Affix the word "society" to any gathering of people with some collective purpose (say, the Society of Professional Engineers or the International Society of Arboriculture) and you tend to elicit a certain set of expectations: perhaps a dedicated membership that meets with some regularity and follows an official set of bylaws. But when it comes to the Berkeley Underground Film Society, or B.U.F.S., all notions of convention tend to go out the window. For one thing, the weekly film club — formed in 2010 by amateur film preservationist and projectionist Gerald Santana as a way to share rare or otherwise little-known films on Super 8, 8mm, and 16mm formats — sometimes draws only a single attendee (that being Santana himself). What's more, until recently, the club's screenings were held in Santana's own house, where the club's membership comprised his immediate family and the occasional neighbor.
But the isolated nature of the club changed, somewhat, when the group's weekly meetings were moved last September to a more publicly accessible space, a small office where Santana had formerly worked in the old Manasse-Block Tanning Company building in North Berkeley (708 Gilman Street). Since then, he's held up to thrice-weekly screenings of rare and obscure feature films and shorts that have slowly begun to draw a small group of followers, from artists in their twenties to older film buffs. The gatherings are free, all-ages, wheelchair accessible, and usually accompanied by a discussion and complimentary coffee. And Santana said the fact that people are beginning to show interest in his collection of old-fashioned films is a promising sign for a club that essentially began as a home-movie night.
The fledgling club might never have come to fruition had Santana not become unemployed in 2010. That's when he started scouring thrift stores for items to flip on eBay for some extra income, and how he stumbled across a curious old 8mm film reel. Santana, who's had an on-and-off love affair with film since studying the medium in a Regional Occupational Program after dropping out of high school, said the find instantly rekindled his interest. "It was really exciting because it just seemed so old," he said. So he bought an 8mm projector to play the film, and he said the experience of seeing the old footage unfold on a screen was something akin to being on drugs — perhaps due to the addiction that soon set in, leading him to seek out Super 8 and 16mm projectors and a multitude of old films that he now shares at his club's weekly screenings.
"It gave me something to do," Santana said, "and was also a way help the community in the sense that I could share little treasures that are not necessarily available to anybody." And so far, the club's humble beginnings haven't deterred his enthusiasm. As the B.U.F.S. enters 2012, Santana has scaled meetings down to once a week (to keep interest high), and it seems that the very idea of belonging to a club is what keeps him going. "I might have felt maybe a little bit bad the first time nobody showed up," he admitted. But, ultimately, "I showed up. I have the film. Everything's ready to go." The Berkeley Underground Film Society's next meeting, on Sunday, January 15, features an 8mm print of 1925's The Lost World. 7 p.m., free. BerkeleyUndergroundFilms.Blogspot.com