and now for something completely different: THE PORTUGUESE CINEMATHÈQUE

This past week, Portuguese Cinemathèque director Maria João Seixas announced there was a strong possibility the institution might not be able to open its doors in September, due to financial constraints and shortcomings.

It's the latest issue in a difficult couple of years in the life of the Cinemathèque. Responsible for operating the National Archive of the Moving Image, a state-of-the-art restoration and archive facility in the Lisbon suburbs, and the central-Lisbon Cinemathèque master building, with two screening theatres and a library, the institution has been suffering from the economic recession and the general austerity measures mandated by the current neo-liberal, centre-right government. All unhelped by the decision to cut down the former Culture Ministry into a mere secretarial position with little to no financial autonomy.

There has never been really much of a cultural policy in Portugal for a while now, but now that is practically none. The austerity measures have all but shut down the state subsidy aids to film production disbursed through the Institute of Film and Audiovisual (ICA), even though Portuguese cinema is one of the best calling cards the country has worldwide, thanks to the international acclaim of Miguel Gomes, João Pedro Rodrigues, Pedro Costa or Manoel de Oliveira.

Any Portuguese film, regardless of its genre, style or budget, has no chance to break even in its home market even if it becomes a hit; the multiplex-based exhibition circuit is geared toward mass-market blockbusters, with any alternative exhibition circuits virtually non-existant. And television and cable channels have completely abandoned the screening of classic, repertory or European and world cinema, replaced by endless formatted soap operas and reality shows, Hollywood blockbusters and recent commercial productions. The exceptions are few and far between.

This means the Cinemathèque plays a central role in making visible repertory and classic cinema, being one of the rare screens that still projects films in 35mm prints (not necessarily by design; the Cinemathèque does not own a digital projector, even though the exhibition market has all but abandoned 35mm projection). Screening five times a day in its two theaters, Monday through Saturday, the Cinemathèque has for years been a true living museum of film, and responsible for building and shaping generations of film buffs and film lovers who would not have been exposed to many of the classics without its regular thematic seasons and film series.

The financial problems the institution is now facing are only the latest in a series that, over the past two years, has seen it lack funds to borrow or pay transit fees for prints from other cinemathèques; pay for electronic subtitling of borrowed prints; or print the monthly programme schedules, replaced by in-house xeroxed copies. Over the last few months before its August summer break, the Cinemathèque's film series focused exclusive on its own archive of 35mm prints painstakingly built over decades, and on occasional series graciously funded or supported by other institutions, or co-produced with festivals such as DocLisboa.

The Cinemathèque has never been a unanimous project - many of its decisions and directions over the years have been debatable - but it is the only one we've got and we can't afford to lose it. That suddenly we may lose it, just as we've lost so much over the last couple of years of a government that has brutally slashed the social and cultural tissue in the name of fulfilling financial demands that are strangling the country, is unthinkable. We may not be able to do much to stop it. But I'm certainly not going to keep quiet about it.

The Cinemathèque website
The latest news on the situation (in French, via Les Inrocks)
The latest news on the situation (in Portuguese, via Público)
Hartmut Bitomsky's call for help (in English, via Facebook)


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