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the burning issue

at last—a cinematheque for sydney?

tina kaufman


The granting of this prestigious international title brought a flurry of media stories, including one that quoted filmmaker Gillian Armstrong saying that you have to feel slightly embarrassed about the fact that “we’ve been given this incredible honour: City of Film, and we don’t have a cinematheque, we don’t have a film centre. This should make us realise it’s time to move on that.”

a new initiative

And there has apparently been some movement. In late September another little burst of stories confirmed that progress had been made. Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore announced that $30,000 had been approved for a feasibility study which would consider the size, location and operating model for a film centre, and to establish its potential financial benefit to Sydney. “The feasibility study will help prepare the case to go to State and Federal Governments to seek their support in creating a centre.” Moore said.

Gillian Armstrong, along with Margaret Pomeranz, AFTRS head Sandra Levy, and departing Sydney Film Festival director Clare Stewart, had last year formed the Sydney Film Centre Committee to campaign for the proposal, while directors Dr George Miller, Jane Campion and Peter Weir, and actors Cate Blanchett, Bryan Brown, Toni Collette, Guy Pearce, Richard Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush had all pledged their support.

The planned Barangaroo development in the CBD was seen as a possible site for the centre, and when the Barangaroo Delivery Authority called for cultural proposals late last year the committee made a submission. They proposed a permanent space with state-of-the-art facilities and year-round exhibition, focusing a cinematheque style of programming on the history of the moving image, including both international and Australian production, as well as innovative trends in screen-based media. Such a film centre could stage major festivals, host film classes and allow the public to watch films on demand, while the National Film and Sound Archive would be able to screen work from its collection.

Of course, this is only the latest in a number of attempts to establish a cinematheque in Sydney, even if it is now part of an ambitious and high profile project with major cultural support. So the point is not why it has taken so long for this idea to surface, but why the admittedly spasmodic and differing efforts over many years have never really delivered a permanent and recognised cinematheque.

what is a cinematheque?

What is a cinematheque, anyway? The name and the model come from the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which has had a chequered history since it was founded in 1936 through the passion of the legendary Henri Langlois, who started collecting and preserving films in the 1930s (and had to smuggle huge numbers to unoccupied France to protect them during the war). Dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and conserving all sorts of cinema, to make it available for public screenings, it was the first and most famous institution of its kind, and is now a cultural icon in France.

It wasn’t always so; while the French government provided a small screening room, staff and a subsidy for the collection after the war, and many of those who had their film education through these regular cinematheque screenings went on to become the filmmakers of the New Wave, Langlois himself was fired as head of the Cinémathèque by Culture Minister André Malraux in 1968, sparking protests in Paris, worldwide shows of solidarity, and threats to withdraw films from the collection. He was reinstated two months later, and earned both an honorary Oscar and a César in 1974. But the Cinematheque and its collections moved all over Paris for years, and a fire damaged its Musée du Cinéma in 1997; it finally found a permanent home in 2005 in Frank Gehry’s madly skewed building, originally created in 1994 as the American Centre, but now wonderfully refurbished and housing four screening rooms, several floors of museum space, a multimedia library and a bookstore. The Cinémathèque makes the films from its collection of 40,000 available to the public, screening a rich and varied program of national cinemas and retrospectives devoted to various artists, as well as providing teaching activities and lectures.

There are now cinematheques in many cities, from the British Film Institute’s National Film Theatre in London, the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Department in New York and a number of centres in European cities. Most feature curated and changing programs of classic and current cinema, focussing on themes, genres, national cinemas and directors, and increasingly on innovations in screen practice.

australian cinematheques

There was much talk about a national cinematheque in many of the lively debates and discussions about film culture in Australia from the 70s and early 80s. It was argued that not only would audiences profit from regular screenings of films from other national cinemas, curated seasons of the work of particular directors, screenings of specific genres and of rarely seen gems, but that our own filmmakers, film students and audiences could benefit from being exposed to such a rich diversity of filmmaking practice.

There already was a successful local example; the Melbourne Cinémathèque had been doing something along those lines in its annual program of screenings, a program which continues today. Starting as the Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS) in 1948, and becoming the Cinémathèque in 1984, it’s run by a self-administered, non-profit, membership-driven group of committed cinephiles who every year program a challenging and diverse selection of classic and contemporary films, curating both retrospectives and thematic series from archival and new prints sourced from all around the world. (This year their program has included retrospectives of the work of Agnieszka Holland, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Masahiro Shinoda.) The huge benefit from such an uninterrupted screening history is the building of a loyal and committed audience, and for a number of years they’ve had the added advantage of screening at the well-equipped Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne’s own version of a film centre (which of course runs its own interesting film exhibition program, as well as providing studio, exhibition and workshop space).

For some years from early 90s the Australian Film Institute ran what was called a national cinematheque, taking the Melbourne Cinematheque program around Australia to a circuit of cinemas including the AFI’s Paddington Town Hall cinema, later to become the Chauvel, the Media Resource Centre in Adelaide and the Film and TV Institute in Fremantle. This venture was supported financially by the Australian Film Commission. In Sydney the AFI had handed management of the Chauvel to the idiosyncratic Alex Mescovitz, who refused to screen the Melbourne Cinematheque-curated program in its entirety, preferring to pick and choose, augmenting the program with many of his own favourite films – which included a lot of Kurosawa, film noir and Tarkovsky. However, when the AFI wanted to consolidate all its exhibition and run an enhanced national cinematheque, the AFC withdrew the funding, ran the project itself for several years, then watched it gradually dwindle away.

the mca cinematheque

The closest Sydney came to a dedicated, purpose-built cinematheque was through an initiative that started in the early 90s, centred in the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art. As described by one of the instigators, director Dr George Miller, this visionary project involved an additional building which would house a cinematheque, designed to be “a national gallery, screening venue and study centre for film, video and computer-based media...a breeding ground for experimentation and discovery, a creative gymnasium, moving-image nerve centre and power plant.”

The new building was designed to look out across Circular Quay to the Opera House, and would contain three cinemas and a visual resource centre. David Watson, who had worked at London’s Museum of the Moving Image, was brought on board first as a consultant and then as cinematheque coordinator; he put together a challenging interim program of screenings, debates and talks in the MCA’s existing and not very film-friendly facilities. But, as he said, the new cinematheque would be “distinguished by its programming philosophy, standard of presentation and technical sophistication. Moving images will be shown as they were created to be seen, with precision and ambience.”

There followed years of meetings, workshops, the changing and development of the proposal, and the holding of architectural competitions. (The first was won in 1997 by distinguished Japanese architect Kazuo Segima, with a building like a glowing white box.) All the interested parties, the MCA itself, Sydney University, the NSW Government, the Sydney City Council and the Sydney Cove Authority, went through seemingly interminable negotiations. By 1999 it all came to nought; negotiations broke down, the money ran out, and the MCA cut back on staff, including the cinematheque coordinator. (Revised plans for the MCA’s future have conspicuously lacked any mention of a cinematheque.)

the goma cinematheque

David Watson took his expertise and experience north, where he became consultant to the film strand in the development of a gallery of modern art that was slowly but very surely taking place in Brisbane. The Gallery of Modern Art opened in December 2006, complementing the Queensland Art Gallery building in the inviting cultural complex on the Brisbane River. GOMA focuses on the art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and its flagship project is the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art series of exhibitions, now a major event on the national and international arts calendar. In its two modern, state of the art cinemas, GOMA runs the Australian Cinematheque, presenting retrospective and thematic film programs and exhibitions, exploring the important lines of influence between the moving image and other areas of visual culture, and showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and artists.

GOMA’s Cinematheque has held several extensive and revelatory Asian programs, while the breadth and depth of the seasons it has held in the last five years is quite staggering, both in the size of each program and the strength of its curatorial expertise. Its current season is The Savage Eye: Surrealism and Cinema, which coincides with Surrealism: The Poetry of Dreams in the gallery. It’s a survey of the surrealist sensibility in cinema, and considers “films made under the rubric of the movement alongside popular cinema with similar themes”; its amazingly extensive program includes surrealist documentary and ethnographic surrealism, as well as French serials from the silent era, including the wonderful Les Vampires. The next program is Alfred Hitchcock: A Retrospective, an extensive survey which includes all 56 of Hitchcock’s films still in existence from a career that spanned six decades from early silent cinema to his masterpieces of suspense in Hollywood, and his work across a variety of genres, including a selection of his television programs. It will be one of the most extensive Australian retrospectives to date of Hitchcock’s work..

arc cinema, nfsa

In Canberra the establishment of the Arc Cinema with its state-of-the-art archival film projection system has meant that the NFSA is able to screen rare prints not only from its own collection but from other libraries and archives around the world, opening up access to films rarely seen in Australia. The NFSA is now running an exciting screening program that offers a range of classical and contemporary cinema as well as work from the NFSA’s moving image collection, highlighting strengths and key areas of development, works of national and international significance and important work that has emerged from the NFSA’s preservation and restoration activities and technical skill-base.

Of course, Sydney does have some cinematic pleasures, with the NSW Art Gallery running an imaginative program of free screenings allied to its exhibitions; various film societies screening to their loyal audiences in the city and suburbs, and several of the national cultural bodies offering screenings on an occasional basis. Even the Chauvel Cinema, now part of the Palace chain, has again programmed a regular weekly slot called a cinematheque that screens a rather eccentric, esoteric program. But what we don’t have is a year-round program of properly curated seasons, supported by serious documentation, screened in a permanent, dedicated space.

why, and who will come?

Barrett Hodsdon, in his important book Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: the Quest for Film Culture in Australia (Bernt Porridge Group, Sydney, 2001), says that a cinematheque “must be supported by a permanent high level of subsidy.” He argues that “the fluctuating fortunes of local efforts to build a cinematheque represent more than the issue itself. To some extent these fortunes reflect an inability to come to grips with what is at stake...(as) a properly constituted Cinematheque, with a permanent site and a continuous, well-received program, could act as a long-term magnet in the accrual and development of audiences. But in order to do so, a cinematheque must have a reasonable chance to develop a meaningful identity.”

And then there’s the question of whether younger audiences in particular will actually come to the cinematheque. There’s been much debate lately on the future of film festivals, with claims that audiences will decline as film enthusiasts increasingly find much of what they need on DVD, video on demand and streaming from the Internet, and this also applies to a cinematheque. The counter claim is always that people want to watch good films in good cinemas, that the communal experience of watching movies on the big screen in the dark just can’t be matched, no matter how good the home cinema. But the next generation of audiences are so wedded to their computer screens, which just get better each year, while the promise of superfast broadband and huge bandwidth offers enormous potential for their private viewing experience. Will they even consider coming to the cinematheque? Will the new cinematheque, if it actually happens, face an immediate challenge of proving its relevance to this next generation?

But I prefer to think what American film theorist and critic David Bordwell has argued on his blog, “the cinephile loves the idea of film. That means loving not only its accomplishments but its potential, its promise and prospects. It’s as if individual films, delectable and overpowering as they can be, are but glimpses of something far grander. That distant horizon, impossible to describe fully, is Cinema, and it is this art form, or medium, that is the ultimate object of devotion. In the darkening auditorium there ignites the hope of another view of that mysterious realm. The pious will call Cinema a holy place, the secular will see it as the treasure-house of an artform still capable of great things. The promised land of cinema, as experimentalists of the 1920s called it: that, mystical as it sounds, is my sense of what the cinephile yearns for.”

This is what a cinematheque promises; the question is, will it actually happen this time? A friend of mine, who has been through or observed several past campaigns, was recently heard to mutter, “don’t hold your breath.” I would prefer to be positive, but I do have some concerns. First of all, why this insistence on being beside the Harbour? The attractions should be inside, on the screen, not the view. Surely the best location would be somewhere central; the more easily accessible the better, I would have thought. ACMI, on Melbourne’s Federation Square, has the sort of central city location that seems ideal. And while Barangaroo might have much to offer, just how long will it actually take to come into being? Sydneysiders are notoriously fickle; a cinematheque, starting from scratch, is going to need all the help it can get to attract and build the sort of loyal and committed audience it will need. I can only hope there are enough cinephiles out there, people who, like me, still want to explore that promised land of cinema.

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. web

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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