Bryn Mawr Film Institute a local treasure

Ben Raymond

In 2000, Juliet Goodfriend sat on the Board of Trustees at Bryn Mawr College when she heard the Bryn Mawr Theater was soon to be converted into a health club.

Today, as president of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Goodfriend has seen and brought about monumental change.

BMFI has over 6,000 members, has been named in many a Philly Best list, won numerous awards, and is one of the most successful movie houses in the region.

Goodfriend says that BMFI owes its every success to the support of the surrounding community. “This place is built by the community, and it exists for the community,” she says.

Every year, BMFI holds film education courses for adults and youth alike, both at the theater and now in Center City Philadelphia. In the recent past, courses have been offered on Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese.

“Our film courses are a huge hit,” Goodfriend says. “They always sell out and are one of our most important offerings to the community.”

Goodfriend and BMFI educate over 500 adults and over 1,000 third graders each and every year in what she calls “visual literacy.”

“We want to show people, young and old, how to watch films,” she says. “We want to educate them in getting the most out of the experience of going to the movies.”

BMFI’s inner-city outreach program has become an integral part of this effort.

This past summer, the institute offered a filmmaking course for inner-city students – young people who would otherwise never have had such an opportunity.

The program allowed students the chance to write and direct their own short film.

“It was such a wonderful thing for the kids who participated,” she says. “They loved it.”

It is this kind of caring local outreach that makes BMFI the landmark and community pillar it is and has been since Goodfriend’s arrival.

“We want to be a resource for children of all ages, learners of all ages, moviegoers of all ages,” she says.

And to help in their venture, Gov. Ed Rendell recently bestowed BMFI with a $2.5 million match-grant for the restoration and general improvement of the institute.

For BMFI, this is the chance of a lifetime. Now, the institute’s collective efforts turn to raising the $2.5 million match necessary to receive the state grant, Goodfriend says.

“We want to use the grant to propel restoration, including our atrium skylight and add a third theater to the side of the building,” she says.

With this generous grant from Rendell, BMFI can move forward on the many improvements it so desires … and deserves.

BMFI is principally funded by community partners – local businesses, institutions and individuals who support the institute and its mission with donations and resources. Many local schools are among BMFI’s most generous supporters, including Cabrini College, Bryn Mawr College, The Haverford School and others.

Unfortunately, Villanova University is not a community partner. Although a partnership between BMFI and the University has been “vigorously pursued for many years,” no arrangement has been struck as of yet.

Goodfriend is optimistic that Villanova University will soon join its fellow and less-endowed institutions of higher learning and become a confident supporter of this invaluable local resource.

And for whatever my words are worth, I urge Villanova to consider pursuing a partnership with the institute, not only for its benefit, but for our university’s as well.

BMFI is more than just a movie theater. It’s a landmark, a gem, a gift to the local culture and – what Goodfriend says is its most important contribution – a place for education.

When asked what the most rewarding part of her job was, Goodfriend said, “When people stop me and thank me for my hard work, our hard work. I do this for the community, and when the community responds as they have, it is so rewarding.”

She even told mentioned that she was recognized recently while vacationing with her grandchildren at DisneyWorld.

“What I realized early and have always been dedicated to is the reality that watching film is much like making a film – it is a collaborative effort,” she says.

One of BMFI’s principle goals is to preserve the collaborative nature of moviegoing. Goodfriend firmly believes in the connectedness of people watching a film. There is interaction between screen and viewer, of course, but she rightly stresses the unspoken viewer-to-viewer connection forged experiencing a film in its rawest, most impacting form.

Initially, Goodfriend hoped the institute would be chiefly supported by students. When asked if this was the case, she laughed and gave an emphatic “No.”

This is something we at Villanova should seek to remedy. Two miles down the road from campus is one of the Northeast’s finest film houses.

Goodfriend, her partners and local patrons put great efforts into making the institute what it is today.

We should do our part. And it is the simplest of parts – we need only enjoy what BMFI offers. Every week, BMFI shows a classic film and waives the price of admission for all students.

It has shown restored prints of classics like “Casablanca,” “La Strada” and “Viridiana.”

In the past two weeks, the institute screened Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and the sprawling epic “Lawrence of Arabia.”

On Sept. 18, BMFI will screen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Subjectively speaking, it’s one of the best films ever made. Objectively speaking, it’s one of the best big-screen experiences in cinema.

The institute also has “Open Screen Mondays,” which allow independent and student filmmakers a chance to showcase their work on the big screen at a real movie theater with a real audience.

When our interview was over, Goodfriend kindly invited me into the theater where she personally introduced the film “Elegy” to the audience. Well-spoken, assured and vivacious, she captured the audience’s full attention.

As she came back up the aisle, she turned to me and told me to stay and watch the movie as her guest.

“Elegy” was an anguished and compassionate picture with stellar turns by Penelope Cruz and Sir Ben Kingsley (who is on the BMFI Board of Trustees).

Goodfriend was kind enough to take the time to speak with me, which she did joyously and with candor, and then, as if she had not already been good enough, insisted I enjoy a film on the house.

Such blind generosity is as rare as it is moving. It was a gesture I will not soon forget.

I ask each and every reader to visit Goodfriend and BMFI soon and often. Enjoy film. Enjoy art.

Appreciate what it offers our community.