Inside International House of Philadelphia at 3701 Chestnut Street is a unique movie venue embedded within its Brutalist concrete box. A parade of rare, independent, and international films have flickered onscreen inside Ibrahim Theater for over 40 years. This month the theater will relaunch itself as the Lightbox Film Center with a free public opening on Thursday, May 18 at 7PM.
International House serves as both affordable campus housing for international students and visiting scholars at Penn and a hub of public programming. The organization was founded in 1910 when Reverend Waldo A. Stevenson, president of the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania, befriended a group of Chinese students on campus who had yet to make friends in America. Wood and his wife began hosting weekly get-togethers with international students at their apartment every Friday night. By 1917, a permanent home was established at the Frank Furness-designed Potts Mansion at 3905 Spruce Street. Less than two months after the end of World War I, on January 1, 1919, the International Student’s House was officially dedicated. The organization’s current home on Chestnut Street, designed by architectural firm Bower & Fradley, was built between 1968 and 1970.
In the late-seventies, International House opened the city’s first theater to screen international films exclusively, Hopkinson Hall (now the refurbished Ibrahim Theater), then a bland, multi-purpose space. Over the next 40 years the theater flourished, welcoming a long list of legendary film directors like Wim Wenders, Albert Maysles, and Jonas Mekas to name a few.
Screenings at Ibrahim Theater will now fall under the purview of the newly-rebranded Lightbox Film Center. Their mission is to offer more robust programming, special guests, and collaborations, according to chief curator Jesse Pires.
The theater will still accommodate the usual range of films, Sunday family matinees, events, live music, and artist talks at International House. However, Pires sees Lightbox Film Center as becoming something much greater. “We are a reflection of what the community is, part of the film landscape of Philadelphia with a diverse panoply of work, an alternate to mainstream Hollywood films,” says Pires. With Lightbox, he says that the goal is to reinvigorate the space as “hub of cultural and artistic activity and community.”
One priority will be attracting a broader audience outside of Philly. “There are a great deal of Philadelphians who are aware of and support our programs. With the new name we hope to build on that audience and make it easier to identify for folks who may be visiting and want to engage in the arts and culture programs in the city.”
Along with projectionist Robert E. Cargni, Pires scours film distribution houses and festivals, conferring with an advisory group to select new and classic works for their film calendar. The direction of their catalog does not exclude American films.
Cargni, projectionist at International House since 1993, also functions as theater and gallery manager. He is a member of the Motion Picture Mechanics and Engineers Union and has firsthand experience working on major motion pictures. As a child, Cargni went to the movies his mother, an Italian immigrant who refined her English through cinema. “What you grow up with, how it entered your life, is what you identify with,” he says.
Cargni sees independent film, as opposed to big budget blockbusters, as encompassing all of the arts, from poetry to dance to painting and even architecture. Its a little bit of everything with meaning behind every film still. “People come to I-House for something else. If you have something that resonates with your life, your community, your extended community, it’s worth investigating constantly.”
A Lightbox Launch Party will be held at International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut Street, on Thursday, May 18 starting at 7PM. The celebration is free and open to the general public and will include music, food, and cocktails.