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Delve into the rich history of cinema at Brussels' Cinematek

08:16 02/02/2020

Whether you want to watch a 1930s Hollywood musical, a 1920s German silent movie, a gritty documentary from the 1970s or just about any period and style film in pristine conditions, you'll find it at Cinematek.

The Royal Cinémathèque of Belgium, known as Cinematek since 2009, was founded in 1938 and is the largest in Europe, with a very broad reach across many different types of films, commercial, non-commercial and documentaries.

"Our mission, which had never changed, is to constitute and conserve a collection of films of esthetic, technical and/or historical value," says Cinematek's Johan Vreys.

"We aim to bring together the largest possible collection of documentation on the art of filmmaking - and to make sure that, for both scientific and esthetic interest, these films and documents be available to the public."

The film collection now stands at 250,000 prints in 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, 9.5mm and Pathé Kok, Blu-ray, DCP, U-matic, VHS or Betacam and and 20,000 digitised titles. In terms of documentation, the collection comprises 55,000 books, 700,000 photographs, and three million press clippings, posters, festival catalogues, shooting scripts and other archive material.

The great majority of films made before 1951 were made on nitrate-based film stock; which is both highly inflammable and subject to decomposition. Because of the fear of combustion, these films were warehoused separately but have now all been copied onto plastic-based stock. To forestall the depigmentation of colour films, they are kept in cold storage.

In the meantime, the collection is being digitised at a rate of 30 films per year. The process is not necessarily a panacea, since it is exorbitantly expensive, the lifespan of digitised films is not known and the colour spectrum is different and can require adjustments - but it is preserving films which otherwise would have been lost.

In the cases that Cinematek has multiple copies of a film, the copies are compared and through washing, eliminating scratches and separating glued areas, a best print is produced. Since 2002, Cinematek has been publishing DVDs, mostly of avant-garde Belgian films from 1927 to 1937.

The prehistory of the collection (before its founding in 1938) is peopled with interesting characters including a small leftist Brussels co-op that distributed avant-garde Soviet films in the 1920s and which was the impetus behind the creation of a ciné-club that led to the eventual creation of the Cinématèque.

At the same time, Henri, eighth duke of Ursel (a scion of one of Belgium’s most notable aristocratic families), was intimately involved with the Parisian film avant-garde of the 1920s, appearing in a film by Man Ray. Under a pseudonym, he shot a film, The Pearl, which is considered cinematic poetry. Back in Brussels he then created a movie club that also eventually became part of the Royal Cinématèque of Belgium as the Musée du Cinéma. The Cinémateque was where the films were stored and restored, the Musée du Cinéma was where the films were screened for the public.

A free monthly magazine is published quarterly and with four different film screenings every day at Cinematek - and as many at Flagey - it is invaluable to plan your viewing. The films are broken into themes: Artists in Focus, Classics & Anthologies (including Films of Yesteryear, Free Anthologies, and Anthology of Silent Movies), Festivals, and Rendez-Vous (with such themes as Favourite B movies).

The magazine provides ample information on the featured directors and movies to help you make your selection. Additionally, for four of the silent movies screened every week, a piano player improvises live during the projections.

"We like to work collectively, so we choose together what we would like to present," says Céline Brouwez, one of Cinematek's programmers. "Coming up is a focus on French artist Marie Losier, she’s in the underground scene, she makes installations and drawings, it’s interesting to have such a figure at Cinematek. She had a full retrospective at MOMA two years ago and then at Jeu de Paume last year.

"In our group of programmers we have different tastes, and different issues we would like to put forward. I like to feature the films of women filmmakers and actresses, and try to highlight the less known, so focusing on Laura Dern for instance, is something that could work, and be very interesting especially now that she's nominated for the Oscars."

Cinematek has an outstanding collection of 18th- and 19th-century moving picture machines which are on display in the lobby and which visitors can operate. Also in the lobby are computer terminals where you can see such short films as early images of Brussels and the earliest Walt Disney animated movies as well as many other early pieces. Entrance to the lobby is free.

Five films coming up soon

7 February - The Girls [Flickorna] (Zetterling) VO Swedish, English subtitles, 1968
Simone de Beauvoir called it the best film ever made by a woman. Three friends are on tour with a production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in Sweden in the late 1960s. Life imitates art when the battle of the sexes leaps from the stage to the audience and to the men at home.

12 February - Gaea Girls (Longinotto), VO English, 2000
A powerful documentary about an all-female Japanese wrestling team on the rise. A portrait of determination.

15 February - Young Soul Rebels (Julien), VO English, 1996
A musical thriller set in the 1977 world of black disc jockeys at a pirate radio station in London.

26 February - A Place of Rage (Parmar), VO English, 1991
Through interviews with Alice Walker and Angela Davis on a soundtrack of Prince and Janet Jackson, the film connects the civil rights movement of the 1960s with the LBGT movement of the Eighties

27 February - A Girl's Band [Una banda de chicas] (Giménez), VO Spanish, English subtitles, 2018
A roaring film about a music group consisting of a butch punk touring with her baby, a lesbian reggaeton musician and a working class transsexual.

Cinematek, Rue Baron Horta 9, Brussels
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Written by Richard Harris