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Observations from The Eye

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 07.06.2013 (07:00).

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I'm spending the morning hours at The Eye Film Institute in Amsterdam, the superbly designed shrine to the moving image situated by the waterfront across from the city's rather imposing railway station. Opened in April last year, the museum attracted 250,000 paying visitors within its first six months or so. When I was there a couple of weeks ago, the place was packed. Today, with the streets and canals bathed in sunlight, the place is less crowded, and quieter. Good for academics who want to get some writing done while struggling to suppress the constant urge to just get lost among the myriad screenings on offer.

The Film Institute came into being as the result of a merger of four separate institutions in 2010; Holland Film, The Nederlands Instituut voor Filmeducatie, the Filmbank, and the Filmmuseum. The goal was to promote the national film culture and the domestic film industry through a number of means and initiatives. In addition to running film programmes and series - the core activities of any cinematheque - The Eye hosts exhibitions (so far on the subjects of found footage, Stanley Kubrick, expanded cinema, and Johan van der Keuken), maintains a fairly well stocked book-and dvd-shop, and holds a vast film collection that encompasses all of film history. Its archives feature over 20,000 highly inflammable nitrate films from the silent era and up until 1950 and more than 30,000 celluloid films from the last half century of cinema, the latter of which are also in a precarious state due to processes of acidification. The Eye is thus a major arena for film restoration and digitization, and its collections have also been made digitally available through a number of websites. Also, the archive does not only contain films; it includes various ephemeral objects, posters, photographs, soundtracks, paper archives, and equipment as well. There is of course also a film library. And if you go down to the basement, you will soon find yourself submerged in images, in a room with one hundred constantly changing screens. You will also be able to sit down in one of the movie pods, viewing cabinets in futuristic yellow, where from your comfy sofa you can select whatever film you like from a menu spanning everything from The Great Train Robbery (Edwin Porter, 1903) to Shrek (Andrew Adamson & Vicky Jenson 2001). In this basement there is also a room for interactive installations.

The Eye, which also acquires films for distribution in domestic theaters, is designed to cater both to film specialists and the general public. It is an institution whose explicit mission is to generate public discussion about the place of film and related media in the wider culture, as well as to help shape national film policy and to promote film and media education for everybody.

It so happens that I'm here just as Film & Kino, the Norwegian organization for the municipally owned national cinemas as well as for the film industry, decided to implement severe cuts in its funding of film festivals and cinematheques outside the capital. What seems to be the cause of these drastic measures is the dwindling revenue from dvd sales. While the Ministry of Culture has expressed its concern, little has of yet been offered in the way of solutions to this very alarming development. In fact, if anything state secretary Mina Gerhardsen at the Ministry of Culture has suggested that Film & Kino is responsible for remedying the situation themselves, alleging that the availability of films on dvd and through subscription services such as Netflix has diminished the importance of film clubs and cinematheques as purveyors of our cinematic heritage. A statement as scandalous as the cuts themselves, Gerhardsen's at best uninformed remark conflates film culture with the easy access we have to what is merely one of its many incarnations. Cinema is a social institution first and foremost. As with all the other arts, it needs its ensembles, its intertwined network of practitioners, audiences, critics, curators, teachers, preservationists, archivists, scholars and researchers - as it also needs its special venues - in order to thrive and fulfill its assigned role as that social institution. However, cinema is the medium that has always tended to be left short-changed in the cultural life of this nation, which probably goes some way in explaining the apparent nonchalance with which the Ministry of Culture has responded to the present crisis. It is more than a little ironic that as new "Houses of Literature" are popping up all over the country, we are seemingly unable to find the very modest means required to sustain the excellent and indispensable work of film culture that our cinematheques and festivals have been doing for years. Maybe we ought to send representatives from the MC down to The Eye for some much needed lessons on film culture? This is how it is: film culture is an ongoing conversation among those who care equally about both film and culture; it is manifestly not about semi-catatonic evenings in the company of Netflix.

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