Behind the Screen, Behind the Scenes

BAMPFA’s curator has a connoisseur’s curiosity.


BAMPFA's Kate MacKay began her love affair with filmmaking in college.

Photo by Stephen Texeira

Raised on DVDs and cable TV, the millennial generation is rife with film buffs immersed in mainstream Hollywood and genre movies. Kate MacKay isn’t one of them.

“I was interested in fine arts and painting,” MacKay said. “It was only when I got to university and I discovered [Marcel] Duchamp and [Man] Ray, and that they had made films, that suddenly the light bulb went off: ‘This isn’t just entertainment. It can be something else.’”

The Ontario, Canada, native became involved in the University of Toronto’s ambitious student-run film society, and so began her love affair with cinema. Initially, she was devoted to pure, abstract experimental cinema and uninterested in pretty much every other style of filmmaking. Over time, though, MacKay’s enthusiasms expanded to include narrative and nonfiction filmmaking.

“There are so many possibilities with the medium of the moving image,” said the newest addition to the BAMPFA programming team. “It can act like a novel. It can act like a painting. It can be like a piece of music, or combine all of those qualities. The more movies I saw, the more I liked.”

MacKay’s first assignment upon assuming the post of associate film curator last summer was putting together the revelatory retrospective of actress Anna Magnani built around prints made available by the venerable Cinecitta studio. MacKay was instrumental in bringing Canadian documentary maker Alanis Obomsawin to Berkeley in November and assembled the live-wire film component of the Hippie Modernism exhibition that opened in February.

MacKay was attracted to BAMPFA because of its history, reputation, and dedication to the kinds of cinema—experimental and silent, as well as international narrative filmmaking—that she’s particularly interested in. “It’s one of the institutions that had the broadest mandate in terms  of programming and the most consistent year-round programming,” MacKay noted. “It was an amazing opportunity to come and take part—and be in the cinema every night.”

A distinguishing characteristic of a good curator, you see, is a passion to discover new artists and fresh approaches. The payoff is turning on other people to your discoveries.

“The beauty of the job is sharing your enthusiasm with an audience and hoping they will share it, too,” MacKay said. “The audience at BAMPFA is really, really knowledgeable. Many of them have been seeing great films here for decades, so they’ll have a depth of knowledge of certain films that I may not have. It’s really exciting to share in that audience and also bring things that they may not have seen or heard of.”

BAMPFA’s other primary constituency is UC Berkeley students who may not be as knowledgeable about Yasujiro Ozu or Jordan Belson. But there’s no doubt that they are steeped in images.

“Our visual culture is so much denser now than ever before in history,” MacKay said. “So audiences in general have a quicker understanding of how moving images work. Things that seemed a little radical at the time, or challenging, are now more easily understood. Institutions like BAMPFA are important because [they offer] a way of analyzing how we looked at things over the years, from the earliest documentary cinema to different ways of using narrative from Hitchcock to Pasolini to Agnes Varda.”

Those icons notwithstanding, MacKay declines to reveal the filmmakers she aspires to showcase down the road. “You don’t have space for my wish list,” she said wryly. But that’s not really her main concern. A curator never wants to rank, or unintentionally exclude, artists. “The moment I mention a name,” she said, “other names fall away.”


Published online March 8, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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