The artificial, democratic night

Miriam Martín

... the great egalitarian night of the cinema, truer than the true night, more enthralling, more consoling than all the true nights, the chosen night, open to all, offered to all, more generous, more dispensing of good deeds than all charitable institutions and all churches...

Several times I’ve come across a blind, or almost blind woman at the Doré cinema. In 2020, after the. She’s guided by a black Alsatian. The last time, the dog started to protest at a certain point in the film (I would have protested too, actually) and the blind or almost blind woman ended up leaving the cinema, so as not to disturb the rest of us. It’s not easy, of course. Why didn’t she choose to watch the films we’ve seen together, sat a few seats apart with our masks on, at home? They were well-known and surely available via streaming. What a mystery. I’m not going to try to get to the bottom of it, of course.

Every week, for six years, I devoted myself to organising artificial nights, more or less democratically. More or less collectively. In Johnny Guitar Vienna asks Sam, one of the workers at her saloon, to hang a lamp on the door. He thinks no-one will turn up because of the bad weather. You can hear the wind howling outside. She replies: “And if they do, how can they find the place? Just hang a lamp”. The windows of the room where we were projecting were at street level and lit up every Tuesday. How many times have we stopped in front of a window that’s all lit up, feeling cold and the anxiety of an uninvited guest, melancholic or curious, wanting to go in but not being able to. Anyone could enter the CSOA La Morada film club. And on Tuesdays, a previously insignificant day that suddenly meant something to a large number of people.

CSOA is Spanish for the Self-managed Occupied Social Centre. No entrance fees were ever charged and no screening fees ever paid. Most of the copies were pirated. We celebrated and raised awareness, we shared the gifts of piracy as much as possible. Su Friedrich was absolutely delighted. The J.L.G. who isn’t Godard politely objected. The living legend of Spanish cinema regretted one day, with hindsight, that his work had been shown on a miserable DVD. We unwittingly pre-empted the premiere of a French filmmaker. But, in general, we would screen dead films or filmmakers, taking them out of their mass graves or mausoleums. The routine-ritual of “sharing as much as possible” involved, for example: making several screens, getting several machines, heating the room in winter and cooling it in summer, cleaning toilets, participating in the social centre’s assemblies and taking care of the thousands of tasks involved, subtitling copies from beginning to end (translation and synchronisation), writing texts for invitations to the sessions.

As anyone could come in, anyone could programme. We would screen, talk for hours (with the chairs in a circle) and relate our proposals for the next session with the film we’d just seen, depending on the desire, delight, anger, urgency or reasons it may have provoked, because it was the only object in common and so that everyone’s baggage would weigh less heavy. The proposals were defended, we would choose one by consensus and the champion of the chosen film undertook to present it at La Morada and to write and send out the invites. This method made the film club truly remarkable and it was our way of working. Passionate work, like building barricades. It didn’t always come off. Often, in fact, it would go badly. But when it worked, I believe we gave each other the chance to aestheticise life, to become a bit of an artist in an effort to shape our perceptions so that others could enjoy them, use them, take them that much further. Thanks to the film club, a blessed invention, I learned to trust my own intelligence whilst at the same time realising to what extent my own intelligence might not be enough: sometimes other people were able to clarify or complete what I was thinking and saying without being fully aware of what I was saying, putting it into stammering words. I was really thinking and, because I was really thinking I didn’t quite know what I was saying but some of the people who were listening to me, because they were listening to me, did know. Two or three names for this phenomenon: magic, plural thought, collective intelligence (in the sense of the 15-M movement).

Cinema is belittled as a mere distraction from the very first minute, but it’s never clear what exactly it’s distracting us from. What if it distracts us from ourselves, from what we take for granted about ourselves? What if it enables us, when all’s said and done, to pay attention to other things, to relate to other things on an equal footing, to remember that the world is not just our home? The film club method used to work badly when we were unable to distract ourselves from what we take for granted etc. and we pigeon-holed films ideologically or sociologically, losing sight of them (as it were). When we wouldn’t allow ourselves to be affected by them, when we denied that images and sounds had anything to offer our heads stuffed with speeches, to offer our sensitivity - bad films, by the way, which don’t allow us to relate on an equal footing with what they show, which place us above or below, didn’t help either. When we would turn concrete analyses that had made us happy in previous sessions, happy to understand, into dogma applied to all cases. When we didn’t de-specialise (sorry) the jargon, complacently throwing a “Fordian” or a “Rivette-like” into the conversation without pointing out where film might contain such Fordian or Rivette-like touches, without describing what made it so and assuming universal agreement with respect to John Ford, Jacques Rivette and their many different methods...

The fragile balance between people-who-were-just-passing-through, the homeless, migrants, neighbours, colleagues, left-wing intellectuals, poets, crusties, ageing hippies and cinephiles or professionals of the profession; i.e. the balance between disinterested and interested attendance, suffered after we were forced to move to La Ingobernable. From a neighbourhood social centre to a “metropolitan” social centre, from a small street in Chamberí to Paseo del Prado avenue, from premises at street level to premises on the third floor of a huge building under constant debate in the media - and the film club’s potential changed. It hadn’t been set up originally as a film club nor with the intention of creating a community of like-minded people. Not even to love films or to love those who frequented it, but to appreciate their company and how extraordinarily free our time could become in their company.

Love has no need for propaganda. It happens by default, like sociability or networking. Perhaps we do need places, public infrastructures (public in the sense of a public square) to appreciate the company of films and other spectators. Places where we don’t confuse the bells ringing on the screen with our own front door bell, where we meet people by chance and not by necessity (family & work) and where we can cultivate an openness to friendship, a little music among equals. In stark contrast to the new normal. Organising artificial nights meant upholding (like a beam holds up) the right conditions for aesthetic, political work among strangers so that anyone could appear, from nothing, with nothing, without being forced to belong to a group, and become a part.

Miriam Martín


The pinhole photograph at the top of the text was taken by Alejandro Fernández during a session at the La Morada film club.

The phrases in italics were written by Marguerite Duras in Un barrage contre le Pacifique.

For Samuel Hidalgo.