Reviving Amsterdam's Cinematic CountercultureBy Nicola Romagnoli
Amsterdam film patrons can adore the stunning EYE Film Institute, enjoy Hollywood's latest extravagance at the various Pathé cinemas, and peruse a medley of arthouse cinemas and independent theaters such as Studio/K, Filmhallen, Rialto, and the student-operated Kriterion. However, nestled between these cinema houses and theaters exists a radically alternative cinema, one that functions as an explicit rejection of commercial film distribution and fiercely pushes against the ubiquitous commercialization of cinema space.
For over a decade, Jeffrey Babcock, an American filmmaker who immigrated to Amsterdam in the 1980s, has been hosting film screenings scattered across various venues in the Dutch capital. Regular locations for the continually evolving program include the dungeon underneath the old Torensluis Bridge, Filmhuis Cavia, the legendary and the now-defunct De Slang squat, Joe's Garage and De Nieuwe Anita. This "nomadic cinema", as Babcock describes it, strives to rejuvenate the forgotten political and social aspirations of cinema, as well as evoke a fading counterculture spirit anchored in squatting and collective living.
Originally working as a filmmaker, Babcock became increasingly disillusioned as the city's vibrant theater culture succumbed to the dominant demands of commercial distribution and alternative cinema circuits slowly disappeared. In particular, Babcock points to the cinematic vacuum left when the Desmet Filmtheater closed in 2000. "I thought to myself that we have to defend cinema again. The industry has become so narrow-minded as to what's acceptable. It has to be entertainment, in some way or another. Since the official locations have become so commercialized, I just started building alternative locations and creating a whole different network. That's the place where these things will be allowed to grow."
Organizing his movie nights in low-rent alternative spaces allowed Babcock to keep his clandestine cinemas cheap. "If someone is going to go see a film they don't know anything about, they're going to take a risk. So firstly, I want it to be free, and if I can't get it for free, it's going to be damn cheap. I started on Leidsestraat ten years ago. Every Sunday we had a free evening there. Free movies, free food, a free store in the front of the space — very free. That opens up people to taking a risk — that's my strategy."
Renouncing the profit motive gave him the freedom to program eccentric and challenging films. As Babcock proudly avows, only his increasingly curious eye limits his programming. "Every film I show has to have something totally unique about it, something you've never seen before. I don't really care if it's a cult movie, or a horror film, with a big or small budget, as long as it is not formulaic." But we shouldn't dismiss Babcock's film club as fanatical or radically zealous. "An important part of my cinema is to dispel the idea that the only way of entertaining oneself can be found in Hollywood. There is so much more; even if you only want entertainment, you don't need blockbusters."
Ranging from experimental Czech comedies to lesbian vampire films and psychedelic crime thrillers, Babcock's programming courageously explores the creative potential of the cinematic image and offers audiences an opportunity to experience the broadest range of cinematic language. As a result, his program can uniquely resurrect obscured and neglected artists whose films are unviable in other settings. "Every film has its own world, and so, let's go to these places like Joe's Garage, a squatted space, and just set up some hard chairs and show a film by Alain Tanner, a Swiss filmmaker from the 1970s, totally forgotten these days. Or Terayama, a Japanese filmmaker. Films that nobody's heard about. The films that EYE should be showing, and they're never going to show. Let's put them in the fucking squats, or these alternative spaces, or these non-monetary locations where money isn't an issue, and build up culture just based on that."
Squatted Space and The Cinema
This commitment to revive cinematic counterculture finds compassionate allies amongst the city's dwindling squatting establishments. During the 1970s and 1980s, Amsterdam's shortage of affordable housing resulted in a significant squatting movement, with Dutch youth occupying abandoned factories, office blocks, and theaters. As a consequence, participatory and non-hierarchical organizational ideologies flourished.
As Babcock romances, this vibrant squatting movement empowered a radical autonomy and epitomized the city's anti-establishment ideology of diversity and tolerance. "It was a very free city and it just had incredible diversity throughout. The city had room to create pockets of autonomy, so you could choose your discomfort. You could choose the discomfort of working nine to five for a boss you didn't like, or you could choose the discomfort of sharing a toilet with ten other people."
Squat culture burgeoned to include squat bars, squat cinemas, and squat concert halls, which all helped to establish an alternative scene in Amsterdam that still reverberates today, Babcock says. "If you took away the whole squatting element, the city today would be much more right-wing, much more conservative, much more uptight."
However, the subsequent decades have seen a drastic reduction of squatting establishments and an increase in criminal persecution of squatting. Today, commercial venues such as Melkweg and Paradiso, which originally emerged from that squatting fervor, have essentially rendered that history invisible.
Babcocks's insistence on returning to these spaces, embracing the communitarian and anticommercial aspects of squats like Joe's Garage and Het Spinhuis, situates his cinema within a larger socio-political struggle. "The whole city is becoming gentrified, commercialized, privatized, and on top of it all, branded. But the cinemas I'm doing are coming out of the spirit that I encountered in Amsterdam back in the 1970s. I'm trying to keep that spirit alive."
This can most aptly be felt through the relative discomforts of squats and in the fact that Babcock screens films only once before all of his preparation and research goes up in smoke. As a result, the screenings bring a palpable sense of intimacy and urgency lacking in commercial theaters, where "people are just herded in like cattle. The theaters put all the commercials in the beginning and then they push everyone all out as fast as possible after the fucking film to get the next audience in." By contrast, Babcock's alternative film screenings begin with a monologue, in which he outlines the major political, social, aesthetic and historical significance of the film. This dynamic between exhibitor and spectator opens a potential dialogue and deconstructs the consumerist orientation of traditional screenings.
Audiences are encouraged to engage, challenge and explore each film. "I really support people discussing the film afterwards. It's a very important aspect to the cinemas I'm doing." This desire to evoke discussion and encourage sociability is facilitated by the collectivist attitudes in squats and provides the fertile social space that enables audiences to stick around for hours after and discuss the film. Additionally, embracing squats can revitalize the oft-neglected surrounding neighborhoods, and familiarize audience members with forgotten or overlooked urban communities. "I think that what my cinemas can show, is that you can improve a neighborhood or a community without gentrifying it at all." Understood this way, Babcock's screenings empower the spectator while fostering a unique sense of community around cinema and culture foreign to most commercial theatres.
Leaving Multiplexes Behind
Often described as part of the 'third circuit', Babcock's screenings embrace a political and aesthetic appreciation of cinema that is quickly fading in the face of increasing commercialization. He remains passionately committed to reviving the waning politics of spectatorship and film exhibition. "What I'm interested in is not only alternative films, but also alternative cinemas, and alternative distribution. All these things have to be together; you can't just have one."
This rejection of commercial and institutional influence uniquely characterizes Babcock's screenings and their popularity and success demonstrate a palpable desire for something outside mainstream conventions. Whether you're there for the first time, or are a weekly regular, Babcock's unquenchable passion for cinema captivates you from the opening monologue and inspires an enthusiasm for filmmaking that transcends the politically barren and cinematically vacuous landscape of multiplexes.
Babcock has recently published two books — Séances and Cinema Ludens — that discuss cinema and cinema spaces in-depth. They are available in selected stores including Boekie Woekie, Fort van Sjakoo, San Serriffe.