The Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab

If you ever find your self in Westchester County, the suburbs to the north of New York City, I recommend you plan a visit to the Jacob Burns Film Center and Media Arts Lab in Pleasantville, NY. Here you can take in a foreign film, an animated short or two, or visit with international filmmakers and learn a thing or two about cinema from around the world.

Though I have lived in Westchester County for 14 years, it wasn’t until recently that I finally made the (15 minute) trip to Jacob Burns to take in a film. Being an Oscar watcher, and making the ever so intelligent decision to throw a large Oscar party this year, I decided that I had better see some of the nominated films before the event, and of course what better (and cheaper) way to do it that at a local cinema?  I have to admit I wasn’t expecting much of the venue when my friend called and asked me to accompany her to the Film Center. We were heading over to see one of this year’s nominated films The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, a great film, with incredible acting, luscious scenery and a beautiful story, but I digress. It was a cold February evening, there was snow and ice on the sidewalk and as I walked up to the front of what appeared on the exterior to be a small white building I expected that inside would contain an old, drafty, dated theatre with limited staff, moth-eaten seats and a grey –haired crowd whose hearing aid-buzz would rival the tinny sound emanating from ancient speakers. I was only correct on the old part, upon further research I learned the original theatre was built in 1925, however I was wrong bout everything else.


Though the interior of the theatre has a classic look with red plush velvet seats, a red velvet curtain screen with stage and plush carpeting, the feel, smell and technological advancements were decidedly new. In fact even the seating had been updated to a more stadium-like feel with high backed reclining seats, wooden drinks holders and the seats were arranged so that you could see clearly over the person in front of you. The theatre was warm and cozy, with thick soundproofing on the walls designed to reflect the sound from numerous speakers around the room, yet keep the audience noise to a minimum. In all I was impressed by the recent updates of the interior theatre, however it was the modern amenities of the rest of the building, which are the crowning achievements of the film center.

Purchased in 1998 by a group of individuals who wished to develop a cultural arts center within Westchester County, The old Rome Theatre in Pleasantville, which had closed its doors in 1987 was re-constructed and, along with the purchase of the adjoining lot was eventually developed into the current 47,500 sq. foot, three-building campus. Three years and $5 million went into constructing the Jacob Burns Film Center which opened its doors in 2001 and since then the Film Center alone has see over a million people pass through its doors. In 2008, after a two-year campaign and an additional $20 million the 27,000 sq. foot Media Arts Lab was completed, the state-of-the-art facility contains a 60-seat screening room, animation studio, 16 editing suites, a soundstage and several studios. It is there, at the Lab, where the Film Center stands alone in its achievements from education to International Fellowships, the Lab celebrates education and cultural diversity through cinema. Summer courses at the Lab for students cover the basics of understanding storytelling, writing for the screen, acting on camera, video editing and directing. During the school year the Film Center works directly with local school districts to provide educational programs, which include field-trips, mini-courses and intensive workshops. These programs are also available to Community Youth Organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and local Social Service Agencies including homeless shelters and foster care facilities and are open to both children and Adults.

International Filmmakers-in-Residence are another addition to the Lab which add to the rich-culture the Film Center. These artist from around the world are offered fellowships through a grant provided by Kathryn W. Davis to come share their experience and knowledge of their craft with students, faculty and community. Past fellow’s include: Bahman Farmanara a founding figure of Iranian New Wave Cinema of the 1970’s; Namik Kabil a scriptwriter, director and Bosnian refugee whose Kriterion Conema theatre in Sarajevo fosters “cross-cultural dialogue and understanding” amongst people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds; and Fanta Regina Nacro from Burkina Faso in West Africa and whose films depict Africa’s traditions and realities concerning sexuality, gender and modernity.

Of course we cannot forget about the most important asset to the Film center, the films themselves. Each month Jacob Burns celebrates another genre, style or country of filmmaking from Classic Italian Cinema, to the films of Akira Kurosawa. Ongoing series include Jonathan Demme’s rarely seen films such as The Flowers of St. Francis or Alain Resnais’ Muriel, and a continuing exploration of animated films which include viewings of Oscar nominated Animated Shorts and long form animated films both kid-friendly and adult oriented. Other unique films series include an exploration of Jazz films with live performances by local musicians, New Music Documentaries, The Westchester Jewish Film Festival and of course the New Releases series, which include films you won’t likely see at your local multiplex. The Film Center also hosts numerous special events which include first run independent documentaries, satellite broadcasts of live theatre performances from around the world, and performances by musical guests alongside the showing of silent era film classics such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which has been digitally restored and is to be accompanied live by the Alloy Orchestra.

So if you’re ever in Westchester County, New York and you feel like signing on for  acting class, listening to an industry professional describe filmmaking in their home-country, want to see a live performance from across the globe or want to take in the latest independent film I recommend you head on over to Pleasantville where you can enjoy a hot cup of gourmet coffee, comfortable seats, knowledgeable staff and take in some cinematic culture for yourself. And at the tenth of the price or a Broadway show, why haven’t you visited yet?

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