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As downtown Tucson changes rapidly, a few things remain the same. Take for instance, The Screening Room, at 127 E. Congress St. For almost 25 years the small theater has been a host to local films, film festivals and concerts.

Meet the man behind the curtain.

Giulio Scalinger got a taste for film exhibition while attending the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, in the turbulent mid-1960s. The self-described “community rabble-rouser” for independent film, along with a few friends, created a film society at the school.

“This was a time when art cinema kind of grew out of universities, mainly English departments. They loved to do the comparison between the novel and film,” Scalinger says. “This was the time when filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were around. Our film society would show these films, which you wouldn’t see in any theaters. We were a rebel film society.”

Scalinger moved to London to attend film school. “It was the normal migration for a lot of South African liberals who didn’t fit in,” Scalinger says. After London, he moved to Ohio for a brief stint at another film school, and later ended up in Salt Lake City. But a film professor he had met in Ohio was teaching at the University of Arizona. When the professor invited Scalinger to run film workshops at the UA, Scalinger jumped at the chance.

“When I came down to Tucson, I fell in love with the area … the weather is exactly the same as South Africa,” Scalinger says. “I had started a media arts center in Ohio. Arizona didn’t have anything like that. So the plan was to bring me down here and to start a media arts center within the university. That fell through, but through all the research we had done that showed there was a need for something like that here, the Arizona Media Arts Center was set up as a nonprofit in 1985.”

Scalinger has been the director of AZMAC since then. Before The Screening Room opened in 1989, Scalinger presented unique film programming wherever he could, including the YWCA and the old Gallagher Theater on the UA campus. Then everything changed at the dawn of the 1990s.

“1990 was the birth of the Arts District, which I think was the renaissance of downtown. In 1989 there was a city agency who controlled this space and the places next door,” Scalinger says. “This space became available, and it was offered to us. We moved in here in September 1989 and we opened the doors in November. It was a space to give local filmmakers a place to show films.”

1990 also saw the birth of the Arizona International Film Festival, a celebration of films from around the world that runs every April. After a rocky start due to building code violations, the festival reconvened in 1993. A few years later, the festival went statewide.

“In 1995, the centennial of film, we took the festival all over the state, including Sedona. They liked it so much it gave birth to the Sedona Film Festival, a very successful festival,” Scalinger says. “We get a lot of questions like, ‘Why aren’t you the Tucson Film Festival?’ When we started, we said (our role was to represent) the state. We planted a lot of seeds in a lot of places. That’s what the Arizona Media Arts mission is all about.”

Other festivals, including Out in the Desert and the All Souls International film festivals, were first presented at The Screening Room. “If we offer the facility to an organization, then they bring their constituents. That’s what kept us going in the second phase,” Scalinger says.

Scalinger believes The Screening Room’s “third phase” is looming, tied to the much-anticipated arrival of the modern streetcar. Along with the streetcar, Scalinger hopes the new living spaces downtown will shape it into a brand-new community.

“I see us doing more and more to make us different. It depends on what the downtown community is going to be,” Scalinger says. “We always said collaboration is our middle name.

“People ask me to explain The Screening Room and I say it isn’t an art house, it’s a media community space, because that’s what it is.”

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