International House Philadelphia Unites Cinema Trailblazers With “Free to Love”

Peter Chawaga, for GPA -- International House Philadelphia’s current residence at 3701 Chestnut St. was established in 1970, but the organization has been offering residential services and cultural programming to the city’s international community in one form or another for over a century.

Today, their 14-story headquarters houses hundreds of global residents who have come from all over the world to work and study in Philadelphia. It also serves as a home for global arts and humanities programs like their current film series “Free to Love: Cinema of the Sexual Revolution,” occupying the space’s Ibrahim Theater from January 10 to February 15.

“Free to Love” features 24 films and shorts compilations the were produced across the world in the postwar atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s, when the growing mainstream acceptance of nontraditional sexuality ushered in a new era of cinema. The series presents icons of the genre’s newfound crossover success like Hollywood’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a mainstream comedy starring Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon, as well as lesser-known foreign works like Japan’s In the Realm of the Senses, which is still censored in its home country. The collection of films have come from eight different countries to illustrate the breadth of a social revolution that spanned the globe for nearly two decades.

“When I organized the series I wasn’t aware of any other film program on this scale that had examined all of the contradictions and complexities of the sexual revolution through cinema,” said Jesse Pires, International House’s programs curator. “I think it’s important to look at the various movements and developments that happened throughout the world in this period. Suddenly, there was this new sense that there was more out there in the world.”

No film in the program has ever escaped controversy. Despite protest, these films were historically seen as harbingers of sexual liberations to come. Today, however, they exist as perspectives anchored very much in their own time. This unifying dichotomy was clearly present in The Set, screened as part of the series on January 23.

Described on International House’s website as “a rarely-seen, low-budget oddity,” The Set is emblematic of some of the programs key themes. Released in 1970, it was the first Australian feature to address homosexuality. For all of its historical significance, The Set deals with its controversial theme through heavy camp, an approach that has come to define erotic cinema from this era. Many of the films in “Free to Love” tackle their subject matter with more seriousness than The Set, but Pires wanted groundbreakers of all types to comprise the series.

“A lot of films in this series were the first films from their culture[s] to do certain things,” he says. “I can’t say The Set is a great film. It’s certainly an interesting film, but cinematically it hasn’t left its mark. I included it because it captures this moment in Australian society that we can also see across the world. The attitudes and mores around sex and sexuality were changing.”

To this point, Pires has felt encouraged by the response the series has received. He credits the city’s engaged community and its longstanding support for International House as reasons for its success.

“At International House, we can really offer this work in a discursive environment,” he says. “It’s about reaching out to a community of people that are intellectually curious and want to discover something new and unique. The fact that we have this great venue and the ability to work the way we do, it only seemed appropriate to bring this series to Philadelphia.”