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Bo Smith leaves the MFA for Denver Film Society

Posted by Ty Burr  September 19, 2008 04:22 PM

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Maybe that headline above means nothing to you, but it should: Over the course of 21 years as the MFA's Katharine Stone White Head of Film and Video, Bo Smith has altered the cinema landscape in Boston while ensuring that in a film-exhibition universe stacked against alternative fare the best movies from around the world and in our own backyard have had a place to unspool.

Now he's leaving Boston at the end of October to become the Executive Director of the Denver Film Society, which involves programming the Starz Filmcenter and overseeing the Starz Denver Film Festival. Well, good for him and bonne chance -- two decades is a long time in one institutional gig. It's worth noting, though, how dramatically Bo has shaped quality moviegoing in this city. When he took over the museum's Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Film Program in 1987, the off-Hollywood exhibition circuit was on the ropes, battered by a home-video boom that had killed off the rep houses of the 60s and 70s. It was becoming harder and harder for foreign language and independent films -- not the Sundance genre but real indies -- to find a screen and an audience.

Bo not only provided the screen but reached out to filmmakers, audiences, and diverse communities within the larger community. Under his aegis, the MFA started programming mini-festivals: The Boston Jewish Film Festival, the Boston French Film Festival, the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival, the Boston Festival of Films from Iran. The MFA has also partnered with others to make possible the Boston African Film Festival, the Boston Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the Boston Turkish Film Festival, the Roxbury Film Festival and the Boston Palestine Film Festival.

Whole lotta festivals? Yes, and that's the point -- Bo likes to celebrate movies by serving them up in cuisines you just can't sample anywhere else. Same for local filmmakers; the Museum has offered a venue and support for dozens of feature filmmakers and documentarians in the greater New England area. Then there's the Friends of Film program, which sneak-peeks the more adventurous studio movies for Museum members. All this has made the MFA not just a welcome part of the Boston movie scene but a critical component.

So it's a rich legacy Bo's leaving behind, and I hope whoever fills his shoes has big and agile feet. Between his departure and that of Joe Zina from the Coolidge, it seems the Boston cinema world is entering a new era, one which sees one citywide film festival winding down and another gathering strength. Let's hope the Brattle and the Harvard Film Archive hold steady for a while.

On a personal note, I'd like to note that Bo's one of the more dapper human beings I've had the pleasure to encounter here and that he's also, like your correspondent, fool enough to bicycle everywhere in Boston. I'll miss seeing him wheel up Bloor St during the Toronto Film Festival while all the pasty-faced cineastes look at him like he's crazy. Bo, you know the oxygen's thin in the Mile High city? Better start practicing your sprints.

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6 comments so far...
  1. Bo was encouraging when I first approached him about the Roxbury Film Festival. His willingness to have us screen some of our films there gave the festival a legitimacy it would have otherwise taken longer to earn. It also meant a lot of filmmakers and special guests to have films shown in such an august venue. We were able to have a couple of opening night receptions there as well.
    He is a treasure. He cannot be replaced but hopefully whoever comes in will build on his legacy and not try to dismantle it just for the sake of changing.

    Posted by Candelaria Silva September 23, 08 09:02 PM
  1. Bo Smith is a hero. This is a huge loss for Boston, why can't the MFA keep him ?or is this the same provincial "Boston Syndrome", missing the obvious and the best when it is right in your backyard!
    We, filmmakers will miss Bo and we owe him a great debt. We wish him all the best in the world. Jocelyn Ajami/Filmmaker

    Posted by Jocelyn Ajami September 24, 08 04:32 PM
  1. Bo Smith introduced 2 college interns to the fantastic world of global cinema. The MFA will miss you.

    Bo, have a Le Grand Voyage!
    -Amanda and Nick, former summer interns 2005

    Posted by Amanda and Nick September 30, 08 06:55 PM
  1. Bo is one of the best film programmers anywhere. He has made an indelible mark in Boston and in the film world, able to balance programming from around the world with work created in our own backyard. We wish him well and look forward to seeing what happens with the Denver Film Society. I had the good fortune to work with him on many programs in my years at the Boston Film/Video Foundation and more recently when a film I worked on was invited to screen there. He will have left Boston a richer place for his work here.

    Posted by Anne Marie Stein October 2, 08 10:37 AM
  1. I’m really sorry to hear that Bo is leaving us! I can hardly find the words to describe how crucial his support of independent filmmakers has been to all of us—spark, stimulus, community builder, scaffold, beacon of hope….his belief in us and his program at the MFA have been invaluable.

    Posted by Abby Freedman October 3, 08 01:16 PM
  1. Bo is a hero to me too, and I have been immensely pleased at his outstanding stewardship of the MFA film program. But it is wholly incorrect of Ty Burr to state that on his arrival the MFA's film program was "on the ropes". In the immediate years before his arrival, with the active support of Katharine Stone White, the MFA made the key significant decision to allow the film program to pursue endowment funding, setting out a long-term future. Friends of Film was also established as a support group. Guests were frequently in Boston, including Sam Fuller, Milos Forman, Yvonne Rainer, and many others; scholars like Joe Anderson, Stephen Heath, Susan Sontag, and others also appeared. The new Remis Auditorium also replaced an old Lecture Hall. The MFA film program was a robust, successful, popular program which Bo then greatly expanded over the next years, to his great credit.

    Posted by Deac Rossell, former MFA Film Coordinator November 4, 08 04:17 AM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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