From the basement to the kitchen (2007-2012) by Nicolas Rey
Malcolm Le Grice, who had been central to the story of the London Filmmaker’s Cooperative at the end of the 1960s gave us a cautionary word when we met with him around 1995: “As filmmakers, you can set up a film lab, it’s possible and you’ll do it, but you’ll spend your entire life at it.” The question of how to keep it going, of making it endure, of being able to continue working together on what seems important to us has often unsteadied L’Abominable’s course.
In the early years, thanks to Anne-Marie Cornu, L’Abominable provided a series of film workshops that met the local pedagogical policy within schools in Asnières, and which attracted the interest of the Cinémathèque Scolaire Robert-Lynen in Paris. This was a very effective way of getting a foothold in the collective structure while also providing us with a place for reflection and experimentation in terms of our own practice.
In 2006 to 2007, when organizing the Dix Ans de L’Abominable, our cave-like space in Asnières has already a bit of weight behind it. Physically, we have extended the space by colonizing other more or less abandoned basement areas, displacing as we went along a whole collection of back-copies of the Figaro newspaper belonging to the lessor’s mother, and other useless treasures which were quickly replaced with other more necessary items for processing film, until once again there was no more room. Then we tackled yet another space and finally end up at the enormous “boiler room” working bee. The whole collection of Figaro newspapers ends up on the footpath in rue Bernard Jugault one throw-out night. This all results in substantial periods of building works during which members unfailingly donated their energy.
Over the years, several hundred filmmakers have been at L’Abominable and its name is known to film-goers thousands of miles from the Paris region. The network was spurred on by the Rencontres des Labos organized by the Cinéma Nova in 2005, and the setting up of the filmlabs.org site by Katia Rossini, Julie Šandor, Catherine Libert and Fred Piet.
Without realizing, we are entering into a new period of L’Abo’s existence. In 2006 and 2007, the crisis that Light Cone experiences reveals that a small cultural institution, even when correctly financed, can stumble under the sheer weight of its own existence and way of functioning. It is a hard blow and we need to make a commitment not to lose the organization that distributes a large part of the films made at L’Abominable up to that period. In the aftermath of this, Emmanuel Lefrant gets involved in both L’Abo and Light Cone and we work closely with him guiding the two structures along two parallel paths before he becomes the current administrator of Light Cone, to which he dedicates all his time and energy.
We are far from receiving the same scale of funding as Light Cone at the time, even if we got our first grant from the CNC back in 2003. We are happy doing a lot with very little, taking advantage of our premises that cost us next to nothing (172 euros per month for rent) and with keeping a relatively low profile to avoid being overwhelmed with too many requests. The idea of offering our services for film projections in galleries and exhibition space arose in 2007 and it quickly earned us almost the entire amount of our annual CNC funding in only a few months, all thanks to the particular know-how of Christophe Goulard.
The idea of becoming more institutionalized has quite naturally been a matter for debate on several occasions. Already at the time of the first funding request back in 1998, it ended up with the association’s president resigning after an debate that was intense but not lacking in ideology on all sides. The idea of taking on a whole new dimension with the employing of at least one person if this could be financed doesn’t reach a consensus and no one wants to take on this key role and invest most of its own time on it so others could make films at L’Abo. We all have films to make, and this has been a regular topic for debate since L’Abo’s beginning, a question that is never really clear-cut, brought up every now and then as new-comers involve themselves in the running of L’Abo, bringing their past experience and practice.
And so to the slippery subject for debate concerning the terms: artist and filmmaker, a discussion that largely covers, but not entirely, the interests of contemporary art on one hand, and a positioning within the different fields of film on the other, whether it be experimental, fictional or documentary. Not simply a debate about aesthetics, as here inevitably lies the question of the politics of each person working in the space, and the way they see their work circulating and more concretely, whether or not they seek funding and support for the production of their output – whether as a “professional” artist or a filmmaker seeking financial backing. Although L’Abo maintains tariff rates at a level that is as accessible as possible to most, thus often avoiding the need for written project and funding submissions, the question of funding does arise and, in particular, when producing a work involving several or more people.
Access to the L’Abo setup and its equipment, whether for “artists” or “filmmakers”, is never really a question for debate however, from the moment when applicants accept firstly the DYI way of working, and then the relatively long waiting period before joining, due to L’Abo’s limited capacity for receiving people. We keep it open as much as possible for filmmakers including those working in documentary and fiction, but it is necessary to point out right from the start that the setup and equipment are technically very basic (hand processing 15 and 30 metres lengths, mainly in black and white). Such factors tend to put off quite a few, especially those who have involved all of their friends in a crazy shoot, or when the filmmaker has made a trip to the other side of the world. At this point most are prepared to pay for rushes coming back from a commercial lab in shiny metal tanks rather than processing it all by hand… If not, they accept to bending the rules and adapt to what the L’Abo setup has to offer, and this suits us.
The use of automatic developing machines, firstly in 2003 for colour prints without sound, then as the years went on for colour negatives, black and white prints and then finally for black and white negatives, progressively changed the nature of L’Abo’s film output. It can also be seen that in the period 2000-2006 two thirds of the L’Abo’s film output were sent to Light Cone or Collectif Jeune Cinéma for distribution, but for the 2008-2012 period, less than a quarter was sent there, which most likely reflects a certain change in the user profile at our setup.
Indeed, this period saw a wide variety of works created: Faux mouvements (Pip Chodorov), Le Granier (Olivier Fouchard), Along with the Phoenix (Masha Godovannaya), De un vastisimo mar (Yoana Urruzola, Stefano Canapa, Josefina Rodriguez & Julien Tarride), Mercedes Dunavska (Dražen Zanchi), Petrolio (Stefano Canapa & Emmanuel Lefrant), Parties visible et invisible d’un ensemble sous tension (Emmanuel Lefrant), Ami-entends-tu (Nathalie Nambot), Les champs brûlants (Catherine Libert & Stefano Canapa) and Fleurs noires (Baptiste Bessette). What is very impressive in this list is how the filmmakers shared a common setup and practices, exchanged information and were mutually supportive, while developing very different aesthetics. Naturally, working closely together was not without consequences and it would be hard indeed to label these works as fiction, documentary or experimental. Rather, it would be sounder to pin point two poles defining interference fringes with zones of contrast and others of influences. Two poles; by using Martine Rousset’s words it may be possible to name “plastic art filmmaking” and an “art of the document”. Those “whose language comes primarily from working with the material’s qualities, colour and time” and those “who work at developing a narrative that is conjured up over time and an art of saying, which obviously does not rule out the plastic dimension in the work”. According to her, the first is closest to painters and navigators, while the second to writers and architects.
On the other hand, it must be said that at this period, overhead above our cave-like space, the demolition of what remained of the photochemical industry was well underway, sped up by the CNC’s decision to make huge funds available for equipping cinemas with digital projectors, as a grant to be asked for before the end of 2012. This decision had a massive impact, and the sudden drop in demand for 35mm prints caused the ruin of almost all the remaining commercial film processing laboratories. This incidentally corresponded to a strong budget increase for the CNC resulting from the implementation of a tax on internet access suppliers. The money from digital going back into digital, and bye-bye film.
This situation has affected the stakes at artist laboratories, and in particularly ours. Previously, filmmakers most often produced their work prints at L’Abo and then took the negatives and mixes of the finished films to a commercial laboratory for the final print. This way of working has become impracticable, as it is too costly, too complicated, or both. Of course there is still Super 8 and those who make silent film elements for live performances, plus those who go for showing on video, but for those who stick to the idea of showing what they do with film on film, L’Abo must now substitute itself for industry by providing an effective means of making final prints if it wishes to maintain its reason for existence. It’s a big jump and raises a multitude of technical issues. Effectively, with the purchase of an optical sound camera in 2008, and with Christian Julien’s (a technician from Cinédia laboratory) technical expertise to get it up and running, the first black and white sound prints were produced as Mercedes Dunavska ou l’impossible trajectoire A1 by Dražen Zanchi, but from an operational point of view it is still early days of making that type of work in the lab.
This period also coincides with the first black clouds to arrive which hung over our improbable cave in Asnières. With the death of the building owner, the inheritor takes out proceedings against the building’s lessor, and another against the sub-lessors of which we were one, and all this ends with our forced departure in the summer of 2011. During this uncertain period L’Abo’s fragility becomes apparent and its survival is at stake. We seek support through a petition signed by several hundred people, known and unknown, but exchanges can become tense and the possible path to take, unclear. One option is, for some, to move further away from Paris, for others a more institutionalised approach in order to attempt to find premises around Paris, a somewhat less autarkical path, but maybe better adapted to the new situation we find ourselves in? From within our ranks, Baptiste Bessette accepted the role of holding up the office end, and finally, after a more than thorough search, the city of La Courneuve put the old school kitchens, vacant for more than 10 years, at our disposal. This enabled us, after a gigantic move and six months in storage, to finally set ourselves up again. This space is not long-term and is earmarked for destruction in the future, but it does provide us with the point of departure for a new chapter in L’Abo’s rather uncertain history.
Throughout this period of moving premise and beginning again, a new energy emerges, better funding is obtained, and a new scale of functioning established. The filmmaker collective gets rejuvenated, largely by the arrival of Nathalie Nambot and David Dudouit, and then Maria Kourkouta and Guillaume Mazloum. Several dozen cubic metres of new equipment is retrieved the moment before it would have hit the rubbish skip, and the question of transmission and the sharing of knowledge has never been more crucial to learn how to continue producing work on film, for a cinema free of the gangrene of commerce and industry.
Translation: Wayn Malm