South Australia's iconic cinema club reaches a milestone by ushering in a new generation of viewers.
29 Mar 2012 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2012 - 2:20 PM

The Adelaide Cinémathèque is beloved among the city's many cinephiles, many of whom can recall with fondness the classic film moments they've experienced during the film society's 25-year history.

Take Dario Russo, for example, who credits nights spent watching Cinémathèque screenings as fuelling his desire to direct. Russo honed his craft at the Cinematheque's parent organisation, the Media Resources Centre (MRC), under mentor Martin Potter, and is now the brains (and voice) behind SBS' retro-themed Nazi-hunting serial, Danger 5 (and before that, internet hit Italian Spiderman).

“I will never forget filming a promotional video to encourage donations for the MRC in which we converted the MRC boardroom into a slot-car den and one of the offices into a dog shelter, complete with a huge, black Newfoundland called Marcellus,” Russo tells SBS.

He recalls his Cinémathèque experiences as being “unforgettable”, citing Once Upon a Time in the West and a season of Paul Verhoeven films as deeply influential. (“Seeing Robocop on 35 mm was a particularly exciting moment.”) It was a period crucial to his appreciation of the art of filmmaking. “I think Cinémathèque culture helps to celebrate truly excellent films and encourage interest, conversation and respect for these films. Cinémathèque is also a great way for members of younger generations to discover films... and see them on the big screen the way they are supposed to be seen.”

Exhibition manager Mat Kesting grew up in rural South Australia and fondly recalls his early Cinémathèque experience of sitting enthralled by Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast and Marcel Carné's Les Enfant du Paradis (programmed in 2011). After stints with MIFF and BIFF and an extended period in London, a trip back home led to the role he now enjoys at the Mercury. To celebrate a quarter century of the Cinémathèque, he sourced a print of Jean-Luc Godard 1962 masterpiece, My Life to Live (Vivre sa vie), a work he believes embodies the spirit of the Cinémathèque's founding members: John McConchie, Shane McNeil, Jenni Robertson, Adele Hann, Julieanne Pierce, Jenny Hughes and James Kalisch.

“Godard is classic cinémathèque material,” says Kesting. “The film is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and it's such a stylish film. We've seen a huge growth in our youth market and we'd like our twenty-something [patrons] to see this on the big screen.”

Kesting has actively sought out this younger demographic since joining the non-profit organisation in late 2009. “We've really lifted the profile of the Cinémathèque with the 'hipster' audience, via social network sites and careful programming. We are suddenly finding that Cinémathèque is 'cool' again,” he says, with a laugh.

Founded at a time when arthouse venues were experiencing a torrid trading period in the face of multi-screen suburban developments, the Morphett Street site bucked marketplace trends with incisive programming of prestige titles from all corners of the globe.

MRC director Gail Kovatseff recalls the passionate formation and often troubled life cycle of the Cinémathèque. “Screen culture in Adelaide had consistently failed and there was this tremendous desire to put something together that was sustainable.”

Originating at Adelaide University, early Cinémathèque seasons ran six to eight weeks with some success but suffered from what Kovatseff calls “a chequered history”. Local programming disappeared altogether when a travelling road show of AFI-selected titles was labelled as Adelaide's own; the exhibition rights went from the Mercury to the midtown Palace cinemas, before the MRC wrestled them back. Last year, Screen Australia pulled its funding of Cinémathèque.

Kovatseff and Kesting, supported by a programming advisory committee called the Members Exhibition Group, did not flinch. “We have had a 315% increase in box office over the last four years,” Kovatseff says, defiantly. Neither would be drawn on Screen Australia's decision (“Yeah, it's a shame” was all Kesting would say).

Typically eclectic highlights from the 36-film 2012 schedule include: a dedicated strand to French icon Isabelle Huppert (Bertrand Tavernier's Clean Slate, Paul Cox's Cactus, Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf); two Herschell Gordon Lewis shockers: Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs; a month of 'Hollywood on Hollywood' industry introspection (The Bad and The Beautiful, Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mulholland Drive); the pairing of arguably Greek cinema's most famous works, Michael Cacoyannis' Zorba the Greek and Theo Angelopoulous' Eternity and a Day; a tune-filled '80s selection (Fame, Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing); and a Nicholas Roeg retrospective featuring a rare one-off showing of Performance, his controversial collaboration with Donald Cammel starring Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg.

Around the country, most capital cities are serviced to varying degrees by strong cinematic historical societies. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image (home of the famous Melbourne Cinémathèque) and the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art house state-of-the-art facilities and hold extensive programs; Sydney's Chauvel Cinema and the lecture halls of the NSW Art Gallery cater for East-coast cinephiles. Mat Kesting hopes it is a cultural sidebar that never goes away.

“Everyone has access to film by a lot of other means,” he acknowledges, “but bringing people together to watch a film in a collective group, and then being able to discuss it... that's something very special.”