Q&A with a Founder of Back Alley Film Series

Jay Morong just wants to mess with your mind

The Charlotte Film Society (CFS) has been bringing great independent and foreign films (that originally bypassed Charlotte) to town since 1982. In recent years, they’ve been offering an expert speaker – a movie critic or a professor – to provide historic context for the film and lead a discussion. Film buffs can’t get enough, and the theater (Theatre Charlotte) where the films are screened one Saturday a month is generally packed.

The films CFS shows have always been high-quality, independent films that didn’t get a wide release. But, they seem like blockbusters compared to the line-up Jay Morong & company are now bringing to town with the Back Alley Film Series (BAFS), an offshoot of CFS.

With this new monthly series, the team aims to, according to their press release, “mess with your mind.” It seems they’ll meet that goal with films like Trollhunter, Hobo with a Shotgun and Norwegian Ninja. The group has partnered with Crownpoint Cinemas to show one of these mind-blowing films each month. Check their website for dates and showtimes.

Morong is a university professor by day and a grindhouse and horror film fanatic on nights and weekends. We caught up with him – and not in a back alley – to learn more about Ninjas and trolls and chainsaw-wielding hillbillies.

Charlotte magazine: What does the Back Alley Film Series offer Charlotte film goers that we can’t find elsewhere?
Jay Morong:
Simple, it offers people films that are not being shown in Charlotte, theatrically. It offers the experience of sitting in a movie theater and watching these cool, interesting genre films on a big screen with an audience. People [can] share in the weird or the absurd together as a collective instead of in the privacy of their basements.

Right now, moviegoers in Charlotte get to, if they wish, share in the experience of watching Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows or Midnight in Paris in a theater with audiences as a collective, to share in the excitement or laughter or whatever they get from that experience but they don’t get to see A Serbian Film or 13 Assassins or films with a lot more edge and potential danger.

I think all we are offering, really, is more movies in a theatrical environment for people who are looking for something different or unique. I can sit all day and watch movies in my house, but I prefer the theater environment, and I think sometimes you just have to see a film with an audience. You need to share in the experience to feel the film. So, we are simply offering films to people they cannot see right now and may not seek out on their own. 

CM: The Charlotte Film Society audience (of which I am a member) skews a little older. This series seems to skew toward teens, loners and misfits. Who’s your demographic, exactly?
Ideally, the audience for Back Alley is anyone who is interested in exploring unique and innovative world filmmaking. Sadly, genres like horror, action, and sci-fi seem to get pushed aside when it comes to film societies or film groups. These groups tend to engage in the “high art/low art” debate and usually come down on the side of “high art.” Personally, I am trying to shatter that whole debate once and for all. These genre films that we are showing in the Back Alley Film Series live in the same artistic world as the films in the film societies … Sadly, many people are not willing to look at horror, “Mumblecore,” or action films and give them any real love. They just see the violence, nudity, sexuality, or whatever and say they are pointless or mindless. As someone who teaches and practices in the arts, I say “Bull!” These films are art and give “meaning to matter” that are equally as valid as the so called “high-art” films. So anyone who is interested in exploring and engaging is who we want. But, yes – also young people.

CM: How on earth do you find the films you’re screening? I mean, Norwegian Ninja makes "Manor movies" look like mainstream Hollywood.
I can’t give away all my secrets, but it isn’t really that hard to find these films. You just have to be looking for them. Film festivals are a great place to start, TIFF Midnight Madness in Toronto, Fantastic Fest in Austin, and even Actionfest in Asheville are doing a great job at exposing North American audiences to a whole collection of unique world cinema, and all you have to do is either go to those festivals or pay attention to their lineups. So, if you pay attention to just those three festivals, it is pretty easy to get a huge list of films that make you say to yourself, “I have got to see that.”

CM: When you’re not screening Ninja films, you’re a professor at UNCC. How does one job influence the other?
Well, my full-time job is teaching theater and film, so I am in the wheelhouse of the arts. So it is incredibly influential. I can explore culture through artistic works and then use that info in classes and discussions with students. It is also helpful because it exposes students to art from foreign countries, while still being entertaining and fun for them. So, there is influence on the level of studying the arts.

CM: What are the top five movies that most people probably haven’t heard of, that you consider essential viewing?
That is an extremely tough question. I live so much in the moment of what I am currently watching and screening for Charlotte Film Society that it’s hard to do a 180 and think of films that are essential viewing or unknown.

I think I can answer this question this way: If I were making a top ten list for 2009 and 2010, the films that would deserve serious consideration for that list are 13 Assassins, Valhalla Rising, I Saw The Devil, Red, White & Blue and The House of The Devil. And, they were never, to my knowledge, shown theatrically in Charlotte.  

This is the ultimate point as far as I am concerned. Sure, I could go back over time and list tons of films that people should see that they have never heard of, but hell, we cannot even see these films that are have been out there recently! That is what Back Alley (and the larger Charlotte Film Society mission) hopes to change. If we see a movie at a festival and we think it is a film that people in Charlotte need to see, we are going to try and get that film here. Not all of them will be Top 10 worthy or even intellectually relevant – some will be downright stupid or weird – but they will be theatrically shown, and people will know they experienced something unique (and maybe even fun) at the theater.