American cultural activist and alternative film curator Jeffrey Babcock is one of the most fascinating individuals I have met during my stay in Amsterdam. For several years now, he has been the programmer of several underground cinema venues throughout the city. I recently had the chance to sit with him and discuss about films, technology, human interaction and the role of cinema in shaping one’s life and way of thinking.
What follows is our full conversation, which took place at Filmhuis Cavia on May 16th, 2013. I thought it was worth sharing and I hope more people may find something interesting and thought-provoking in it.
You started doing screenings in 2006, which is also around the time when I first arrived in Amsterdam. However I only found out about it some years later.
JB: Yeah, a lot of people have said that: “If I’d just known!” But it’s always a matter of chance; it’s always a matter of friends telling friends, that’s how the audience is growing. I think people finding out about it through word of mouth, and so in a way creating a culture, is much better and more magical than any sort of marketing campaign. I think only bad products need to be advertised anyway. If something is really good, people just tell each other and then it grows naturally.
How do you go around preparing the audience for the movies you choose to show?
JB: There is a weekly newsletter with descriptions for all the films, and I also do a live introduction on the actual evening of every screening. The selection of movies I’m showing is so diverse and so wide that nobody can be expected to like all of it, so I’m trying to give people an indication of what it is they’re going to be involved with. In this way they’ve been warned, at least they know what to expect.
From all the screenings you’ve done over the last years, are there some you would choose to highlight?
JB: Not really, I think they’re all special. Because it’s all about special films, films not being distributed and not shown in cinemas, and people don’t know about them for the most part. But it’s also about the locations, so it’s a combination of these two things every evening.
Sometimes you also invite directors or artists to your screenings.
JB: Yes, it is something nice when I am able to invite these people. About three years ago I had John Sinclair, who is well known through John Lennon, who actually wrote a song about him back in the 1970s. He lives in Amsterdam so I contacted him one day, thought maybe he would be interested. And it was fantastic, he came to the screening and we had a film about him [‘20 to Life: Life and Times of John Sinclair’, 2007, directed by Steve Gebhardt]. Or, for example, one month ago I had Martha Colburn, who is one of the biggest animators in the US, and we had a Q&A and showed some of her short films before the feature film.
You often couple a feature film with a short film in your screenings, right?
JB: Yeah, because you know, short films don’t have a place in the cinemas today. When I was young, 30-40 years ago, they would still show short films before the feature film. But then it changed into commercials, because big companies got involved. There is a whole history of short films and I want people to be able to see that instead of commercials.
You also show recent films, not only old ‘cult classics’. What are your criteria for choosing a title?
JB: I believe in diversity. I don’t believe in being a ‘retro’ programmer, or a horror-film programmer, or a film noir programmer, or a programmer of any specific kind of genre. The same applies to time periods. I feel like showing films from the 1920s, but then last week I also showed a film that’s just 6 months old and it was a European premiere [‘Video Diary of a Lost Girl’, 2012, directed by Lindsay Denniberg].
A lot of things are not available anymore, so it’s hard work finding those films that I’m interested in. So I make a selection of films that it’s possible to show and out of that selection I start programming with as much diversity as possible. So I wouldn’t have too many B&W films or films from the 1970s in a row. Also, if it’s a really great film and is not shown anywhere in the city, I’d sometimes show it again every 2 or 3 years. But in general I’m not so interested in big films that people know already, I feel more like highlighting all these unknown gems.
Are there any films you’d like to show but haven’t been able to get hold of?
JB: Sure. There are lots of films through cinema history that are just not available. Really a lot, especially from the 1960s and 1970s, which is a period I’ve lived through and there are many titles you can’t find. The only people that know about those films are the people that were alive and in the right age to be experiencing them in alternative cinemas back then. So now it’s all gone.
There are similar issues with more recent films as well. For example, there are films that are really popular in France but virtually unknown outside of it. Same thing in Bulgaria, Hungary, etc. I have a very international audience coming to my screenings, so I always ask: “Are there any films that people really love in your country that nobody else knows about?” And then I try to see if I can find these films and screen them with English subtitles.
What possibilities/threats do you see for cinema with the advent of digital technology?
JB: There are a lot of negative things happening in cinema that have to do with technology. At the same time there are also some positive aspects to the new digital formats, like for example the possibility for anyone to create subtitles and add them onto a film. So film fans that want other people to know about some movie will make subtitles for it and put it online in downloadable form so that it is available for everyone to use.
I think real film, i.e. celluloid, is more beautiful than digital translations of film like DVD or Blu-ray. But then everything is being shifted to digital anyway. So you can’t live in the past, but you can be critical of the present. When everything changed to digital a couple of years ago, it entailed the potential for incredible freedom. It should have meant that, with the help of the internet, any cinema in the world could show any film they would like to directly from the filmmaker, without any interference of businessmen or distributors. But this didn’t happen. Because distributors got in between and said “we want the same old structure”, so they lobbied and forced the situation to stay the same, whereas we could have absolute freedom.
Official channels and institutions also play a role here.
JB: Sure. Take for example the EYE, Amsterdam’s new film museum. They do maybe 5% of what they should do, but the other 95% is going in a totally wrong direction. There was also some bad programming when the Film Museum was still based in Vondelpark, but now it’s gotten far worse. They should just be more progressive, you know. They’ll never show a movie unless it has won awards etc., so they’re just fitting in what’s already popular. Instead, they should be taking lesser-known gems that are forgotten or marginalised and bring those into the spotlight. And they are in the position to do that.
So why do you think this is not happening?
JB: Approximately twenty years ago, there was this guy called Eric de Kuyper [Deputy Director of the Dutch Film Museum between 1988-1992] who transformed the Film Museum from a stuffy, dusty archive to a great film museum. He remoulded everything and had an incredibly diverse programming all day long. But by law he was only allowed to stay in charge for 4 years. The next one was worse, then the next one was worse, and it has been going down ever since. I think there’s probably some creative people buried within the system there, but their voice is not as strong as the management’s.
-click here to read pt.2-