TOMASZ WARCHOL first heard Aretha Franklin’s album "Amazing Grace" in the mid-70s.
The live album was a commodity in communist Poland, Warchol remembers. He’d had to bring it in from abroad to listen to it.
“That was one of those revelations,” recalls Warchol, “one of those cultural moments for me that made me dream about coming to America.”
The album, recorded at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church over two days in 1972 at Franklin’s peak, remains the bestselling gospel album of all time.
Famed director Sydney Pollack filmed during the performance and realized later he hadn’t synchronized the audio to the visual, rendering it essentially forgotten until now.
“Amazing Grace” was released in April and is now the first film CinemaSavannah will screen at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center.
Warchol hasn’t seen the film yet, as is customary for any film he screens, but he says that doesn’t really matter.
“It’s rough—from what I hear, it’s just footage of the concert,” he explains. “It’s mostly focused on her singing, some faces.”
“Amazing Grace” has received rave reviews but, interestingly, was not endorsed by Franklin herself. She sued producer Alan Elliott for using her likeness without permission in 2011 and then again in 2015. After Franklin passed away in 2018, the project got the green light.
As CinemaSavannah moves into its new digs, “Amazing Grace” is the perfect film with which to start.
“It’s a special film,” says Warchol. “It’s got enough attention and enough publicity that I think people are anticipating it.”
The Ben Tucker Theatre at the Savannah Cultural Arts Center can hold up to 400 people, which is a big difference from former, smaller venues.
Warchol has been running CinemaSavannah, or something like it, since 2003. The first iteration of the program was a nonprofit which folded, but Warchol picked it back up in 2008 and started it under the current iteration.
CinemaSavannah’s purpose is to screen films that aren’t mainstream. Warchol brings films, made both at home and abroad, that are receiving buzz within the film crowd.
“They are mostly new releases, and there’s a selfish interest in bringing them because I want to see them myself,” laughs Warchol. “I hear about them at festivals, and I read some film magazines with reviewers who have similar taste [as me] that I can trust.”
Coming from Poland, Warchol has a distinct advantage in having a cultural knowledge of foreign films.
“I’ve always had a passion for film, and coming from Europe, even though it was under communism, I realized I had seen a lot more films than an average academic,” he explains, “because unless they lived in a big city where they could go to foreign arthouse screenings, they had no access to them. Especially with Eastern Europe, I had so much more exposure and so much more knowledge.”
When Warchol came to Statesboro in 1984 to teach at Georgia Southern, he found the film scene to be lacking.
“I realized that it was kind of a cultural desert, especially for films,” he says. “What’s lacking is that kind of an arthouse space, where you can show films that won’t come to regular theatres. What I do is fill in that gap.”
While Savannah has become a cultural destination for visual arts and music, it’s not quite there yet with film, which is partly thanks to the lack of theatres dedicated to non-mainstream theatre.
But even the mainstream film scene is struggling as of late. In the span of just a few years, three major theatres in Savannah have closed: one at Victory Square, one on Eisenhower, and one on Shawnee.
Warchol lost two of his own venues: the S.P.A.C.E. Gallery on Henry, replaced by the Savannah Cultural Arts Center, and the Muse Arts Warehouse.
“It was fabulous. That was a loss,” reminisces Warchol of Muse. “I hear they’re going to leave some structure to market this as a historic space, but they’re putting up some high end apartments to continue that gentrification.”
When Muse closed, Warchol moved to the S.P.A.C.E. Gallery on Henry, which was also demolished and replaced with the Savannah Cultural Arts Center.
The Jewish Educational Alliance has been a great partner with Warchol, and it’s also currently one of a handful of venues in town that could be considered an arthouse cinema.
The Sentient Bean hosts the Psychotronic Film Society every week, and the Jewish Educational Alliance and the Savannah Cultural Arts Center are hosts for CinemaSavannah. esides places that occasionally host screenings, that’s kind of it.
However, there are plenty of regular movie theatres in the area, which Warchol says could be screening non-commercial films, but they aren’t.
“Nobody’s, I guess, adventurous or visionary enough to see that kind of investment because I can see they covet big releases in the amounts of screens they have right now,” says Warchol.
“They could change one of those theatres or have somebody come and say, ‘We’re going to be showing films that are limited release, and we’ll try to advertise it and have a nice setting,’ and I think there’s an audience. But I’m glad they’re not doing it because that’s where I step in!”
The need for arthouse cinema goes beyond just a passion for film.
“It makes people feel like, ‘I saw a great film’—it gives them pride that they are in a town where they could see it,” explains Warchol, “but also they can brag, ‘I saw a film that was nominated for an Oscar but I saw it here way back before it was released theatrically.”
Friday’s screening of “Amazing Grace” is one such brag, particularly because of the effort it took to get made.
“[Franklin] said the music stands on its own and speaks for itself, but maybe she hasn’t really seen it to appreciate that restoration,” wonders Warchol.
“The sound is pristine. I don’t listen to gospel music, but that album made me religious. I’ll testify—if that’s how you practice, if that’s what church is, I’m going.”