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An Interview with Michael Robinson

Houston Cinema Arts Festival’s associate creative director is excited about this year’s lineup.

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Michael Robinson (photo by Ceci Norman)

Tell me about your journey to becoming the associate creative director for the Houston Cinema Arts Society. 
I went to school for film and anthropology, and afterward was figuring out what to do for work. I had never been in Houston for a summer, so I always missed QFest, [despite] being queer and loving film. A professor introduced me to QFest’s creative director, Kristian Salinas, who I began to volunteer with. He later asked me to come along as a shorts programmer. After about a year of working with him, I got recommended for the Houston Cinema Arts Society (HCAS), where I was hired in marketing. I continued working for QFest and got further into the film-festival sphere. I was entrusted by HCAS to do some of their curation, and after a few years I earned the title of associate creative director. I now do all of our marketing and external communications, and I still get to pick some of their films along the way. 

What impact does the Society’s annual Houston Cinema Arts Festival have on the city?
The envisionment of the society was initially about Houston needing a large, premier film festival and figuring out how to amp up film in Houston. We look at that in two different ways. One is through exhibition. Theaters are closing, and we want to make sure that films are still coming to Houston and that we still have spaces [to showcase films]. Most of our venues this year are pop-ups, [where we] go into neighborhoods and build temporary cinemas for the community. The second way is by making sure that we’re supporting filmmakers. This festival has more Houston filmmakers than any other festival. We want to ensure that their films are seen, and to show the community that great films can play in Houston. 

This year’s 13th annual HCAF features over 40 films, short programs, DJ sets, live performances, and more. What is the process of putting an event like this together?
It’s a lot of work. This is my fourth year, so now I know the ropes a little more. Every year has been different, and during my tenure we got a new artistic director, Jessica Green, who has been phenomenal. [With] the pandemic, places have shuttered so we’ve had to shift, especially this year. Most of our screenings are outdoors or virtual. There’s a lot of flexibility you have to have. Rolling with the punches is the key to putting something like this on. 

What are some of the festival highlights you’re most looking forward to? 
So many things. I curated North by Current, so that’s at the top of my list. Madsen Minax is a brilliant filmmaker, and his film is incredible. I’m also looking forward to Third Coast (and Other Shores): A Shorts Program. We have the premiere of Jonathan Caouette’s new film and a lot of other amazing experimental artists in that short-film block, as well. I was able to select the films in the Borders | No Borders short-film competition, and they’re all incredible. I also want to point out our programs Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song at Rooftop Cinema Club and Liborio at MFAH.

What are some of your places to watch films in Houston?
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Rice Cinema; Aurora Picture Show; and the DeLuxe Theater. 

In your opinion, what makes a good film?
I’m always about the direction of a film. I’m always looking for what the film is trying to say—what’s its thesis, and how does it make you feel? After I leave [a film], I want to look at the world a little bit differently. I have a vivid memory of watching a film at a festival in 2016 and walking out of the theater feeling so calm, so I went for a little walk and made sure I remembered [the way everything looked] and smelled and felt for an hour. That’s what I’m looking for in a film. I want it to be impactful, but I also want the memory of the film to live in me. 

What are some of your favorite movies? 
Visconti’s The Leopard and Khalik Allah’s Black Mother are fantastic. Syndromes and a Century is such a calming film. Possession is really fun. Time, the new documentary by Garrot Bradley, made me sob so hard. Carol, of course. Personal Shopper—I love Kristen Stewart. Serial Mom, because no one else can do what John Watters does. I also really like I Heart Huckabees.

Are there any upcoming releases you’re excited about? 
I’m really excited for Drive My Car, it’s a Japanese foreign-language Oscar submission. I’m also looking forward to seeing Spencer (because Kristen Stewart), Power of the Dog (because I’ve never seen a bad Jane Champion movie), King Richard, Procession, Lingui, The Sacred Bonds, and The Matrix Resurrections.    

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?
I just want to say it’s really an honor to be working in Houston. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle to show films here, but the community is so wonderful and they make it a great city to do this work in. 

Keep up with Michael Robinson on Twitter and Instagram @mdrobinson_. 

This article appears in the November 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is the managing editor of OutSmart magazine.
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