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The Network - 29/06/2007


Thierry Abel, Cinéma Arenberg, Brussels (Belgium)



 "Emancipate the public"

From 20 June through to 11 September, the long-running Ecran Total festival is taking place at Cinéma Arenberg in the Belgian capital. During what is something of a slack season for cinema, the event, which attracted in the region of 30,000 viewers last year, is offering around sixty films, including classics, unreleased films and reruns. As far as unreleased films are concerned, the programme will include, in particular, three of the most lauded German films of recent times, Lucy, Windows on Monday (Montag) and Low Profile (Falscher Bekenner), the first film by French actress Laure Marsac, Le 4ème Morceau de la Femme coupée en 3, which succeeds in combining situation comedy with melancholy, and also Something Like Happiness (Stesti), by Czech director Bohdan Slama. Several lectures will be devoted to music in cinema and four cycles will pay homage to Mikio Naruse, Anne Wiazemsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Michel Piccoli.
On this occasion, we talked to Thierry Abel, director of the Cinéma Arenberg (2 screens), a veritable institution in Brussels, about the theatre and how he sees the future of exhibition.

Ecran Total started on 20 June. How does this event fit into your programming?

We have been organising Ecran Total for almost 20 years. Our goal is the same now as it was when we started: to present films that do not benefit from commercial distribution in Belgium to the public. It has now become the main summer cinema event in Brussels, giving film enthusiasts the opportunity to take advantage of their holidays to "immerse themselves" in films. In particular, the festival presents a range of classic films, in collaboration with organisations and film libraries, and these prove extremely successful.
Ecran Total is the highlight of our work at the Arenberg. Over the course of the year, our programming is composed of newly distributed films, but also of numerous public events. In actual fact, we are working increasingly with targeted screenings and less on the basis of the principle of 5 screenings a day. We prefer to programme films for a longer period, but with fewer screenings, as this enables us to adapt to the public. We would like to go further down this route, but this approach clashes with that of distributors.

What are the principles behind the way you operate?

We want cinema to be an emancipation tool and are keen to recreate a link with the public. The debates that we organise, for example as part of the "Cinés-Philo" events, which are mostly devoted to contemporary films, attract between 60 and 70 participants and can therefore be considered a genuine success.
Let me give you another example: the "Lire et Ecrire" [Read and Write] project, which is run with literacy groups, makes use of films as part of language courses. And it works: we have doubled the number of projections this year.
It is essential that we take the view that the best of culture should be accessible to everyone and, above all, that we do not take a condescending attitude towards the public. We have therefore set up a Young Audiences project, which goes by the name "On se fait notre cinéma". This allows cultural projects to be developed with young children in the city´s French-speaking schools. Basing a project on a Buster Keaton film, for example, could come across as elitist. But that is not the case at all: the children love it.

How do you see the market at present and the future of your theatre?

I think the concept of art house cinemas (like our own) needs to be completely revised. Nowadays, with downloads and DVDs, film enthusiasts can enjoy the great cinema classics in the comfort of their own home. I am convinced that the increase in the number of media is one of the reasons why attendances at our theatre have fallen by 40 to 50% over the past 4 years. On a more local level, we are suffering from the competition of UGC, which targets the educated middle class in particular. Their "Unlimited" card is a real problem: it is impossible for us to match their pricing policy. 
With the financial difficulties they face, the future is not particularly bright for art house cinemas. Financial concerns lay behind our decision to set up a public limited company in which cinemagoers can acquire shares. We now have 550 shareholders and this enables us to take the wishes of the members of our audience into account more effectively.
I think we need to acknowledge, once and for all, that certain theatres should not be subjected to market forces and should be considered as quasi-public theatres. These cinemas would be run more like cultural centres for the cinematic arts and would have an important educational role.
It is important to be able to distinguish between players on the market whose goals are entirely different. Even at the level of art house cinemas considerable differences exist! I am delighted, for example, to be part of Diagonale, which groups together a number of belgian art house theatres. However, even though our ambitions are more or less the same, there are substantial differences between us. That said, Diagonale could give "difficult" films a chance of achieving a release. But whenever I express an interest in "small" films, French ones for example, I find the rental costs to be much too high.
Interview conducted by Jean-Baptiste Selliez, 29 June 2007

Cinéma Arenberg/Ecran Total:
"On se fait notre cinéma":
Pictures (from top): Cinéma Arenberg, Le 4ème morceau de la femme coupée en 3, Lucy