SANTA FE, N.M. — Jason Silverman didn’t have the geeky childhood one normally associates with a future film programmer. The director of Santa Fe’s CCA Cinematheque didn’t sit at home alone watching “Citizen Kane” for the umpteenth time or deconstruct the runaway baby carriage scene in the early Russian film “Battleship Potemkin.” Instead, he was out in his Connecticut neighborhood playing sports with other kids.
After majoring in English at the University of Michigan, Silverman came west to Telluride, Colorado, to work at the ski resort there and enjoy the slopes in his spare time. His film career began in 1997 as a volunteer for the Telluride Film Festival, which took over a Quonset hut for its screenings. He and other volunteers put up “miles of Duvatyne,” a black fabric with a matte finish that is used to block light, to transform a former community center into a cinema.
“It was so thrilling to see world premieres in a theater that we had built with the community,” recalled Silverman during an interview one recent morning at the CCA.
During the next hour or so, “community” was a word that was constantly on Silverman’s lips.
Asked if he’s concerned about the trend among millennials and others to stream films, TV shows and mini-series at home rather than being part of an audience in a theater, he shrugs. “Audience apocalypse: Everyone’s been talking about it for years. I don’t see it here,” he said. “Last night, we had 90 people on a cold, windy night for an event sponsored by the Santa Fe chapter of the National Organization for Women.”
That event was a screening of the documentary “City Dreamers,” followed by a panel discussion on architecture, historic preservation and landscape architecture.
Suddenly, Silverman seemed distracted. “Look over there,” he said, pointing to a group of young people lined up in front of the concession stand. “See those kids? They’re here for ‘Fantastic Fungi.’ ”
Clearly, Silverman, 51, knows how to pick movies that resonate with Santa Fe filmgoers of all ages and backgrounds.
In recognition of his talent, commitment to community and 15 years of service at the nonprofit Contemporary Center for the Arts, Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber declared Nov. 7 “Jason Silverman Day.”
The honor came as a surprise to Silverman, whose self-effacing presence belies tremendous drive and a passion for community-building, an endeavor that inevitably involves asking people to open their wallets.
For a purveyor of mass media, Silverman can be incredibly downbeat about commercial filmmaking, and the subtle, pervasive influence of movies and TV programs produced by huge corporations driven by profit. “Storytelling in the modern era has the potential to be exploitative and destructive,” he said. “Modern storytelling is eroding communal bonds.”
To hear Silverman tell it, grassroots communal efforts, celebrated by Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America” back in 1835, are on life support thanks to Hollywood’s lionization of individualism.
Are film festivals the answer to our alienation? For Silverman, they provide a platform to build community, and to explore the stories of people ignored by mainstream film and TV. He got the chance to put this belief system into action first as a programmer and then as artistic director at Taos Talking Pictures, from 1996 to 2003.
As befitting someone whose survival is dependent on fundraising and winning grants, Silverman has a formidable CV. From it, one can learn that in his seven years in Taos his focus was on “inclusive, connective programs with intensive outreach to an extraordinarily diverse community.”
During this time, Taos Talking Pictures won grants from such government and foundation heavyweights as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation.
Silverman may not be enthralled with the domination of Hollywood by a few corporations, but he sees the value of movie stars. During his time in Taos, the film festival there hosted appearances by counterculture heroes Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, not to mention such female headliners as Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and even Elizabeth Taylor.
When Silverman joined CCA 15 years ago, the arts group had one movie theater and 17,000 customers a year. Today it has close to 70,000 ticket-buyers annually who watch films on three different screens. Under Silverman’s direction, CCA has developed an extensive outreach program, serving between 2,000 and 3,000 students during the school year.
Since July 2018, Silverman has been responsible for programming The Screen, located on the campus of the former Santa Fe University of Art & Design. The City of Santa Fe recently asked for proposals to develop the mostly vacant Midtown Campus and Silverman acknowledges CCA Cinematheque’s role at The Screen will fade out.
But he takes the big picture. “We’re happy to be there during a transitional moment. This is a city-altering project that is being developed with a sense of intention,” Silverman said.
He envisions a day when the Midtown Campus will supersede the Plaza as the center of civic life in Santa Fe, drawing people from all parts of the city, including the sometimes ignored Southside. “It’s about whatever’s best for the city,” said the curator-community builder.