How do Cinemas Create Political Spheres and Collectivity?
On 25 June 2022, we hosted a panel titled Collective Experiences and Political Communities around Cinemas: How do Cinemas Create Political Spheres and Collectivity? as part of the Cinema of Commoning Symposium. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
How can cinema promote solidarity, collectivity and political awareness as a (partially) public sphere? This panel focuses on cinema as a political space for discussion as well as the importance of programming and supporting programmes in the creation of shared participation and involvement. Discursive, artistic and social forms of exchange and encounter that go beyond the cinema hall are central to a cinema of the commons. Here, political activism, programming in the cinema, and a cinephile culture of discussion come into productive contact. What possibilities exist for a shared shaping of the program and which actors should be considered in this process? How must the cinema space be designed and the film screening, including the supporting programme, be conceived in order to facilitate conversations?
Thanaphon Accawatanyu (DocClub, Bangkok)
Jowe Harfouche (NAAS, Berlin)
Alain Kasanda (filmmaker, Ibadan)
Mirian Vanda, Fradique (Cine Geração, Luanda)
Moderation: Sarnt Utamachote (un.thai.tled, Berlin)
Sarnt Utamachote (un.thai.tled): To start off, I would like us to elaborate on how creative solutions come out of problems. Maybe we could begin by asking this question: how do you create a political community? I think all of your projects, whether they are about distribution, local cinema or local production, are about creating community out of a common political battle in some way.
There is also this tension between local and regional, because even when you have a cinema in one specific town, you do not show just films from that town, you show films from other places, other countries. In doing so, you create connections between places – very much in the spirit of NAAS (Network of Arab Screens) – a spirit you follow each of you in your own way.
I wanted us to use some general questions as our starting point: First of all, how do each of your cinema projects position themselves around this idea of community? Secondly, why do you think this is necessary? Finally, do you think you have achieved this so far through your projects?
Fradique (Cine Geração): Our task as a cinema space is hard, especially taking into account everything that is going on in the world right now, and despite all our struggles, I feel we are living our best moment. In order for so many different projects from different parts of the world to come together, to discuss and share in an honest space, this must be proof that we are at a good point.
I know there are different struggles for different parts of the world and for different cities. But one thing we keep hearing in the discussion across the symposium is this idea of trying to conquer the centre; of finding ways to claim space in the city centre. At the same time, I also think that it is important to claim space outside of the centre. What is usually the case is that the centre is already taken over, and that means that many people do not actually live in the centre.
When I say the people that are not in the centre, I am not only talking about cases in the Global South; I am talking about the suburbs of Berlin and of Paris too. I think it is more important to take care of people outside of the centre rather than the people in the centre because if you want to go and face down the “giants” of the multiplexes, then you end up feeding into the same conversations. You should not be talking to them [the multiplexes], you know? We should be talking to the people in the periphery; they want to listen to us there and they want to be part of it.
That is why I was very inspired to see NAAS’s work, because in that project we are talking to people who are willing to listen and who are not being heard. They want to see films and they want to tell their own stories.
One really short story that I would like to share is from when Cine Geração were shooting a film, The Air Conditioner (2020). We were shooting on the streets and people were approaching us because it was an open set, so they were watching us shoot the film. We want to create that sense of community.
The main character of the film is a security guard and somebody approached me as I was directing and said “why is the security guard in front of the camera?” I said, “Because it is his story.” And this person responded “but why? The story of the security guard isn’t interesting.” For me, to get to that point when an Angolan person is asking another Angolan person why an Angolan person’s story is interesting is a big concern. That is exactly the type of person I want to be talking to, that is the person I want to have discussions with.
What I am trying to say is that I am ok with not being in the centre. I am also concerned about how easy it is for us to get into the centre, even with our project of screening the films in Rwanda. That is why now we are also doing open-air screenings – and I’m glad to see that your projects are also using open air theatres as well– because we need to open up the theatre. We cannot just be sticking to one location, we need to get out of our comfort zones and of the centre, because otherwise we are going to become what we were complaining about. We are going to become another arthouse cinema showing films for the elites of a specific city or country.
Thanaphon Accawatanyu (DocClub): In my experience, in Thailand we do not have these kinds of post-screening public discussions so much. We do not have a public space in which people can exchange thoughts and simply hang out. When DocClub started, people came there because it was different.
Jowe Harfouche (NAAS): If I were to evaluate the NASS project so far, I would say we have been quite successful in highlighting the work and the role of cinema exhibitors, which is typically either invisible because it is at the end of the pipeline of the filmmaking process, or it is not sexy enough. It is not like in the case of filmmakers and producers, who get invited to film festivals to talk about their stories and processes. What is not discussed so often is the fact that cinema exhibition is at the frontline, it is the front that builds the relationship with audiences. We ensure that films and the discourse around them reach people. Within that framework, I think that we are doing a fairly good job.
But I think that enormous challenges still exist around access, be it for people who work within cinemas or for audiences. The economy within which we work as culture and art practitioners in the arthouse sector is a heavily market-driven economy. I keep using the word sector even though I do not really believe in it, because it is an economic term that does not really fit with what we do.
Another challenge is finding sources of funding within this economy. Where does the money come from? Who holds the power that accompanies this money, as it travels primarily from Europe to our region? These are the questions that we are still really trying to tackle from different angles through our programmes, discourse and practice, and within our team. At NAAS we are a team of four, but we are also part of a larger network of cinemas trying to have this conversation that is not always obvious for people who are on the frontline of the practice, working on the ground in cinemas and maintaining audiences.
Alain Kasanda (filmmaker): As far as my own experience is concerned, it is a bit different because the framework I work within is a classroom. Once a week it becomes a cinema but then it becomes a classroom again. What we managed to create is a community because people come from different parts of the campus, students from Law, from English Literature, from Agriculture. And once they are here, they are just moviegoers.
What I find interesting with this project is that, first of all, it is free. You do not have to pay admission, we want it to be as inclusive as possible. It is open to students and academics, although in practice it is mostly students who come. These conditions enabled it to become a safe space because Nigerian universities are very oppressive institutions. Universities replicate the systematic oppression of society. They call it a democracy because people vote now, but there is no democracy in Nigeria. The oppression that you find outside of the campus is the same that you find inside the campus. In a university, you have the Vice Chancellor which replicates the role of the president, then you have the Heads of Departments, the lecturers and the students. Then you have the non-academic staff. These hierarchies resemble the societal ones that one finds outside the campus.
What we managed to create was a sense of community that even survived the academic calendar. Unfortunately the Nigerian state does not really value education, so we end up with endless systemic strikes. In 2020, lecturers went on a nine-month strike from March to December, so all the students failed. When I came back to Nigeria in 2021–having been away since 2019– the majority of the students were still on the same level. What we managed to do was to keep the screenings alive even during the huge strikes. We even became a rallying for demonstration within the campus, addressing various issues. The University of Ibadan is one of the most beautiful universities in Africa, with a lot of trees. In 2019, the administration started to cut down trees and people suspected that this was in order to sell them. So students gathered to protect these trees, and the movie became a place where we started to screen films which addressed trees, and incited a botanist to have a discussion about the importance of trees to biodiversity. So we were really using cinema as a starting point to address society. It is not just a place to watch films, it is a political space.
Mirian Vanda (Cine Geração): I think this is really interesting, and it takes me back to the recent exhibitions that we had of the Cinema of Commoning film programme in our courtyard. In that programme we not only got to watch the movie that we had selected, but also all the films that each partner cinema had selected. It was a surprise in a way, because there are so many things that we talk about at our cinema, and you think that you are the only ones going through this problem. But we all have something in common. Whether it is about keeping the cinema alive, or making sure that cinema is seen as having something to do with culture. You know there are so many aspects we share. I think that it is also a good way to acknowledge that cinema is not just entertainment but also activism.
Sarnt: There was a conversation yesterday from Cinema Arta and CCC, in which we discussed how the cinema building could also be part of the production process, positioned within the entire film ecology. I think in a way it is the same with Cine Geração and NAAS as well. You involve the people, the community in the process. I think the political part is when you become close to the community; that is already political, and this then feeds into the production and exhibition of film. So it is not just kind of a case that someone else creates and drops a film that comes from another planet.
Something else that I have spotted amongst all of you is that you all come from different backgrounds. Alain and Fradique come from filmmaking backgrounds, Mirian from an architecture and photography background, Thanaphon studied theatre before working in film. I wanted to ask you all how you reflect on your personal experience in other fields, and to ask you how this interdisciplinary experience helped you create this cinema model.
Fradique: My generation is the generation after independence. So our parents are the ones who fought for independence. I grew up in Angola, without cinemas. My way of getting in touch with films was either through video stores or through a lot of piracy; with tapes, DVD and eventually online. My relationship with filmmaking was not with classical cinema, it was with the bootleg version of it. I remember the first time I saw City of God (2002) was through this one film copy that was going around because somebody illegally shot it in a theatre. This is the one copy I had the chance to see.
I decided to go into filmmaking because my photography teacher in high school in Luanda was part of the first generation of Angolan filmmakers after independence. That was supposedly our best moment, since 1975 and throughout the mid-1980s, when Angola produced many documentaries, short films and fiction features. The archives of almost all of these films were destroyed. So this generation of filmmakers ended up without jobs, some of them teaching high school kids about photography who did not know or care about film. So I was lucky to get a teacher who told me, “Listen, there is filmmaking.” Being from Angola, I assumed the only person who could make films was Spielberg – I could not make films. I did not see African or Angolan films in the theatre, so why would I think that I could make films?
At that moment I got the bug, but I found myself with a problem; How am I going to make films when there is no film institute, no film crews, no film companies? At that time in Angola the only people producing anything audiovisual were making commercials or propaganda content. I had to find other crazy people like me who also wanted to make films and get together. Like you said, just the simple act of trying to make films in a place where you cannot imagine yourself making films is already an act of resistance and activism. Just the simple fact of somebody showing a film in a classroom is already waking something up, and I am very grateful to cinema for that. It was through cinema, through art, that I found myself politically, and that I also discovered more about my own country.
Thanaphon: In Thailand, we did have institutions and film schools. But the problem was that we did not have a place to screen our own films. We are very rich in terms of filmmaking, but we did not have a place to exhibit individual films. This is what inspired us to start our own festival. We had a very long festival that lasted over two months, and we screened hundreds of films. There were groups of cinephiles who would just sit around and watch films all day, every day. This is the spirit which made us who we are.
Alain: I did not attend film school, so for me film played a huge role in my own education. I learned to make films by watching many films, trying to make my own films and making mistakes. What I find interesting is the fact that when I began programming, my biggest joy was watching people as they watched the films that I have chosen. When I am touched by a film I just want to share it and see the reaction of people receiving it. That was my biggest motivation to do what I do, the fact that I enjoy sharing things and the ideas that go along with those things. This is my personal relationship to cinema.
Mirian: I think it is interesting how everybody has their own walks of life. I unfortunately did not study cinema, I studied architecture. At the moment, I feel like I am in a bit of a dilemma with myself because I really like cinema, but people here in Angola still do not see cinema in the way that those of us who love cinema see it. Sometimes you are “forced” to do something else because people assume that a job in cinema will not give you money. It is a complicated situation.
But either way, I like what I do. And I think it is a really great opportunity to be part of Cine Geração because it helps me to learn from cinema and from people’s stories. I really like film and every time I try to do an academic project, I always end up doing something related to my passion for cinema. I remember as if it was yesterday that when I was deciding on my dissertation topic while studying architecture, I ended up doing something about architecture and cinema. This joy I have for cinema also allowed me to investigate how I could follow my passion in my own country. It is a statement that I am making – I can be an architect and I also do cinema, I can help create spaces that integrate the community.
Thanaphon Accawatanyu graduated from Thammasat University. He is 29 years old and started to work at Documentary Club in 2019 as a theatre manager and projectionist. After the Covid pandemic, he began to work in film acquisition. Accawatanyu has a part-time job as a playwright and theatre director.
Jowe Harfouche is the executive director of the Network of Arab Alternative Screens NAAS, a growing constellation of non-governmental cinema spaces presenting visionary film programs that engage and challenge audiences across the Arabic-speaking region. He is also a filmmaker and currently lives in Berlin.
Alain Kasanda was a programmer of an art house cinema in the suburbs of Paris for five years. From 2015 to 2019 Kassanda moved to Ibadan, Nigeria where he directed Trouble Sleep (2020), a medium-length film which won the Golden Dove at Dok Leipzig. Colette and Justin (2022), his first feature documentary film traces the trajectory of his grandparents during the decolonization of the Congo (DRC).
Mirian Vanda is a graduate from The Arts University Bournemouth with a BA in Architecture. She is particularly interested in exploring film as a way of understanding architecture and the role of architecture in shaping communities. She is currently based in Luanda, working as an assistant and film curator at Geração 80.
Fradique is considered one of the most talented and expressive voices in contemporary African cinema. His first fiction feature film The Air Conditioner (2020) had its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and participated in more than forty international film festivals, receiving ten awards. Independência (2015), his first full-length documentary which focuses on Angola’s liberation struggle won Angola’s Culture National Prize for Cinema in 2015 and is considered an important step in the recovery of Angola’s collective memory. As a filmmaker and one of the founders of the Angola collective Geração 80, he is an advocate of the cinema of the Global South.
Sarnt Utamachote is a Southeast Asian nonbinary filmmaker and curator based in Berlin. They are a co-founder of un.thai.tled, an artist collective from the German-Thai diaspora, and curated many film events and exhibitions regarding postcolonial histories, Southeast Asian diaspora and activism. This includes the recent research-based exhibition Where is my karaoke? Still, we sing (2022) in Leipzig, and the annual Celestial Festival in Berlin. Their short films such as I Am Not Your Mother (2020) or Soy Sauce (2020) have been screened internationally. Currently they work as a programmer/selection committee for Xposed Queer Film Festival Berlin and Short Film Festival Hamburg.