At the Nova Cinema in Brussels
"You should build a cinema schedule thinking about the venue as a live space where your own wishes as a film enthusiast must (imperatively) match the wishes of the public who go there or could be persuaded to come. In other words, never lose sight of the fact that you are choosing films to share with other people."
I have been managing the programme at the Cinéma L’Archipel since the end of 2013. I have full independence and the manager, theatrical producer Fabrice Roux, gives me considerable freedom. L’Archipel is a cinema-theatre with 2 multipurpose screens, on Boulevard de Strasbourg in central Paris. The cinema has been classified as art house for several years. A former permanent cinema, its programme focuses on second runs and also offers a venue for national releases of Young Audience films.
My programming schedules combine French, European and international films; independent films, research films, heritage films - classics and rare editions -, and films reflecting contemporary art. Since starting here, I have steadily built up a programme of activities to support the films shown. A large number of meetings and events in ever changing formats have turned L’Archipel into a “go-to” venue for (a section of) the cinema-loving public in Paris and the Île-de-France district. These people want to see challenging auteur films in a convivial space where dialogue, learning and enjoyment of the cinema are nurtured.
My programmes showcase challenging works from filmmakers who are breaking new ground in terms of both form and narrative. In 2016 I arranged for the cinema to join the ACID (Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion) as I have been scheduling the majority of films the organisation champions since the end of 2013. In the beginning of 2017, I joined the GNCR (Groupement National des Cinémas de Recherche), making L’Archipel the only member cinema in Paris. I have also formed partnerships with two major film festivals that present the year's most exciting contemporary productions. These are the Brive Festival, Rencontres Européennes du Moyen Métrage (we have been rescreening the winning films since 2014); and FIDMarseille –Marseille’s International Film Festival (some of the films from the previous festival are shown again from time to time throughout the year).
Why did I choose the Nova?
I wanted to establish a link with the Nova Cinema in Brussels because I was aware of its programmes but had never realistically had the time to go there, even for a weekend. I first discovered the Nova when I was travelling in Brussels sometime in the 2000s, before I worked in film exhibiting. Like many other visitors, the art brut facade and original auditorium made a big impression on me. I knew the Nova to be a constantly innovative and vibrant venue with a strong awareness of the way cinema-goers come to discover films. It could be said that creating a space for discussion, social interaction and sharing is the common denominator for many independent cinemas but it seemed to me that the Nova had one of the most unusual approaches to planning its programming schedules.
The Nova: an ambition
In 1997, the Nova’s founders (all of them volunteers) took over a 200 seat cinema, with balcony, to prepare the way for an ephemeral adventure. The name is inspired by supernovae, an array of more than 100,000 stars that suddenly shine brilliantly, but only for a very short time. In 2017, the Nova is still shining brightly and celebrating its 20th birthday. Although the authorities now support the cinema’s activities more reliably than they did at the time of its appearance in the galaxy of independent cinemas, the 50 or so volunteers have remained faithful to the original ambition and manage the venue today following a tried and tested model.
The Nova: a commitment
Meeting the Nova team in winter 2016 was an opportunity to better understand how the team successfully develops ambitious thematic schedules attended by many guests. I also wanted to find out how the programme of supporting events is organised to enhance a coherent editorial line, backed up by powerful artistic and ethical choices (the team says it takes an apolitical approach, but at the same time fosters ideas clearly similar to those that inspired, for example, the Utopia cinemas). At the same time my trip to Brussels was motivated by two simple questions: why is there nothing like the Nova in Paris? And could I turn L’Archipel into a younger and more modest Parisian "cousin" of the Nova (at least in terms of content, given the differing management approaches)?
Unique aspects of the programme
First and foremost, the Nova screens films that can't be seen in other cinemas in Brussels. At L’Archipel, (like other second-run cinemas) I schedule films released on less than 5 copies in Paris, or keep others until we are the last cinema to screen them. The offer in the Belgian capital is clearly not the same as in Paris. There is no guarantee that a "small" film classified as art house in France and shown at 5 to 10 Parisian cinemas will be scheduled in Brussels. At the time of my visit, Revengeance by Bill Plympton was being screened well before its release in France thanks to a long established relationship with the distributor ED. The film will most probably never be shown in any other cinema.
Thematic Scheduling: WAR IS OVER
The Nova regularly develops thematic programmes around a season of films, often in conjunction with exhibitions. Without a doubt, one of the most ambitious of these was last autumn's WAR IS OVER. When I browsed the incredible programme on the Nova’s website I had an urgent wish to go to Brussels to talk to the people who devise and run the Nova.
Not available anywhere else in Brussels, Homeland: Iraq year Zero by Abbas Fahdel was shown five times as part of the season. The programme also included some exceptional events including a debate on Captain Thomas Sankara by Christophe Cupelin; a focus on Laura Poitras’ post 9/11 trilogy (My Country, My Country / The Oath / Citizenfour) and a previously unpublished live soundtrack to a projection of The Birth of a Nation by David W. Griffith. There were a number of screenings of the very rare Let There Be Light, directed in 1946 by John Huston while on active service. This was linked to screenings of a recent documentary from Laurent Bécue-Renard, Of Men and War, which also looks at the group therapies the American army offers to war veterans. There were plenty other events too. When I first came to L’Archipel, I organised short thematic seasons on a much smaller scale combining classic and more contemporary films of varying genre and format. In the summer of 2014, one of these, "Holiday Romances" helped raise the cinema's profile among a wider film-loving public. Inspired by the re-issue of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, in reality the programme was an excuse to invite Renoirian filmmaker Vincent Dietschy to present his illustrious Julie est amoureuse in 35mm to a number of guests, critics and filmmakers.
When I visited in December, the Nova team had devised a thematic programme linked to an external event, the "Laboratoire de Recherche et d’Expérimentation sur les Curiosités Érotiques” [Erotic Curiosities Research and Experimentation Laboratory] initiated by the artist Olga Mathey. An exhibition in the Nova’s foyer, between the entrance and the bar in the basement (very welcoming and therefore popular), invited viewers into a vast playground scattered with "exquisite, erotically surreal textile works".
Part of the (bimonthly) programme schedule had therefore been planned in conjunction with this exhibition. An evening of short films, "Eros Insolite”, showcased different styles of works from different periods, in digital copy but also on 16 and 35mm. The programme was particularly entertaining. I was delighted to find Jacques Baratier’s superb Èves Futures and Walerian Borowczyk’s A Private Collection, and also to discover more of the works of Anja Dornieden & Juan David González Monroy (AweShocks) and Peter Tscherkassky (The Exquisite Corpus). After dining on amusing erotic shapes in the Nova’s bar, I was able to watch a screening of Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness from the much used projection booth with filmmaker João Vladimiro (who presented his film Lacrau two days later). Starring Delphine Seyrig, this fantasy classic is an ambitious and stylised Z movie. More broadly, its inclusion in the programme reflects the Nova team’s taste for cult films which are always given a substantial place in each schedule.
A collective process
Guillaume Maupin and the team of volunteers working on the programme schedule do not automatically devise a new thematic programme every two months. The important point is to come up with something coherent and that embodies the wishes team members put forward at their (epic) scheduling meetings. According to Guillaume, WAR IS OVER required a Herculean effort that could not be repeated regularly. Within the team of the most active volunteers, everyone will contribute to the current programme schedule even if they take it in turns to act as coordinator. Additional grants from the Flemish and Francophone authorities and the equivalent of an operating subsidy from the Brussels authorities provide the team with enough of a budget to be able to acquire some rare works from film archives and to host a large number of filmmakers in Brussels. (The Canadian artist and director Guy Maddin has said that the Nova is his "favourite cinema in the whole world").
Openness to contemporary productions
The evening before, I was able to attend an Open Screen session. The principle behind this type of event is simple. Enthusiasts, students, self produced filmmakers and anyone else can regularly submit their short films to the Nova’s schedulers who will then select a few to screen at a mixed session. Every filmmaker is invited to present their work to the viewers. Admission is free. Naturally, the evening continues in the bar - an important source of funds for the venue, which over time has also built up a loyal clientele. These regulars do not come to the Nova so much for the films but rather to enjoy a sociable moment, a discussion and a shared curiosity. Open Screen sessions are a chance to discover an author-director, or at the very least a whole area of contemporary creativity. In this sense, they are similar in philosophy to the "À la Rencontre” (come and meet) sessions I started at L’Archipel in 2014 with the young critic, filmmaker and actor Marc-Antoine Vaugeois. These bimonthly events focus on producers who are currently revisiting genres, formats and lengths. In April 2017, in the run-up to the presidential elections (and in collaboration with the filmmaker Matthieu Bareyre, and two critics, Mathieu Macheret and Arnaud Hée), I organised an event showcasing four short films “Lost in France in 2017" to mirror a screening of Pierre Lhomme and Chris Marker’s The Lovely Month of May, shown a week earlier. One of the films was sent to us by a director who was aware of our plans; two of the films were found browsing the Internet; another was spotted at the Belfort Film Festival.
Building a programme schedule, with an opinion
My visit to the Nova has strengthened my resolve to develop thematic programmes more regularly, or at least to build on the editorial work I began more than three years ago. As a second run cinema, this is clearly not its main purpose. But it seems to me (and Juliette Grimont’s scheduling at the Gyptis in Marseille is another good example) that the content scheduled becomes much more interesting when it is presented to the public from a structured, thought out and coherent point of view. The success of the Nova’s singular and alternative experiment proves that there are other forms of exhibiting still to be invented. This is particularly so in Paris where the market seems to be stagnating in the problems of exclusivity and there is little awareness of "good virtuous practices" which are (too) quickly identified as unprofitable. Rents in Paris make it hard to imagine a volunteer-run cinema along the lines of the Nova model being established on the Parisian exhibitors’ circuit. However, I remain convinced that it is possible to show films over an extended time period (as the principle of second runs demonstrates) going against the trend of changing the programme every Wednesday, while saying something about films that goes beyond the cursory introductory information. For this reason, I very quickly decided to forge links with informed partner distributors (for more than three years I have maintained constructive and privileged relations with Shellac, Survivance, Malavida, Potemkine, Epicentre and Zeugma) and corporate networks whose values I share.
Finally, visiting the Nova reminded me of the valuable advice I was given by a dear critic friend when I arrived at L’Archipel. You should build a cinema schedule thinking about the venue as a live space where your own wishes as a film enthusiast must (imperatively) match the wishes of the public who go there or could be persuaded to come. In other words, never lose sight of the fact that you are choosing films to share with other people.
Damien Truchot, Programmer of Cinéma L'Archipel