Underground Cinema

The success of a tiny subterranean theater in Buckhannon has inspired another in Charleston.


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Photographed by Carla Witt Ford

When potter Kate Harward moved to Belington 40 years ago from Washington, D.C., she missed being able to see hard-hitting independent, documentary, and international films. She began traveling to events such as the Toronto International Film Festival in order to indulge her habit. Then the Lascaux Micro-Theater opened in Buckhannon—30 minutes from her home—and Harward had another way to take in the types of movies she loves. “I just like pieces of work that challenge you and enlarge your world,” she says.

So does Bryson VanNostrand. The Buckhannon architect left his hometown for schooling. Upon returning, he missed being able to catch a non-Hollywood film in the setting he had enjoyed in larger cities. In 2002, VanNostrand decided to do something about it: He built a micro-theater that seats 40 moviegoers in the basement of his office building and began showing films that would never grace the marquee of your local cineplex. “We’ve been open every Friday since, and Friday and Saturday now,” he says.

Typically, Lascaux Micro-Theater—the name comes from a town in France with a cave that holds some of the oldest known artworks—shows one film a month, at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. In September, the selection was Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which examines the existential impact of the internet and robotics. But sometimes VanNostrand strays from the format. In October he showed Manhattan Short, a collection of brief films, and in November the theater featured a truncated version of the Charleston-based West Virginia International Film Festival (WVIFF), the festival’s third appearance at Lascaux since last fall.

VanNostrand and the WVIFF have teamed up for another project: namely, a micro-theater designed by the architect that will open in the basement of Taylor Books in Charleston. Underground Cinema, as it will be called, “is a 100-percent stolen idea,” says Emmett Pepper, president of the WVIFF board of directors. “Our perspective is that he’s been able to be successful there for 15 years. If he’s able to do it, we believe Charleston would be able to support the same sort of thing.” The theater, which Pepper hopes will open in late January, also will serve as a second festival venue to the LaBelle Theatre in South Charleston.

In Buckhannon, VanNostrand notes, anywhere from five to 40 film lovers might show up for a screening, but the audience usually averages around 20 people. “For us, the best months are January, February, and March,” he says. That also is a good time to take in films that might have been nominated for Oscars. Last year, Harward enjoyed Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency scandal that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary. “We were just so lucky to be able to see that,” she says. “I rarely miss a month.”

VanNostrand purposely tries to screen only pictures that have not hit DVD or streaming services. Sometimes he shows older classics, however, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 Andrei Rublev or the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Of course, patrons could wait until the newer films come out on a home format, but they will miss the communal aspect of the experience as well as seeing the cinematography on a big screen. “The best time for me is after a film, when patrons linger to discuss their opinions of the characters and storyline,” VanNostrand says. “It really is a community of art lovers who are curious about the world.”

To that end, theatergoers also can make an evening of it by grabbing a bite to eat, a drink, or some dessert at the ¾ Cafe, located in the same basement as the theater. For VanNostrand, that adds to the evening. “Going to the movies should be a night out on the town, with good food, drink, and friends. Seeing a movie at Lascaux is like having a drink at Cheers—everyone knows just about everyone else, and it is an intimate group experience.”

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