It reads: Screenings October 21 and 22.

En Español

For years I’ve walked by ATA at 992 Valencia Street, admiring the window displays and being slightly intimidated by the gaggle of 20- and 30-year-olds who stand outside, sharing cigarettes and multilingual conversations.

A few years ago, I assigned a 20-something student to delve into the place, figuring he could best get the zeitgeist of ATA (which stands for Artists’ Television Access). But he went off on a different tangent.

And so, recently, I decided that if I was so curious, I should investigate.

The film enthusiasts who hang around outside before, between and after films.

First, some history: ATA has been in the Mission since 1986, but founders Marshall Webber and John Martin, two video artists bankrolled by their parents, opened their first location in the early 80s in a South of Market warehouse on Eighth Street. Webber writes in his online history that one of the project’s instigators was Rene Yañez, then at the Galería de la Raza. He told them, “You guys have to go for it…you have gotta get off your little YUPSTER butts and do the work.”

They did. They formed a nonprofit, opened their equipment to the community and partied — a lot. In the midst of one particularly loud Halloween celebration, ATA burst into flames. Really. No one seems to know how (the online history suggests it could have been Webber’s highly prized set of polyester suits), but the place went up in smoke.

Webber and Martin again got off their butts, moving this time to the Valencia storefront that seats from 40 to 75 and more if need be. Nowadays the place runs entirely on volunteer energy, revenue from door sales (sliding scale up to $10) and a few grants. Recently the rent went up to around $5,000 a month from $1,500 a month a few years ago, according to Kelly Pendergrast, the volunteer enlisted to talk to me.

Pendergrast was there when I attended my first showing: nine or so shorts on the subject of Human Nature. It happened to be the opening night of the ATA’s fifth annual short film festival. The next part of the festival, Lo-Fi Future, is tonight. Go. ATA doesn’t disappoint.

First, there’s the crowd. On Thursday this included a filmmaker in plaid pants slurping a plastic container filled with soup; a few tall women with Hawaiian leis around their necks (the filmmaker in plaid had his wrapped around a wrist); a volunteer who urged everyone to stay after the films to whack at a piñata, and a woman with a Sontag-like streak of gray running through her hair who says she knows me from somewhere. (She does look familiar.) The place is packed (“We don’t really turn people away,” says Pendergrast.) And it feels good to be in a room full of film enthusiasts who aren’t at all intimidating up close.

The nine films chosen by committee — again all volunteers, in what Pendergrast calls a ridiculous democratic process — do experiment. “If you saw these on YouTube you would stop,” says Jose Lorento, a filmmaker from Uruguay who sits down next to me. We agree, however, that it’s a pleasure not to be able to click off.

Lorento, who says he’s into surreal, likes the first film: “Union,” by Paul Clipson. For me, the 16 mm film of a woman running through a forest goes on a bit long, but it’s OK. There are still eight other films to watch, each with its champions. I liked a lot of them. Maybe my favorite was “Chicago Corner,” a chronicle in photographs and film by Bill Brown. “I was working in downtown Chicago,” Brown relates. “So every day for a year, I’d ride my bike past that corner near the Henry Horner projects…. You’d think they would have built a train stop at a place that used to house thousands of people, but they didn’t.”

There was also the very funny pastiche of missing animal fliers by Patricia McInroy, who said that she’s returned three dogs to people since making the video. But none of them, she reveals, had posters up. The reason for her chosen subject? “Using pet posters is a way to sneak up on people with the subject of death and loss.”

This is another thing about ATA and its volunteers: The program notes on its website include really good (and blessedly short) interviews like the two I just quoted from. In fact, they’re about the best program notes I’ve read in a long time.

This is the first episode of an occasional series on the ATA.

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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