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Conscious Cinema: DIY Screening Series Shows Documentaries You Won't See Elsewhere in Long Beach

By Sarah Bennett for Long Beach Post 

Everything seems to happen fortuitously for Leonard Baric, the Long Beach resident behind the long-running DIY film series Conscious Cinema. During election season 2004, just as he was beginning to ask questions about the growing war in Iraq, he happened to stumble across Cal State Long Beach professor Liz Philipose's weekly documentary screening that was aimed at dissuading people from voting for George Bush. As a liberal activist, Baric attended each one, absorbing knowledge on the social and political events of the time through a medium he had not previously considered.

“That's when I realized these documentaries are a great news source where you can find out information not shown in mainstream media outlets,” Baric says. “If it wasn't for a radical lesbian feminist at Long Beach State, this never would have happened. I'm just thankful she did that because I wouldn't have thought of it. It changed my life.”

Four years later, on President's Day 2008, an inspired Baric rolled the TV and DVD player from his house into Belmont Heights coffeeshop Viento y Agua for his own screening series, marking the first-ever Conscious Cinema screening. As the espresso machine whirred in the background and regular customers wandered in and out, those who attended were shownUnprecedented, a 47-minute independent documentary about the 2000 election with a focus on the Florida recount.

Less than a dozen people came, but that was enough for Baric to know he was on the right path with Conscious Cinema, an outlet to share films (about everything from politics to the environment to social issues) that have affected him.

“It was ridiculous enough to get me started,” says Baric. “I don't mean to sound mystical about this, but when I'm doing things the right way, doors just begin to open and I follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the next step.”

On the last weekend of every month for the last six years, then, Baric has chosen an independently produced documentary about a non-mainstream topic and found a small venue in which to show it to his growing list of followers. Movies like Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and Vanishing of the Bees, about colony collapse disorder, have been screened as well as more radical films like Unconstitutional: The War On Our Civil Liberties.

After each screening, there is a discussion about the film, which is more book-club roundtable than any academic pontification. It's a time for those in the audience to suss how the movie made them feel, dig deeper into the topics presented and share with others information they may have relating to the issues at hand.

“It's about being democratic,” says Baric. “I love to create an environment that isn't angry. I want it to be all kumbayah and don't want to make anyone feel like their opinions aren't welcome. I just want people to come together and become more informed citizens.”

Another fortuitous incident in 2012 helped mold Conscious Cinema once again. In a casual conversation with social acquaintance Diana Perkins, Baric learned that she had seen the movieHappy and wanted to share the documentary with others, but didn't know how to put on a public screening event. She asked him what he'd been up to lately and not knowing her interest in Happy, said, “Putting on screenings.”

A partnership was born.

“I had been wanting to share the movie with people, but all I could do was tell them about it,” Perkins says. “I was thinking about how I could set up a screening and then I connected with Leonard through a mutual friend. It was synchronicity.”

Happy was screened during the summer of 2012 at the Bungalow Building on Pine Ave. and the attendance of 63 people is still the largest of any Conscious Cinema screening yet. Today, Perkins continues to help with the website, online promotion and negotiation of screening fees, which can often be covered by the $5 donations they request at the door.

She even secured a semi-permanent venue by way of the Hellada Gallery in the East Village, the owners of which Perkins and Baric say share their love of informing the public and providing a place for people to express opinions.

On top of screening films, Conscious Cinema also recently launched the Conscious Action Network, a separate-but-related group that will host workshops to provide attendees with ways that they can help change or alter the issues brought up in recent screenings.

“I kind of felt guilty because I show someone something that's alarming and depressing and then I just send them home,” Baric says. “It's good information to have but there's nothing to do about it, so we wanted to start hosting workshops on what you can do to help.”

Already, Conscious Cinema has shown more than 75 movies that would otherwise not have any distribution in Long Beach—and Baric cites a woman who became vegetarian after the showing of a documentary about the American meat industry as just one example of the changes that can happen when people are more informed.

With so many issues facing the world today and so many independent filmmakers dedicating their lives to addressing them, Conscious Cinema will always have a place in progressive Long Beach.

“We'll never run out of movies to show because we'll never run out of problems,” Baric says. “I'd love to have a utopia but there will always be something that isn't perfect. Whether it's about spirituality, sexuality, environment, politics or food—if there is a documentary that can affect people and their consciousness, we'll be here to screen it.”