Revitalising Cinemas: Urban Heritage and the Cinema Space
On 24 June 2022, we hosted a panel on Urban Heritage and Cinema Space as part of the Cinema of Commoning Symposium. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Cinemas are not only historical sites, they are also part of living urban culture and subject to ongoing transformation processes; their social function changes accordingly. How can we design cinema buildings that take into account the given architectural conditions, whilst actively integrating the cultural heritage of a city and serving the needs of a future-oriented practice? This panel focuses on the question of revitalizing historic cinema venues whilst simultaneously considering current societal needs and repurposing vacant or other urban sites into film and cultural venues.
Marta Baradić (Kino Katarina, Pula)
Dominga Sotomayor (CCC – Centro de Cine y Creación, Santiago de Chile)
Monica Sebestyen (Cinema ARTA / UrbanEye Film Festival, Cluj)
Buse Yıldırım (Kundura Sinema, Istanbul)Moderation: Malve Lippmann (bi’bak / Sinema Transtopia, Berlin)
Malve Lippmann (bi’bak / Sinema Transtopia): I would like us to start this conversation by thinking about the subversive tactics we use to claim spaces which are not publicly accessible. In a way, all of us are using similar types of tactics. I would like to share with you the story of this building in which bi’bak currently is located in Alexanderplatz. During the former DDR, this was the “Haus der Statistik” (building of statistics). After the reunification it had been empty and unused for many years, even though it is in the most central place in Berlin. Urbanists, architects and artists came and claimed this building. They put a big sign up on the facade saying “here will be a place for artist studios, for artistic production, social initiatives and NGOs.” This started a series of discussions; its 600,000 square metres had already been almost bought by an investor who wanted to tear it down, until the Berlin Senate finally bought it for the development of a model project. In the moment we are here before the renovation starts as the so-called “Pioniernutzer*innen” (the pioneer users) performing how cultural use can be realised here in this space.
Sinema Transtopia moved into this building, when everything was empty; no electricity, no water, or any infrastructure. That meant we had to build up our cinema from nothing in only six weeks with a comparably small budget. While this kind of interim use may have its problems – for instance, it can be misused as a motor for gentrification – we still see the advantages to this approach. Afterall, it allowed us to establish this “Cinema Experiment,” as we call it, and develop a statement for a new form of cinema and a community around it.
The inherently improvisational nature of the project meant our approach had to be experimental. Take for instance the open air cinema, which we opened in summer 2021. Due to the pandemic, it was not really clear if people would want to come back to indoor spaces. Nevertheless we faced many obstacles when it came to gaining planning approval for using the public space in front of the building. This was despite the fact that the setup for events was temporary and really simple – just 40 chairs and a mobile beamer. Tensions inevitably arise when artists and cultural workers engage with the bureaucracy of city administrations, particularly when it comes to the growing capitalisation/privatisation of the public urban space. However, even if it is sometimes very difficult we must not give up on claiming these spaces and using them in a creative way for our work.
This leads to my first question: how can we fight against this precarity and at the same time lean into the positives created by these situations – this flexibility, this openness, this liveliness? How can we embrace the imperfections? Dominga, you had mentioned that the original plan for CCC – Centro de Cine y Creación was based on a closed cinema space. During the pandemic you changed direction and came back to this idea of a more improvised open-air kind of set-up. Could you elaborate on how improvisation has played a role in your approach at CCC?
Dominga Sotomayor (CCC – Centro de Cine y Creación): For us it was impossible, due to the pandemic, to set up something “perfect” with a projector and everything. We realised that it was better to keep our space alive than to keep waiting for years until we can offer the perfect viewing conditions. I also think that it has to do with our priorities. When we first started operating as CCC, before the pandemic, the situation was quite different. After the pandemic, the focus has been on being connected once again. I do not know how you deal with the audio in your open-air screenings. Our neighbourhood is super busy and noisy, but we like the idea that our screenings interact with their surrounding environment, the audio from the film merging with alarms or the sounds of people walking on the street. We wanted to keep CCC alive, and it has been a challenge for us, taking into account all the various situations we had to face so far. Our focus has shifted now; from being “perfect” to being alive.
Malve: We also had to face challenges with our open air screenings, since Alexanderplatz is a busy area. We opend the screenings outside with the Imagining Queer Bandung programme co-curated by Sarnt Utamachote, Popo Fan and Ragil Huda. It was a challenge when strangers came by and in some cases it was not safe at all. It has been a challenge for us to make this space also a safe space for everybody joining the events: the filmmakers, the audiences and the curators. At the same time it was exciting to present the content which is crucial to us in such a public sphere, open to everybody just walking by. We always needed to improvise here.
Monica Sebestyen (Cinema ARTA / UrbanEye Film Festival): I think what you are doing is great, this type of subversive work, but I find it really incompatible with being located at the city centre. In our experience, we have to work strictly within the rules. For example, when we opened the cinema, we just wanted to have a carpet in front of the building and that was not possible without authorization, nor to have anything else in front of the cinema. It is a tradeoff to be either in a city centre, where you have to follow these strict rules and where there is no space for improvisation, or (to be) somewhere more hidden and underground. For the moment, I just do not see how these two elements can be compatible.
Malve: Yes I have to admit, this situation we have here, in the middle of Berlin is unique, there is still a freedom like in the early 90s and I think it won’t last long anymore. We also have to move in July and rebuild the Sinema from scratch, this time in a more sustainable way but also with a much higher rent. We managed to stay in the centre, in Wedding. Due to our very comfortable funding situation in Germany this was possible. It’s a private owner and it’s a completely different situation as at Haus der Statistik.
Marta Baradić (Kino Katarina): I would like to go back to some points that were raised now. Regarding Kino Katarina’s relation to the city, It was not really our choice to be on the margins of the city. Where we are, locals have increasingly been pushed out to the margins of the city, and we decided to be present there because those neighbourhoods did not have access to the city’s cultural infrastructure. During the summer months, there is a tension between different notions of culture; culture as a public good, culture for locals and culture as tourism. Through our screenings, we aim to reach local people, and for that reason we decided that the films will always have Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian subtitles. We wanted to provide the opportunity for locals to gather and watch a film during the summer months, as most events in the city are very commercial and touristy.
It is really a trade-off, and it is not sustainable at all. What we do depends on our energy as a team, and how much we can work and pull it off. We try to work across different fields of culture, and we are engaged in different initiatives in Croatia and beyond. Another aspect of what we are trying to do is to pressure institutions to make some structural changes regarding funding and programming. However, what I see as a downside to having this type of cinema, which is very simple and super flexible, is that it may get shut down tomorrow.
Malve: I think you raise an important point here. How can independent cinemas find the balance between maximising sustainability and at the same maintaining independence, flexibility and freedom? As Gabu Heindl puts it: Minimally institutionalised, which expresses itself as public interest, and the maximally open, which allows independence in the design of content and spaces. How can we juggle between these two poles?
Audience Question: I think it is really interesting what you say about finding the right institutional equilibrium; maintaining professionalism versus having flexibility without falling into patterns of self-exploitation. I suppose that the goal is to maintain one’s energy without “selling out”. How can you reach your audience effectively while working on these kinds of flexible pop-up events?
Marta: The audience has never been an issue for us, which was a surprise. In the beginning we did not have media support from the local press, but we made the most of our social media platforms. In the beginning everything was half illegal, half guerrilla. Also, it remains important for us not to promote our events only online. And that was crucial in the beginning when we, with the help of our friends, produced posters which we distributed to various neighbourhoods. We also use word of mouth; when I know the date of one of our upcoming events, there is not a single person I know who does not know about it.
Another great thing for us is that audiences of different generations come to our screenings. Our main audience is young women between 15-30 years old, so we are now conceptualising some programmes just for them. For example, we have planned a workshop exclusively for women, teaching them how to work with equipment, how to install the screen set-up etc.
Malve: What you just mentioned is the creation of a space which becomes a gathering place for communities. This is something that many of the present partner cinemas are doing already, perhaps by including rooms where filmmakers can work together on a production or by organising workshops, or by having a library where people can hang out, read and research in the archives. I think providing such spaces for discourse, exchange, learning and unlearning but also just to meet your community can be the future of cinemas.
Monica: We have been facing many limitations, because the building where Cinema Arta is located has remained to a big extent as it was 100 years ago. We would like to have a library area or to have a space where we can host workshops, but we do not have the room for it. For us, mediation happens mostly in the cinema space with discussions and small workshops that we organise. It would be much easier for us to organise such things if our space was more flexible, but we try to work with what we have.
Malve: I think we need to think about such issues if we are going to make cinema possible in the future. We also had to face many constraints at Sinema Transtopia. We imagined a workshop-sort-of space, but when we moved into this building, we realised that it was only possible to have a heater in the cinema hall. So we designed the screening room with a lot of space on the stage and in between the seats to use it also as a workshop space. This is something we would like to continue doing also in our new space. Dominga, maybe you can talk about your idea with different spaces to facilitate different projects and how it developed in the process?
Dominga: Yes, I think it has continued to develop, but the general idea is still the same. We like the idea of people working in cinema and the arts, trainees working in film. I think the borders between film production and organising an exhibition are mixed up at our space in CCC. It is difficult to talk about our audience as one homogenised group of people. For example, when we are also hosting events or talks on social media, we have a very different type of audience. We have also initiated many partnerships. For instance, we have a trainees’ week with Locarno festival, where we organise a Latin-American workshop with CCC. We also host radio theatre shows for kids.
Something good that happened during the pandemic is that our social media networks grew a lot. We did many things, such as talks between filmmakers on Instagram or online screenings. Now we have the feeling that there are many people around CCC, even more than before, that support what we do. In that sense, the idea of community and territory for me has shifted dramatically. In the beginning, we were focused on the neighbourhood where CCC is located. At the moment we are also hosting screenings via zoom and people join us from other cities in Chile or even from other countries. I think we are in a process of transition, where we want to be flexible, but we also want to articulate all this knowledge that we have gathered so far in more articulate ways.
We would like to keep hosting open-air screenings while also providing high-quality screening projections inside CCC, at the little studio we have During the day, the studio can also be used as a working space for post-production or for press screenings, and during the night we host public events. It is a place in constant movement, but we have a core audience that follows what we do.
Monica: I wanted to mention that, although I find initiatives such as galleries and pop-ups are extremely important, I still think that it is essential to have a shared physical space, a consistent cinema where people can gather; a reference point.
We all come from very different backgrounds and the situation in each country is very different. In Romania, very few arthouse cinemas – one is located inside the French Institute and another one is a museum –, so they are not independent in the ways we are.
Compared to cinemas in Berlin, we are probably relatively commercial. However, in Romania no one is doing these kinds of heavily curated screenings. I think it is important to highlight the general context in which each cinema operates. When you are working with partners on projects, the situation is probably even more complex, because you have to deal with censorship on a political level. It is great that here in Berlin such diversity exists, but for me there is also a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the diversity of film on offer.
Malve: Yes, I think it is also a wonderful thing that we have here in this conference the chance to meet you and learn more from all these different contexts. And sure in Germany, we really have a luxurious situation compared to many, because even if we are working under precarious conditions, we still have the heritage of the “Kommunales Kinos”, , which is somehow inspiring and pushes us forward.
In Germany, in the 70s, Hilmar Hoffmann developed this idea of a Communal Cinema which was funded publicly. So this concept of film house in each city as a space for learning with and around films existed already since the 70s. This concept (of the “Kommunales Kinos”) was not just focusing on a curated film historical and mostly very politically engaged programme, there was also this idea of working and creating in the cinema intergenerationally. The communal cinema, like envisioned by Hoffann, was not only a screening place, but it also had a library and non-commercial places where people could hang out and bring their own food. Unfortunately most of these cinemas are closed today or working under really precarious conditions with too little funding, but the initial idea of a place where cinema can develop as a cultural praxis is still very inspiring for us. I somehow have the impression that this idea comes back to life in many of the cinemas present here in the Cinema of Commoning Symposium and this really encourages me a lot to continue our path. The first time since we started with Sinema Transtopia, I feel these days; we are not alone.
Marta Baradić is an initiator of Kino Katarina – an open-air feminist cinema project. Kino Katarina started in 2016 as a guerrilla pop-up cinema in which screenings were organised along the coast of the Pula Bay (Croatia). She is a culture worker and currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Gender Studies at the Central European University (Vienna), where she works on the history of women’s activism. As an activist Baradić mostly focuses on the labour conditions in the field of culture, as well as culture as a public good and public space.
Dominga Sotomayor is a film director, writer and producer born in Santiago de Chile in 1985. Her first feature film Thursday till Sunday (2012) was developed at the Cannes Cinéfondation Residence, which won the Tiger Award in the 41º Rotterdam Film Festival and has been gaining international recognition ever since. In 2015, she premiered her medium-length film Mar at the 65º Berlinale Forum and also co-produced the collective Here in Lisbon. For Too Late To Die Young (2018) she became the first woman to receive the Leopard for Best Direction at 71º Locarno Film Festival. Dominga is also one of the founders of the production company CINESTACIóN and artistic director at CCC, Centro de Cine y Creación, a new arthouse cinema and centre in Santiago de Chile.
Monica Sebestyen is responsible for the reactivation of Cinema ARTA from Cluj-Napoca, one of the few arthouse cinemas from Romania. Also, she is co-founder and co-director of the UrbanEye Film Festival from Bucharest. She believes in the impact of culture on societal and urban development, in the last 10 years coordinating various cultural projects focused mainly on film, but also on art, architecture and education.
Buse Yıldırım is the managing artistic director of Kundura Cinema & Stage and has been playing an essential role during the construction of the artistic and cultural identity of Beykoz Kundura, a remarkable industrial heritage site in Istanbul. In 2015 she founded Kundura Hafıza, exploring the history of the factory, which runs as a non-profit association for the conservation of intangible heritage. As a filmmaker, she directs her own films and video works using ethnographic methods. Buse Yıldırım holds a B.A. in History of Art at Goldsmiths University London and Documentary Filmmaking at ESEC Paris and has also completed her postgraduate studies on Visual and Media Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin in 2019.
Malve Lippmann is co-founder and artistic director of bi’bak and Sinema Transtopia. She studied at the State Academy of Fine Arts Stuttgart and at the Institute for Art in Context (UdK) in Berlin. As a freelance stage designer and artist, she has been internationally responsible for the design of numerous performances, opera- and theatre productions. Since 2010, Malve Lippmann has been working as a curator and cultural manager, leading artistic workshops and seminars and is active in various cultural- and community projects. Recent curatorial projects incl. Cinema of Commoning (2022), The Invitees (2021), Sinema+++ (2021), Interferences (2019) – all with Can Sungu, Critical Conditions (with Sarnt Utamachote, Rosalia Namsai Engchuan, Pia Chakraverti-Würthwein and Eirini Fountedaki, 2021) and Sinemanino (with Martin Ganguly, 2021) Selected publications: Please Rewind – German-Turkish Film- and Video Culture in Berlin (Archive Books, 2020), Bitter Things – Narratives and Memories of Transnational Families (Archive Books, 2018).