Losing It at the Movies
AFS Programming Director Chale Nafus on a life in film
Chale Nafus introduced me to my wife. When he allowed me to program a series for the Austin Film Society in 2004, he couldn't suspect it was my attempt at meeting – in the parlance of the black-and-white classics we screened – a better class of broad. Convening in the AFS trailer at Austin Studios for a third collaboration four years later, he introduced me to the team's new communications manager, Agnes Varnum.
Nafus built two careers out of chaperoning love affairs. For 25 years, 1973-98, the Dallas native taught at Austin Community College, almost all of it in film. When he retires from AFS at the end of this month after more than 12 years of programming, he will have hosted about 1,000 movies locally. Matches made in the dark.
Chinese martial arts films, recent Hindi cinema, Islamic humanism, contemporary Portuguese cinema, post-colonial Sub-Saharan African cinema: His layovers of Essential Cinema, Doc Nights, and Avant Cinema travel the globe. Passport bait without the jet lag: Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam; Britain, Germany, Italy, France; Wales, Ireland; Russia, Poland; Finland, Iceland; Argentina; Mexico, Mexico, Mexico. And the auteurs – Bergman, De Palma, Haneke, Kurosawa, Lubitsch, Varda, Wilder.
Yet Nafus doesn't squint back daylight from a lifetime spent solely in the deep shadows of flickering images. Though not slotted in June AFS series "The Films of Frank Capra," the title It's a Wonderful Life surely applies to the 72-year-old East Austin dweller. Full of traveling, teaching, breakdancing ....
"Chale is so warm and unassuming," writes Elizabeth Avellán, producer of Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Spy Kids, Grindhouse, and many more. "Then, I find out he's hanging with graffiti taggers?! I love that he embraces us artists, past, present, and future, with love, support, scholarly teaching, and being a beacon for our Austin film community – all while being a rogue on the side supporting artistic taggers!"
"Where I grew up in Dallas, my junior high was half Chicano and half Anglo," nods Nafus on his living room couch. "It was Spence Junior High, which was the most violent junior high in Dallas. The friendships were so intense at Spence with young Latinos, 'I got your back,' and all of that. There were gangs there, and most of them were my friends, so I never had any problems with gangs."
After a dalliance with SMU, he worked on the fringe of the Cedar Springs neighborhood Little Mexico. ("Freshman year social work," he admits.) Eventually, he landed a job at semiconductor manufacturer Texas Instruments.
"Those were wonderful years," he says. "Going to the Hi Ho Ballroom and dancing to Little Joe and the Latinaires before he was Little Joe y la Familia, and Sunny and the Sunliners, Sunny Ozuna. Isidro Lopez. That was a wonderful time."
At Arlington State College, he completed his English degree, and in 1966, landed at UT-Austin to append a master's degree and minor in film. As far as he could tell, the latter local scene consisted of on-campus screenings and a 16mm filmmaking course taught by Rodney William Whitaker (aka Trevanian), who penned future Clint Eastwood thriller The Eiger Sanction while at UT. Hang time: the Cabaret on Guadalupe integrated black, Latino, white, and gay.
"The best place was the San Antonio Country, which was out in Bexar County," he explains. "They were paying off the sheriff, so it was the sole place in Texas where men could dance with men, and women with women. There should have been a movie about that place. I wish I'd the foresight to do it.
"The owners were a gay couple, man and woman but gay, and their children ran the place. They were the ones selling tickets to get in. There was a long hallway before you got into the dance area. This was not a huge place. Maybe 100 people could dance.
"So gay soldiers would come there because of all the military bases in the area, and when the MPs would raid – never the sheriff – the children at the front door would push a button, and the lights over the dance floor would start flashing. Suddenly you had very delicate, little wispy Latino drag queens dancing with heavy, heavy lesbians. That's when everything that was going on there was illegal, but it was just about being yourself.
"I don't want to idealize it, but there was something very exciting about being a sexual outlaw."
After graduation, he moved briefly to Mexico City, taught future drug cartel kingpins in Brownsville, made his way to San Francisco, luxuriated in Puerto Rico, and eventually spent three transformative years in New York City before returning locally to teach at ACC. Within two years, the school added film history courses. He became Chair of Humanities in 1985, then stepped down in 1992 to head the Radio-TV-Film department.
"Rick Linklater was my student in '84," says Nafus. "He took film appreciation and film history. I taught him nothing. He arrived fully formed and wrote magnificent papers. The very next year, he started the Austin Film Society. That was when I started thinking, 'There are people here that want to gather together, see films, and talk about them.'
"Probably they existed before, but I wasn't meeting any of them until Rick and the Film Society."
Retiring from ACC with full benefits, he took four years off to write a book on Rebel Without a Cause before taking the AFS pledge to pass on Linklater's communal film appreciation.
"We met Chale while learning how to produce and grow the Austin Polish Film Festival," emails Joanna Gutt-Lehr, Austin Polish Society vice president. "His personality and understanding of our passion for art and community work made us feel that what we do is worthwhile. He knew a lot about Polish film, history, literature – no need to explain what and why. APFF has enjoyed cooperation with the Austin Film Society and with the Austin Jewish Film Festival thanks to Chale."
"The other part of the whole equation, and most people don't see this," expands AFS programmer Lars Nilsen, "is the impact he has had on the lives and viewpoints of countless classes of AFS interns, who learned not only about film from Chale, but something about the conduct of life and the importance of a personal code of values which guides your life both at work and away from it."
"Chale would introduce the films and write these amazing notes on them, which would be handed out to the audience," chimes in former AFS intern Erin Mumy, now a theatrical production coordinator in Los Angeles. "He did this because he wanted the audience to understand more than you would when just seeing a film. That's why he always made himself available to the audience after screenings for questions, discussions, thoughts.
"That steered me towards film in a more serious leaning. Chale was an amazing mentor, and I stayed from intern to programming apprentice to senior programming apprentice. I've used things I've learned from him as I've moved through my career, working for South by Southwest and now in marketing."
Just off East Cesar Chavez, at the end of a quiet lane shaded by pecan trees and hot-pink crepe myrtle, stands an unassuming manor – since 1908. Purchased in 1980 for $29,000, the interior wood moldings around its windows and doorways are worth more than that alone. The attic conversion two decades later cost twice that amount.
Two hundred boxes with 6,000 books scooped up at estate sales and slated for sale on eBay line the lower walls of the peak playroom. Dotted above them, framed film posters: The Postman Always Rings Twice, two vintage Mexican provocations, and a delirious, Twenties-style illustrated mock-up for Richard Linklater's 1998 film, The Newton Boys. A Polish interpretation of Rebel Without a Cause breaks the same speed limit that killed its star.
That's the first order of retirement's retirement – cut down his 800-page manuscript on the film.
"I attribute [my love of film] to my sister and my father. My sister is 11 years older than I am, and when she was babysitting, I was probably 4. My parents worked, so she took care of me. She would take me to the Coronet Theatre and leave me there to watch movies. It may have happened just once, but my feeling is it happened a number of times.
"My father, who'd always been a film buff, took me to see all these British comedies that came out in the Fifties. My father loved British humor. He worked in the post office, so I have no idea how he got his love of British humor except in film. We shared those a lot.
"My mother loved to read, but she did like some films. Her hearing was declining, so the last thing I think she and I saw together was Giant. It had a big premiere in downtown Dallas. That would have been in '56."
Chale Nafus considers a list of verbs for his future: reading, writing, watching, listening, walking, eating. Even some AFS Essential Cinema.
"Austin Film Society enjoys a national status in many ways," he concludes. "By having the studio with sliding-scale rentals, it's overwhelming how much goes on there. What's hurting Texas is the Legislature diminishing the amount of money that can go into the incentives program.
"At AFS in the summertime, kids take a weeklong class in videomaking, script writing, analyzing films. The afterschool programs are phenomenal. Artist Services helps filmmakers who are already established get nonprofit status under us so that donations they receive are tax deductible. The Texas Film Awards and AFS Grant – giving away $100,000 every single year to 10 or 15 filmmakers."
Two bon mots noticeably absent from his list: resting and relaxing.
"I was bored one afternoon once – September of '67."
AFS throws a ¡Pachanga Para Chale! Friday, July 31, at the Sahara Lounge, 7pm. See www.austinfilm.org for more info.