Debates organised by L’Abominable during Cinéma du réel film festival 2013

Launched in 1978, at a time when the video documentary was in its infancy, Cinéma du réel is celebrating this year its 35th anniversary, at a time when the changeover to digital technology for film exhibition is almost complete.

In 2013, the Festival has invited L’Abominable, a film laboratory run by artists, to ponder on what is at stake in this transition: updates on this switchover and attempts to imagine what path lies ahead for celluloid film now that its industrial age is over.

1st part. The realities of digital screening.

What is at stake in the switchover to the digitial technology that has just been installed in film theatres? Is the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) an opportunity for the exhibition of documentary films and, more broadly, for minority forms of cinematography? What does the future hold for the exhibition of cinema history in cinematheques and elsewhere?

A sharing of experiences and a historical perspecrive of digitalisation.

Panel: Francesca Bozzano (Head of coordination, Collections Department, Cinémathèque de Toulouse), L’Acid – Association du Cinéma Indépendant pour sa Diffusion.

2nd part. Continuing the production and exhibition of celluloid films.

Exhibition venues, producers, laboratories run by filmmakers, who are sometimes very young… Today there is a “celluloid constellation” of artists who have chosen to work with film and programmers or exhibitors who have decided to show films using this medium.

The current situation of these practices, that run counter to the digital tsunami and some attempts to imagine what the future has in store for them.

Panel: Olivier Dutel (Gran Lux, St-Etienne), Jean-François Neplaz (Film Flamme, Marseille), Nadia Turincev (producer, Rouge International)

35 years / 35 mm: film in the digital age ?
Text from Nicolas Rey for l’Abominable, 2013

As the king was not too pleased that his son abandon the beaten tracks and take side routes to form his own judgement of the world, he offered him a carriage and a horse. “Now you don’t have to walk”, were his words. “Now I forbid you to walk”, was their meaning. “Now you can no longer walk” was their future effect.

“Nothing brings discredit on a man more swiftly than his criticism of machines”. Right from the first pages of his analysis on the all-powerfulness of technology, The Outdatedness of Humankind (1956), Günther Anders takes the initiative: challenging what appears to be technical progress immediately incurs the risk of being disqualified, if not accused of holding reactionary views*.

France is at the forefront when it comes to replacing 35 mm projectors with digital projection equipment. In two years, thanks to massive State grants** , 95% of film theatre screens have found themselves opposite a digital projector. Yet, while film projectors had the grace to be dainty and slender, making as much room as possible for their colleagues, the extremely corpulent digital projectors have pushed everyone through the exit, or in other words into the refuse truck. (As digital projectors run silently, plans could have been made to install them outside the projection booth, but “Destruction is inherent to production” – Günther Anders, yet again.)

Setting aside the triumphant announcements of those who implemented the programme as well as the acclaim from a good number of film critics, this switchover has taken place in relative silence: what’s the point of arguing over what is, each time, presented as inevitable?

There has, of course, been some echo of this accelerated installation covering the entire film theatre network: slapdash set-ups and more crucially, an almost total loss of control for the projectionists, now forbidden from intervening on this new equipment (if they have not already been shown the door or assigned to other tasks), and a dependency on a handful of equipment manufacturers and approved contractors.

But the implications of this changeover have not been thought through. Or rather, while the flow of the most commercial films has been tremendously facilitated, the fringes have been passed over.

Some nonetheless had hoped that digitalisation would open up film theatres to the “independent” filmmakers: this remains to be proved, especially as these new tools automatically give greater control to the distributors who also – yet another issue – co-finance the projection equipment.

The independent programmers that occasionally use commercial film theatres (festivals, associations, etc.) are experiencing tightening constraints: the impossibility of programming 35 mm films and catastrophic digital projector set-ups for any format other than DCP, which often means that they have to bring along their own video projector if they want to obtain a reasonable screening quality!

Meanwhile, accessing copies is becoming problematic: film archives worldwide, both public and private, are increasingly reluctant to circulate their celluloid film copies. As a result, the history of cinema is being placed under a bell jar. In the rich countries, of course, the more wealthy right holders produce digital copies compliant with digital film standards, sometimes with State support, but this “creaming” apart, it is “the Deeveedee for all” and a huge step backwards with respect to screening conditions.

Most cinematheques, deviating from their historic role of plucking films out of the commercial stream to give them the attention worthy of an art form, are abandoning without a whimper the idea that films should be screened on their original medium. Very few of them believe that a “film museum” worthy of its name should show works as they were produced and screened when they were created – and not as a facsimile in step with today’s trends.

And of course, no one mentions keeping open the possibility for the filmmakers who wish to continue to create on celluloid film. This would forcibly smack of nostalgia – although everyone agrees that the historical episode now coming to an end enabled, with its multiplicity of film media, all kinds of experiments. No to mention the technical industries that are de facto being wiped out: there is nothing new under the sun of capitalism, so it seems.

But enough of lamenting. There is no reason to feel nostalgic, for example, about the ultra-hierarchical and elitist functioning of the professional 35 mm productions; or to mythify some technologies as opposed to others. We need to look at the practices that the technologies of the here and now induce or make possible, at the relationship they create with machines, and at the logic and economy which they are part of.

Now that the digital highway has been built, what we need to do is invent new side roads.

* See on this subject the “451” text about the ongoing digitalisation of the book trade and the reactions this has prompted :
** An average 47,000 euros per screen from the CNC alone, plus a sometimes-large amount of funding from local authorities.