Calgary Cinematheque Society opens big with Talking Pictures

In this city of a million it’s a shame that the word “cinematheque” still sounds foreign. The concept is relatively simple — provide a venue where people can watch films that don’t play in either the cineplex or the rep house such as old films retrospectives and the avant garde and engage with other audience members and appreciators. While Calgary has theatres that at one time or another have briefly served as something like a cinematheque there has never been a commitment to continuous programming in this style — until now.

Enter Donna Brunsdale Gary Burns and David Christensen — three filmmakers determined to bring the institution to Calgary. After living devoid of this outlet for so long the trio decided it was time to make this desire for a stronger film community a reality. Since spring of 2006 they have been working towards their goal which has finally come to fruition almost 18 months later.

Brunsdale co-founder and president of the Calgary Cinematheque Society outlines one of the group’s biggest challenges and one that has plagued many groups in Calgary’s arts sector — space.

“Usually we’d try and find a space and that always came to nothing” says Brunsdale. “So then we thought let’s just try and get an organization together and start doing some screenings somewhere in the city bring guests in and go from there.”

After a host of potential venues that included the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art (IMCA) which was to be built in the old AGT building the group found a home at Kensington’s Plaza Theatre which with the exception of the first film to screen at Eau Claire cinemas will host the group’s monthly events. As Burns points out this consistent presence could lead to future opportunities for the society.

“To get a lot of the funding you need to be around for a year” he says. “This whole idea of starting up a theatre was daunting so now it’s have screenings form a society get a board — get everything going and say they build a new library we can say ‘while you’re designing that building design a 300-seat theatre in the basement.’”

The ultimate objective might be to build a dedicated space but not at the expense of what a cinematheque is actually capable of. Possible partnerships with such local groups as WordFest the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers and the Calgary International Film Festival as well as the established affiliation with ArtCity for the society’s initial screening — Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9 — highlight the potential for the organization to connect with and benefit a wide audience.

“It’s about creating a scene and a community and an excitement about going out to see a film” says Brunsdale “rather than flipping through the DVDs.”

Burns agrees. “Some of the greatest cinematheques are coffee shops a place to hang out. It’s a place to meet and talk about film — a social place not a stuffy little organization.”

The educational component of the society is also a huge factor for the founders who point out that while there are areas of study at both Mount Royal College and SAIT and the beginnings of a film program at the University of Calgary there is still relatively little in the way of film education opportunities locally.

“We want to put Calgary on the map in terms of people we know — the filmmakers the directors the writers critics scholars” says Brunsdale. “They’ll come to Calgary for these screenings and talks.”

The Talking Pictures series consists of four events between now and early 2008 that will most often feature a film paired with a speaker or discussion. Beginning with the aforementioned Drawing Restraint 9 the society has set a strong pace by providing Calgarians with a rare opportunity to see a film that has screened only once before in Canada. Artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney thoughtfully examines themes and patterns in a stunning turn of image and music. Other upcoming events include the award-winning Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett in October a presentation by Chicago’s Alloy Orchestra — a trio that writes and performs live accompaniment for classic silent films — in November and Terrence Davies’s Distant Voices Still Lives in February. From there the society will gradually move to a regular schedule with the eventual target of a weekly program.

“Once video started becoming popular rep cinemas started to die” says Brunsdale. “That’s all had a huge impact on the watching of cinema and the screening of films. Places like the Uptown if they get a film and it’s doing well they have to hold on to it. They can’t be showing things for a week and then booking something for another week because they have their distributors to work with. The Globe the Uptown and the Plaza do a great job for what they can do.”

“They can’t fill this function” interjects Burns. “They can’t bring in the Matthew Barney film. It’s a super-expensive film for one screening and it’s just not feasible for those kinds of places to have events like this. We’re filling a gap.”

This gap might not be immediately noticeable to average film-goers. Even some cinephiles might be oblivious in their day-to-day lives of the benefits of watching a new print on a big screen with a group of friends strangers and peers. With this in place it won’t take long for many to realize that it is artistic outlets such as these that help to make a burgeoning metropolis great.

“Every city pretty much has something like a cinematheque” says Brunsdale. “Even if it’s not officially a cinematheque it has a schedule with limited-run art films. If you have that you’re tuned into what’s going on all the time — there’s a way to find out what the hot film is or what’s interesting.” A lot of these hot films have been flying right over Calgary bypassing our apparent lack of interest to reach other Canadian cities with their own cinematheques. That is about to change.

“We want to see (those films)” admits Brunsdale “but also as filmmakers we want people to be well-versed in film… which helps every filmmaker to have an audience that’s more sophisticated.”

Co-founder Burns agrees citing an even more personal motive.

“To some degree one of the reasons for us doing this is to make the city better for ourselves” he says. “We want to stay here and this is what’s missing. The mountains aren’t enough — you want the city to have a vibrant scene.”