Since March 2020 we have been forced to live our lives differently to how we were used to. For many people living in a lockdown this meant taking time to slow down and look back. What albums did I collect over the years but never really listened to? How come I never started reading Arundhati Roy’s last novel? Oh dear, I have been going through my archives finding letters I never answered. Hey now we can watch every day a movie or we even can do some binge watching. This is the Netflix era, we watch whatever we like whenever we want to, and we don’t have to move outside our house.
Not to mention illegal downloading or streaming, just to name a few. We consume what is offered as cheap fast-food. It probably is not a very interesting time for independent film theatres. Perhaps it remains very interesting only getting reasonable funding is very difficult in these times.
I grew up in a time when going to the movies was an event. It all started with deciding what movie you were going to watch. Often which director produced the film would help us decide for movie A or movie B. Not to mention who played the key role. Reading about the film in magazines and talking about it with friends all helped in building up the emotions, the high expectations and so on. The film theatres were often crowded and me, I have always been that person who would remain seated until all credits had past and the screen turned black again. Movies really could absorb me and go deep touching my mind, my soul. And as we slowly stood up and walked outside, we would go for a drink and discuss what it all meant to us. This could go on for hours sometimes, drinking, smoking, talking philosophically, wondering, drinking more and analysing often in a way it does not occur anymore since we’re all living in our hasty times. And days later we could still be deeply moved by the movie. At my first interesting job, at a center for reading promotion and library provision, I was often working outdoors. Back then the Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar was still a cult star. I adored him for his daring, often provoking, way of telling stories of people living on the edge. “Tacones Lejanos” (High Heels) had just come out and 24-year-old me could not wait to finally see it on a big screen in one of Antwerp’s coolest movie theatres, Cartoons. It was my first and only time I skipped work to watch a movie. I’m just using this anecdote to explain what movies meant for me, and the strength of it.
Of course, I must be careful not to fall into the nostalgia trap saying it all was better back then. If people keep on expressing themselves through all sorts of art, and as long as there are fewer restrictions (censorship) and as long as we have Film festivals such as Berlin, Cannes, Rotterdam or Toronto, the outsider or low-budget-films will still have a place and find an audience. The main question to me is “how do independent movies find a proper place alongside the extremely promoted blockbusters?”
You see, I live in a rather small town with approximately 40.000 inhabitants. We have one movie theatre and in there four different public rooms. On Monday and Tuesday one movie is promoted as “The Pearl”. This means you get a chance to watch one of those great independent special movies, one that dares to tell a story the way the director wants to and not to please the public. So, we get a chance once a week and the next week it’s already a different one. These movies often will be screened for months in the big cities, but not where I live.
In between two lockdowns I went to see Beanpole. It was that week’s Pearl. I think I was one of the seven paying visitors that evening. If it was not the pandemic telling us how to live our lives, we probably would have been with 23 paying visitors and that as well is a financial loss for the movie theatre. So how will we be able to continue to give all those different voices in the film industry a proper place?
And please don’t get me wrong, I have not much against these blockbusters, in my opinion it is just a simplistic way of telling a story, not digging deep and not showing a different point of view. Even the original fairy tales showed the pain, the scary dangers and the extreme difficulties one would come across. I want to be surprised by a story, be it a movie, an album, a book or an interview in a magazine; I will always ask myself what is it that they are trying to tell me?
This pandemic has been telling me that I must start reviewing how one should fully enjoy a movie. Maybe independent movies will survive thanks to the possibilities offered through platforms such as Netflix, Movie Box Pro, Cinemember (Belgian) I know this is purely an answer to the demand to consume movies whenever the public wishes to. This makes watching a movie a purely individual act. But at the same time, I get a chance, living far away from big movie theatres, to watch those movies that I would consider low-budget Pearls. If I have the perfect platform or application for my needs, I will be able to use the search engine and search all winners of the International Film festival of Rotterdam or all of Catherine Deneuve her recent movies and so on.
It is brilliant and of course it should every time be a highlight whenever I and my wife decide to watch a movie. We can search for movies of specific directors, on country or region, film festival, actors, and so on. By using this new application, I sometimes have watched more than 3 movies a week. I only used to do that when I was a student. So now I am consuming movies in a way that I would have protested if I was told this was the future 10 years ago. Last year I participated in a Facebook thread showing friends my favourite movies. And if you ask me tomorrow to tell you my ten favourites, I might give you some different titles. So, this was my ten movies that surely made a difference for me:
Le Bal by Ettore Scola, a silent movie with music taking the head role. Fassbinder his fantastic “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, “The African Queen”, “Yeelen” by Soulemane Cisse, Belgian cult movie “C’estarrivéprès de chez vous”, Deepa Mehta’s “Earth”, Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog, the way of the Samurai”, Pedro Almodovar’s “Matador”, the wonderful “À la verticale de l’été” which is a must see just for the 5-minute opening scene and Wim Wenders “der Hummel über berlin”. As I said it was a thread which means that friends ask their (movie) friends to join in. Of all the movies described in my friends’ posts the most of them won’t be easy to find. And if you want to watch them in a theatre nearby you will have to wait for one of those specific retrospectives.
While studying in Antwerp in the 1980’s someone told me about a Lebanese man who collected movies from all over the world which you could borrow for one or two weeks. In the beginning all films of course were on VHS, later he had them all on DVD. He really had films from all corners of the world. Chile, Mali, Turkey, Nepal, Japan, Thailand. He had so many films and each time it was wonderful to immerse yourself in a director’s oeuvre. I never forgot about him, and he even reminded me of Albert Kahn (1860-1940), that eccentric man with his special ideal. He was convinced that knowledge of foreign countries and cultures would increase mutual understanding between peoples. From 1898 onwards, he provided travel grants to enable students to travel around the world to acquire knowledge that would foster understanding of each other’s differences: ‘Les bourses de voyage Autour du Monde’. His museum in Paris is open to the public (https://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.fr/). And now I wonder maybe we can find the solution in these two cute boyhood dreams. We just must expand it so people from all over the world can benefit from it and not just the happy few in Belgium.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have an international platform where movies are treated as some sort of heritage, which it is? This platform should have easy access, low costs and perhaps be co-financed by public and private sponsors. This would be the place where one can find those great Russian, Iranian, Indian, Mexican, Nigerian movies and by supplying this huge range of different stories and different views it somehow gives answers to the narrow minded, nationalistic, simplistic narrative.
On the contrary, I am talking about the beauty and the strength of diversity. I can imagine that you do not see any difference in other film-promoting platforms. To be honest it will be a difficult task, but the idea is not only promoting the history and future of what is happening worldwide regarding movies (documentaries included). It goes further and it should give an important voice to and there must be participation on all levels of female directors and directors from all background. This is the decolonisation process I am talking about. In 2019 the Goethe Institute opened a call for action and reflection to decolonise film archives. This call for decolonising film archives for sure is a work in progress and reflects ongoing discussions that converged in the context of a workshop convened by the Goethe-Institute Portugal at Culturgest in Lisbon between the 24th and 27th of September 2019. Despite the multiplicity of voices that characterised the workshop, many participants who contributed to this document felt a common urge to express a call for action & reflection for a decolonizing practice of archives holding film collections from colonial contexts.(https://www.goethe.de/prj/lat/en/spu/21885042.html).
We really don’t need more clichés as if all Indian movies are Bollywood films so colourful and filled with dancing extravaganza. And if we achieve this platform, application, website, whatever it will be, or who knows what the outcome will be of this call for action, but I am sure and very positive that in the long run this will safeguard the future of modern cinema.