Cinematek conservator Nicola Mazzanti on the need of putting cinema in a glass case

Nicola Mazzanti (1963) is head of conservation at the Cinematek since 2011.

This article was previously published in our November-December issue, Dig.

All photography by Thomas Ost (c).

Here at Cinematek, we collect, conserve, restore and make accessible the third largest collection in the world of cinema and cinema-related material. My personal day-to-day task here is to ensure that we have a budget to keep all of that alive. Which is not always a very inspiring activity, but that’s the job. Searching for funding isn’t a particularly easy job, either. Cinema is young, and is considered a spectacle, a dog and pony show in a way. It’s not highbrow culture.

No one would ever question why there’s such a thing as a national library, or a fine arts museum, but the question on the necessity of a cinemathèque is constantly brought up.

No one would ever question why there’s such a thing as a national library, or a fine arts museum, but the question on the necessity of a cinemathèque is constantly brought up. It’s by no means a critique towards the Belgian government, but rather a general issue that cinema has to deal with. Which is a shame, because I’m convinced that cinema is the one sole medium that explains the events that happened over the last century to the biggest number of people in the most comprehensible way. Here at Cinematek, we have quite the collection. And taking care of it implies a number of things, amongst which a lot of digging. Digging in the archives while trying to understand the importance and significance of each item. Let’s say you have a unique print of an experimental Japanese film from the 60s, next to the only uncensored copy of the famed French film ‘Le Jour se Lève’. It’s extremely difficult to understand why a print is uniquely important, and near impossible to define which one of these carries the most weight. But we avoid categorisation and prioritisation as much as possible. We conserve cinema. Period. Not art cinema, not Belgian cinema. Just cinema. The archives contain everything from home movies to pornography.

We put cinema in a glass case, where it’s safe, but people can look at it.

I don’t like the word archive, though. It feels bland. I much prefer the word Cinemathèque. To me, with its Greek roots ‘Theke’, or shrine, it encapsulates the entire goal and spirit of our institution: a place where you protect and show. We put cinema in a glass case, where it’s safe, but people can look at it. And this glass case is made up of two parts, the first one being the archives and the ateliers, which contain a lot of cans, reels, machines and people. The second one is the exhibition part, the Flagey and Cinematek theatres. Exhibiting cinema is fundamental. If you don’t show the films, why would you keep them? Showing cinema equals producing cinema, in the sense that you show films of the past to filmmakers, to young people who eventually might end up directing their own films. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that every single filmmaker in this country spent a significant amount of time in our theatres, learning what cinema is about.

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