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BY AMELIA GROOM

Up a steel staircase at the back of King Furniture on Parramatta road, Mu Meson Archives salvages obscure films that the culture has relegated to the fringes. Countering the trend for ill-fated alternative venues in Sydney, Jaimie and Aspasia Leonarder (aka Jay Katz and Miss Death) have been running the space in the back room of their home since they moved there in 2000. Beyond the screening program they curate it’s also a space for performances, group discussions, a monthly knitting club, and plenty of tea and cake.

The 100 square metre space is brimming with film canisters, videos, strange props, records, fanzines and film equipment. We’re sitting on the lounges, and with Aspasia on Jamie’s left crocheting in white wool, I note they look uncannily like their portrait shot. ‘Nothing changes much,’ Jamie says.

The culture of home theatre entertainment, and the increased affordability and availability of DVDs, has made cinema a more private activity than it’s ever been. Mu Meson is designed to revive the social aspect of seeing films, and the Leonarders believe strongly in the importance of community and interaction.

‘The space is about more than film,’ says Jamie, ‘it’s about the exploration of philosophy and ideas ‘ on Tuesday nights in particular we have more of a lecture/discussion thing, and a lot of heated debate is generated ‘ it’s not just preaching to the converted. Because we don’t have a stage, our speakers are right in the audience’s midst and exchange of ideas is always encouraged.’

‘We exist because we believe in underground cinema,’ he says. ‘We grew up in a Sydney that had the Valhalla and lot of repertoire ‘ I remember going to 12-hour Andy Warhol festivals, for example, and you’d pack a supply ‘ I don’t want to live in a city that doesn’t have that. We really hope to see a more fertile sense of the independent.’

‘Film has become a product,’ says Aspasia, ‘it’s no longer about artistic expression. We want to go back and focus on stuff that’s been forgotten or rejected. We choose films we think have some sot of merit, that people can respond to ‘ we want to show how a film that doesn’t have a lot of money behind it can still have something to say.’

‘What means more than owning all this stuff, is sharing it,’ she says. ‘The most important thing is the social aspect. I may have seen a film twenty times but when we’re showing it to a new group of people it’s like I’m seeing it through them, and it’s completely new.’

Besides running the archives, they do a number of odd gigs including a weekly radio show (Naked City) for FBi 94.5, a club night called Sounds of Seduction, and a film program for the Penrith Regional Gallery. Once a month Aspasia also runs a group where all are welcome to come and learn knitting, crochet or other crafts. ‘We use all the different things we do,’ she says, ‘to connect with people – and we’ve met thousands people over the twenty years that we’ve been together.’

‘We believe in community,’ Jamie says. ‘Aspa serves hot soups with fresh bread at the screenings, everyone who comes is on first-name basis pretty quickly, and people meet people here, get to know each other and support each other. We introduce a lot of people ‘ we introduce screenwriters to directors, for example, and they go off and work together. We’ve also set up a few marriages in our time!’

‘People donate film equipment to us, and we throw it straight back to the community,’ he says. ‘If there’s a film student looking for a super 8 camera or a projector, it’s more than likely that we’ll have one to pass on to them.’

So why are we seeing so many closures of independent art and cinema venues in Sydney’ ‘A big reason is that there’s just a lack of support for them,’ says Aspasia, ‘the Herald only wrote a piece on Lanfranchies after is closed. Cate Blanchette jumped up and down for five minutes when the Chauvel was going to close, but when did she ever go’ The Chauvel had to rethink what they were doing because they’d have Fellini festivals and three people would show up.’

‘We sometimes have three people show up here, but you know, if we closed our doors tomorrow there would be outrage. Our rent is huge and and all these films around us need to pay for the space they’re taking up! People need to support these things while they’re running ‘ to look around them and see what’s going on now.’

Their August 6 screening, Documents of the Forgotten World, comprises two experimental documentaries: Ben Rivers’ Origin of the Species, about a 75-year-old Scottish hermit obsessed with Darwin, and Tjúba Tén (The Wet Season) by Brigid McCaffrey and Ben Russell, an ethnographic record of a Surinamese Maroon tribe at work.

Both Ben Rivers and Ben Russell (from the USA and UK) will be in the archives that night to present their films, coming directly after the Melbourne International Film Festival. ‘We get the occasional big name through here [eg Don Letts recently had a night there] because there’s nowhere affordable for them to go in Sydney. Due to of the limitation of venues these guys who are out for the Melbourne International Film Festival have been reduced to our space, and to Chalk Horse gallery in Surry Hills on another night.’

Other highlights in the juicy August program include a documentary on the amazing 1980s New Wave cult rock/pop/opera singer Klaus Nomi; an investigation into synchronicity in the 21st century; the 1970s horror flick Trog, which was Joan Crawford’s last feature film (‘she probably died of shame,’ says Aspasia); a documentary on the validity of ESP and the psychic abilities in all of us; and a look at the German 1960s experimental rock band Can, who left an indelible impression on the music world.

They’ll never run out of films to show, the say with confidence, ‘we hear about new films we haven’t heard of constantly ‘ there will always be more to explore.’

Mu Meson Archives is at the corner of Parramatta Rd and Trafalgar St, Annandale. For the full program see www.mumeson.org.