Moviegoers: Igor Sinyak and his Subtitles & Subtleties film group share thoughts and hors d'oeuvres post-screening.

Dinner and a Movie Discussion: Igor Sinyak

Michael Fox May 24, 2009

In Paris, moviegoers routinely go out afterward for a repast, a drink and an animated discussion of the merits and themes of the film just seen. But what if you live in or around San Francisco, are an aficionado of foreign films and all of your friends are Leonardo DiCaprio fans? Who do you see and debate Waltz with Bashir or Gomorrah with? Software engineer Igor Sinyak resolved that dilemma by founding Subtitles & Subtleties under the auspices of the Young Professionals International Forum of the World Affairs Council. The target audience, as you no doubt inferred, is people in their 20s and 30s attracted by a blend of socializing and informed conversation. A recent outing took them to the world premiere of the Russian film God’s Smile, or The Odessa Story with director Vladimir Alenikov present at the Jewish Community Center. Upcoming outings are planned for films including Fados, Departures and Three Monkeys. To get in the loop, visit the group’s Facebook page or or drop a note to Igor Sinyak gave us the scoop via email.

SF360: What was the impetus for starting Subtitles & Subtleties?

Igor Sinyak: Four years ago, I attended my first S.F. International Film Festival. I picked some films and tried to rope my friends into seeing them with me. I got a few to come to some of the films, but many I ended up watching alone—which was fine except that after the film, I wished I had someone to talk about it, especially when there was no Q&A. I was starting to attend some WAC Young Professionals International Forum events, and thought that it might be a good base to start a foreign film group. I met Diane Murk (who was interested in intercultural relations and spoke several languages) there, who offered to assist. The WAC agreed, I coined the name Subtitles & Subtleties, and Diane became the first member. To be honest, the impetus was that I’d have a group of like-minded peers to see foreign films with and discuss/dissect afterward.

SF360: What is the format for a typical event?

Sinyak: We usually start with a meet/greet/eat about an hour before the film at a gathering place by the theater, for people to meet some people in the group so they have someone to sit next to (and perhaps get a quick bite other than popcorn). After the film we go to a nearby cafe for tea/coffee/dessert. The discussion is typically informal and unmoderated. People usually ask me for my opinion, but the reason I started the group is to hear other people’s opinions, thoughts and perspectives. The conversation often shifts away from the film as people break up into smaller groups and get to know each other, but then often shifts back. In many ways we are like a book club, except in a book club sometimes some of the people haven’t read the book. With us, you know everyone has seen the film you just came out of, so discussion and conversation is very easy.

SF360: How many members are there, and is there an additional cost above and beyond World Affairs Council membership?

Sinyak: There are now over 3,000 people who signed up as members, on Facebook, Meetup and via email. There is no fee to join. Turnout is about 50 per film, a mix of semi-regulars and new people, though we’ve had as many as 200 come out for one night.

SF360: What is the mission or purpose of Subtitles & Subtleties? Is it more current events or issue-oriented, or arts-oriented?

Sinyak: I’d say it’s more arts-oriented, that is to say I pick films which depict interesting stories from different cultures around the world. In other countries, films tend to be made more as art rather than as a way to make money. The director/screenwriter has a story to tell—I’m interested in that story. Sometimes the stories involve current events and issues. But the film itself is only a part of the group. A big component is the social aspect, so part of the mission is to build community around an appreciation of foreign cinema, and also to give people a forum to share impressions after the film.

SF360: When did you know you’d turned the corner and the idea had caught on?

Sinyak: I would say from the get-go. The first event was a success—large attendance, group discount on tickets and great participation after the film. Same with the next, so I knew it wasn’t a fluke. From then on, people kept inviting their friends, so more and more people became a part of it. It’s still growing.

We started out monthly, but now I say one to three times a month, and during festivals it can be nightly! Normally films are weeknights or Sunday evening, usually in San Francisco but we go to films on the Peninsula and in the South Bay, East Bay, and Marin.

SF360: What is your interest and background in film? Do you fantasize about quitting your day job and programming a festival?

Sinyak: Watching films that make me think and/or feel is one of my hobbies. By day I work as an engineer developing software for avionics. It might be fun to program a festival (and in some ways, by picking what the group sees, that’s what I am doing), but I enjoy my career as well, as well as composing/playing piano and salsa/tango dance, so I don’t know if I’m ready to have Subtitles & Subtleties and/or film be my whole life.

SF360: What have been your most satisfying experiences with Subtitles & Subtleties?

Sinyak: The group’s social atmosphere is such that it’s very easy for someone new to it (or the area) to come to an event and find new friends. I have seen countless friendships start as a result of participation in the group. And, inevitably, several romantic relationships, too, and at least one marriage. Of course, I’ve gotten to know some amazing people as a result of leading the group. I try to get to know a little bit about everyone, and I’ve been able to connect people with similar backgrounds, interests, careers.

Once I heard from a Spanish woman who came to one of the films who’d been diagnosed with cancer. As it turns out, I did have oncologists, radiologists, and surgeons in the group, and they considered her a friend of a friend and answered her questions, gave referrals to specialists—and she’s healthy now.

SF360: Are many members foreign nationals whose primary interest is films from their country and in their native language? Or is your constituency simply interested in the larger world and ‘primary source material’ rather than filtered CNN reports?

Sinyak: There are certainly many foreign nationals, though I think the majority are Americans who have lived/studied/traveled extensively abroad. Certainly people do see films from their home country (and often bring friends who will only watch from that country). But this is great for the group because afterward we get to hear their perspective. Americans will often watch films in their second language, so French and Spanish-language films are quite popular. Personally, I grew up in the U.S. since ’79 but was born in the USSR. I maintain my Russian by hosting the Russian Language Dinner for the World Affairs Council International Forum, and if there’s a Russian film I will invite that group to see it, too. I’m sure some members are interested in the larger world and are hungry for "primary source material," but rather than have it be political I have the group motto as "part intellectual, part cultural, part social."

SF360: There’s a rumor that S&S has had a big influence on keeping certain films on screens here longer than they might have been. Any truth to that?

Sinyak: No one has given me feedback that we’ve influenced a film’s run, though I suppose it’s possible. For example, when we go to a screening at SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki we tend to sell it out, and need two or three screenings to fit all of us.

SF360: Where do you go from here? What are your future goals for S&S?

Sinyak: I’d like to expand beyond film. For example, last year I thought to try an opera event; it has subtitles, after all. We had 75 people come out for that. I’d like to see the group evolve into exploring more of the arts—with the model of the meet/greet/eat before the event and a cafe chat afterward—and again, ‘part intellectual, part cultural, part social.’

As far as film, certainly relationships with film societies, distributors and theaters would be great. There are programs with ‘surprise screenings’ that let patrons see pre-release films. but these are always on Sunday at 10 a.m.! Most of our people are in their 20s or 30s, which tends to mean an active social life on Saturday night. I’d love to help create a market for such a program that caters to our demographic.

I’d also like to do an event with the deaf community. A deaf woman came one of our films and I realized that subtitles allow deaf people to enjoy a night at the movies. We’d need a sign language interpreter probably for [the discussion] afterward, but I bet more friendships would be made in the conversations after the film.

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