Cinemas within the Capitalist Urban Space: Strategies and Perspectives
On 24 June 2022, we hosted a panel on Cinemas within the Capitalist Urban Space as part of the Cinema of Commoning Symposium. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
How would cinema spaces have to be (re)designed in order to be perceived as places of the commons and to ensure an open relationship with the city, the neighborhood and its audiences? In recent years, demands for radical remunicipalisation of the cinema have become just as loud as calls for occupying urban spaces and the expropriation of large real estate companies. In times of “public-private partnerships,” rising rents, and commercialization pressures, the question as to whether spaces for independent cultural production can be withdrawn from the free market and secured for civil society by means of buybacks, repurposing, and other alternative models in order to avoid displacement to the periphery increasingly arises. Can the claim to spaces for (film and cinema) culture in the city center be maintained if we understand cinema as a place of participation and as a public space for culture that cannot be monetized?
Anouk De Clercq (Monokino, Oostende). ABSENT DUE TO AIRLINE STRIKE, but present by a statement.
Héléna Delamarre, Alice De Fornel (La Clef Revival, Paris)
Julius Hackspiel (Filmrauschpalast, Berlin)
Louise Malherbe, Khalid Al Sabi (Cinema Akil, Dubai)
Moderation: Jochen Becker (metroZones / station urbaner kulturen, Berlin)
Jochen Becker (metroZones / station urbaner kulturen, Berlin): I would like to open up the discussion with the complex question of what cinema could be today. I would say that our contemporary condition is reflected in a sort of cosmopolitan cinema. Bi’bak is an interesting case study, as it is something that grew out of a post-migrational situation into the cosmopolitan conditions of today’s society. Dubai, Paris and Berlin are all cities that are definitely in a similar phase as well.
On the other hand, what is clear with all the cinema projects you have been involved in is how important the real estate market and the capitalistic urban sphere is in determining how such projects take shape. We have to think about how buildings can be used in non-commercial ways and how we can resist market logic. How do we relate to the city and wider society?
Most of your projects started as pop-ups, cinemas with no fixed home, which travelled around to meet their audiences. If we move out into public space we always enter highly contested conditions, and we try to work within this context. We must aim to create contact with urban society rather than choose to stay within our arthouse bubble. Contestation can contribute to rethinking the conditions we are used to operating in.
Bi’bak strongly demands centrality, namely cinema having a central position in the city. I would say, however, that centrality can also happen in the periphery. I would be interested in further exploring how cinema might relate to the totality of a city, even in cases when it emerges from the periphery.
Louise Malherbe (Cinema Akil): Following what you just said about the centre versus (or in addition to) the periphery, I think this has to do with the way audiences can access the cinema space. It is not the same when there is proper public transport in a city as compared to when you have to take your car to commute everywhere, which is the case in Dubai. This is a very different case from Beirut, for example. Even though in Lebanon the car is used quite a lot, the city has been constructed in a different way that allows for other ways of moving through the city – hence the importance of the pop-ups or the decentralisation of culture towards different parts of the city.
Metropolis Cinema lost its space in January 2020, a few months after the beginning of the Lebanese revolution. It was very similar to La Clef, because the cinema was located within a building that was owned by a bank. It seems that the same story repeats itself everywhere. We did not really have a choice, we had to leave. Now we do a lot of programming and pop-up screenings with partners outside of Beirut, in villages for example. We are also trying to diversify the cinema experience for various audiences, this is the reason why we exist. The screenings are, of course, a place for discussion. The more you initiate screenings outside of the place you are used to, the more you realise that conversations take a different shape. What people see, and the way they react to the films is different based on where you host a screening.
Dubai is also different, as it is a very particular space. In Dubai, for example, Cinema Akil cannot be a non-profit association in terms of its legal entity. It has to be a company and it has to play with those rules. This allows us to create a space not only for conversations, but also for resistance. Reel Palestine, for instance, is a very good example for this. We have been collaborating occasionally with corporate companies, which gives us the financial resources to define our own programme. You cannot do anything in Dubai if you are not economically sustainable. This gives us the space and the freedom to programme the films that we want to show, and to invite the people that we want to bring together and talk about things that matter to us. I think it is crucial to screen Palestinian films and invite Palestinian directors in the context of Dubai.
To pick up on this idea of cosmopolitanism, La Clef, which is located in Paris, has a very different way of programming, as it operates in the context of France. There is already such a strong cinema community there, partly because so many filmmakers are based there. In Dubai, we try to build a sense of community, because there are a lot of expats. The French, Italian and Indian communities are very big. So, for instance, we try to programme Indian Bollywood films in order to bring different people to our space.
Héléna Delamarre (La Clef): At La Clef, we try hard not to programme the same movies as the ones showing in other cinemas, as we do not want to be in competition with them. We sometimes choose old movies, or recent movies made by young filmmakers. We love to show films which talk about societal struggles and politics, and we also show many queer movies. For us, the discussions that take place before and after the screening are a way to reach people of different ages and experiences, even people whose lives might not be directly impacted by these topics. We also show many anti-racist and anti-fascist movies. For each movie we screen, we try to have the director and members of the production team with us, so that we can initiate a dialogue between them and the people who attend the screening. These talks can last for one or even two hours sometimes.
Julius Hackspiel (Filmrauschpalast): I would like to highlight how we are connected to our neighbourhood(s). With Filmrauschpalast, we have connections to the filmmakers’ scene in Berlin, to universities and film courses too. But it is an ongoing challenge for us to stay in contact with the city, because our team is always changing. There have been so many generations working there before me. It is an ongoing process of asking ourselves what kind of cinema we want to be. The answer to that question is always shaped by the people who are working there (at Filmrauschpalast) at that particular moment in time.
Because of the cinema’s location in Moabit, a more low-key neighbourhood in Berlin, we are always a little under the radar, even when it comes to our own neighbourhood. Many people are not aware that there is a cinema here, and our audiences actually come from across the city, because of our unique and “niche” programme. The people in the neighbourhood may not be that interested in the type of film programmes we curate. In the summer this is different, as we host open-air screenings. This affects the neighbourhood quite heavily – it is loud, and it is right next to an apartment building. In order for us to be able to keep doing what we do, we have to include the neighbours, inform them about our programme and encourage them to come by offering free tickets for the locals. Many people living around this area may not have experienced cinema as more than simply entertainment.
Khalid al Sabi (Cinema Akil): I would like to return to the previous point we made about centrality. In Dubai, we do not have specific neighbourhoods spread across the city in the same way as in Berlin, where it is common that you spend most of your time within your district. Dubai has many “downtowns,” many different “centres”, and people tend to commute more from one district to the other.. With Cinema Akil, we are trying to create new bonds within the city and beyond by doing pop ups and collaborations with different institutions in Dubai as well as in other cities. We still want to be a community centre where people come in and can have discussions with directors. People often pass by our space even in cases when there is no screening on, as they feel part of the community.
One of the biggest challenges that we have been facing is encouraging people to take part in the political discourse developed at the cinema during Q&As and post-screening discussions. Even if certain issues matter to them, sometimes people are scared to join the conversation. I have Palestinian friends who say that they are scared to come to the cinema and watch a film –let along join a discussion– because of the history of silencing Palestinians around the world. This is exactly what we are trying to change, we are trying to push at those borders and red lines. We are also screening more films about LGBTQ+ communities. We are trying to discuss topics that are highly sensitive because of the traditional and religious context here.
Louise: I would like to add something about censorship, which is an issue that many art houses in the MENA region have to face. It is very complicated to screen queer films in Beirut, and this also affects the way we work and present the programme(s) that we believe in.
Héléna: This discussion makes me think about the connection we have with the city. Ironically, at Le Clef, even though we have been active for the last two years and we have kept our doors open most nights, many people living in the area did not even know that the cinema was open again – even though we were advertising our programme on the cinema facade. What really helped during the first confinement period of the pandemic was that we started hosting open-air screenings on our roof, so many neighbours came to watch a movie there.
Khalid: For us at Cinema Akil, our approach is a little bit different, because cinema culture in our region did not develop in the same way as it did in Europe.. In the past, we had neighbourhood cinemas that were kind of basic –you would watch a film and then you would leave –which were later on replaced by multiplex cinemas. Now here we are, the only independent arthouse cinema not only in the UAR but also in the whole GCC region.
Louise: In Dubai we have the highest number of screens in the MENA region, I think more than 300 cinemas, but only one arthouse cinema, so it is a completely different film market.
Khalid: For us, one of our goals is to continue building a cultural cinema community, introducing people to arthouse film. Sometimes I meet people and I have to explain to them what an independent film is. We are not at the same phase as cinemas in Paris and Berlin, as we are still trying to build that culture.
Julius: In her opening keynote, Gabu Heindl mentioned that she sees cinema as a civic hub. I think this is an interesting approach. I would like us to think of cinema not just as a synergistic hub, but also as a hub for filmmakers. There is this cinema in Berlin, Wolf Kino, which, like Le Clef, has an editing room and a workshop space. I think this is a really interesting way to think about the cinema of the future; a cinema that has the capacity to combine different technologies and ways of working with film, and that can go beyond the cinema room, looking outwards towards the city.
Héléna: This is exactly what we are also trying to do. When we started, we wanted to give visibility to films that were not screened in cinemas. We also wanted to create a creative and educational place where we can make movies and teach children about cinema. But we are also very scared about the future of cinema. When we see the average numbers of people who go to cinemas in France, we feel that we have accomplished something as our screenings are usually full. I think this is because we have created a space for exchanges and sharing, just like the other cinema projects we are discussing here; a space where we can share a drink,talk about movies and think together about the future.
Jochen: As a last comment I would like us to move beyond dualities and divisions of digital vs arthouse vs multi-screen, or centre vs periphery. I think cinema can be both at the same time. One aim could be to create constant nomadic cinemas across various city districts; cinemas that reflect the fact that not all people have the capacity to come to the city centre. Some people find the centre hostile, a place that they cannot afford to visit and where they are looked at in a different way. We are all gathered here today, in Alexanderplatz – we probably know this area already – but perhaps we do not know the outskirts of Berlin as well. Perhaps we should include the outskirts in our collective reflection and think about how they might relate to cinema and cultural production: We need complexity, contradictions and contestations in order to keep cinema alive.
Anouk De Clercq explores the potential of audiovisual language to create possible worlds. Her work has been shown in Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, MAXXI, Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, MASS MoCA, BOZAR, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Berlinale, Ars Electronica, among others. De Clercq is a founding member of Auguste Orts, On & For Production and Distribution and initiator of Monokino. She is affiliated to the School of Arts University College Ghent as a visiting professor. Anouk De Clercq is the author of Where is Cinema, published by Archive Books.
Héléna Delamarre, Alice De Fornel are part of the “La Clef Revival” team. Cinema La Clef is a historical, independent, non-profit cinema located in the heart of Paris. In 2018, its owner, a French bank enterprise committee, closed the cinema in order to sell the building. A bunch of film lovers, filmmakers, students and neighbours decided to occupy La Clef in September 2019 to prevent this sale. Every night, these volunteers screened films with the massive support of the audience, many french directors, distributors, media and some institutions. In March 2022 they got expelled. Today, the “La Clef Revival” team is campaigning to buy the building with specific conditions to keep it out of the real estate market.
Julius Hackspiel has lived in Berlin since 2014, has been a member of Filmrauschpalast Moabit since 2018 and is a member of the multi-member board since 2020. He takes on tasks in various areas of the Cinema, including applying for funding, assisting with construction work during the renovation phase and takes care of cooperations with external partners. After a closure period of one and a half years, he is looking forward to being back behind the counter to present a well curated programme to the neighbourhood and cineasts alike.
Louise Malherbe is a film curator and film critic based in Berlin. She worked as a film programmer for the Metropolis Cinema Association in Beirut and is now coordinating the Reel Streams project aiming at supporting the dissemination of independent cinema in the Arab region. She is Head of Programming for Soura Film Festival, a queer film festival focusing on the S.W.A.N.A. region. She also writes film criticism for Manifesto XXI, and recently started curating films and festivals for Cinema Akil.
Khalid Al Sabi is a Palestinian activist and a communication expert who joined the Cinema Akil. team at the start of 2022 to lead on marketing communications. He holds more than 10 years of experience working in the media industry with key international brands.
Jochen Becker works as author, curator and lecturer and is co-founder of metroZones | Centre for Urban Affairs and the station urbaner kulturen/nGbK. He curated Chinafrika. under construction (Graz, Leipzig, Weimar, Shenzhen, Nürnberg) and advised the relocation of the Düsseldorf Theater FFT in terms of cultural policy, concept and curatorial work, including the project City as Factory and Place Internationale (2017-22) as well as the metroZones exhibition Mapping Along (Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, 2021). He is active in Initiative Urbane Praxis and prepared two SITUATION BERLIN congresses as well as the Glossary Urban Praxis for this purpose.