across the country to Hollywood to see what the film industry was all about. I interned in studio production offices and worked whatever job I could get, including indie film productions. Though I didn’t pursue filmmaking as a career, I never lost my interest in film.
How did you come to your current role as the executive director and curator of a/perture Cinema? What type of films do you screen?
When I made my way back to live in my hometown of Winston-Salem, I really started to miss the access to indie and art house films that I had enjoyed in Los Angeles and New York City. I’n not one to wait for someone else to do something, so I wrote a business plan and decided to fill the void myself. I founded a/perture cinema in 2010, turning an old historic office space into a cinema. For over five years we operated as a for-profit enterprise but made the decision to transition into a nonprofit 501(c)(3) in 2016, at which point I went from owner to executive director. I’ve always been the curator of our film programming and still am—it’s the best part of my job. As the E.D. I also oversee our staff, fundraising, grant writing, operations, and more. We screen primarily first run independent features, documentaries, world cinema, other art house cinema fare, and on occasion, repertory film titles. Over the past few years, we have focused on showcasing films and giving more screen time to filmmakers from underrepresented or overlooked voices and backgrounds (women, BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQIA+).
How has a/perture responded to the continuing challenges of COVID-19? How do you continue to celebrate the arts and support the artists in your community?
The COVID pandemic really stopped us in our tracks. We had slowly been building up our capacity since becoming a nonprofit and had recently launched our educational programming arm in 2019. Those gains and the momentum we were experiencing just disappeared. We had to let go of 85% of our staff as we have been closed to the public since mid-March. It often feels like I am back in 2009, scrambling, being nimble, hustling, and taking chances on sometimes crazy ideas. We are just trying to make it to the other side. With that said, we recognize that we need to see the silver linings that have come our way during this time.
We’ve been running our virtual cinema since closing in March, and have programmed over 125 films, continuing to add new releases weekly. We’ve had pop-up drive-ins and outdoor screenings, curbside concession sales, and we just introduced our movie party box where you can have a semi-a/perture experience at home. These are all additions that we will keep in the mix even when we open back up to full capacity (a silver lining). One of these ideas was to use our exterior movie poster frames to give a space to local artists and to do something original and fun. We’ve done a series to celebrate the importance of art, to promote mask wearing, and to thank our essential workers. We just launched our newest—Thoughts on a Cinema—which features original works from wordsmiths, poets, film critics, and masters of the spoken word.
What are you most proud of from your work at the a/perture? What are you looking forward to?
I am most proud of our ability to collaborate with other organizations and use our films as a tool to share and promote their missions and the work they do in our community. Over the last decade, a/perture has partnered with hundreds of community organizations. Our intimate cinemas are places of community gathering where conversations are fostered, ideas are shared, and art is celebrated communally. I’m really looking forward to a time in the future when our former audiences feel safe to return to a/perture and new audiences that we’ve cultivated in the months of our closure join us, too.
How has being a member of Americans for the Arts helped your work or your organization? What do you enjoy about being involved as a member?
Americans for the Arts has been such a great organization for a/perture to join and become more involved over the last few years. I attended my first annual conference in 2019 and found it immensely beneficial to learn from arts leaders and experts. The Arts & Economic Prosperity Study is the best tool ever. I use it all the time. The work of Americans for the Arts has been essential during the pandemic; not only do they advocate on behalf of arts organizations, but also for the role that the arts play in our society and how we cannot live meaningful lives without the arts.