Viet Nam News
by Bạch Liên
For movie-lovers in Hà Nội, next Wednesday (November 30) will be their last chance to watch films at the Hanoi Cinematheque before it closes its doors. This cinema, along with the surrounding art deco architecture of the complex, will soon be destroyed. A modern commercial centre will be erected in its place. Vietnamese and foreign movie-lovers, who have frequented this cinema for 14 years, are mourning the loss of this important cultural site, a hub for art-house film lovers.
For many Vietnamese and foreign movie-lovers, Hanoi Cinematheque is a true “Cinema Paradiso” (like the name of the classic Italian movie).
It is known as the coolest hidden cinema spot in Hà Nội. Set well back from the ceaseless din of the capital’s busiest shopping district, Cinematheque patrons walk through a darkened, 100m-long enclosed alleyway on Hai Bà Trưng Street before emerging into an art-deco-themed courtyard.
To the left, there is an ancient tree shaded courtyard café and to the right, people can see framed posters heralding some cinema classics.
The sweet perfume of hoàng lan (Ylang ylang) flowers has seduced people of all ages who enjoy drinks with friends at this cafe before or after watching a film.
Hanoi Cinematheque is likely the only cinema of its kind in Việt Nam. Different from other cinemas in Hà Nội, Cinematheque is an independent and non-profit cinema which shows a diverse range of the world’s most successful films, from 1940s black and white classics to 2011 Cannes winners and Vietnamese documentaries.
It is the only venue in the bustling Vietnamese metropolis which presents classics of international cinema, to connect world cinema to movie-lovers in Hà Nội.
The club, run by American film producer Gerald Herman, former advertising executive and long-time expat, has been exceptionally active in organising regular film festivals.
For Herman, Hanoi Cinematheque was the result of 14 years of passionate struggle. After his arrival in Việt Nam from New York in 1992, the expat director/producer founded and created the programme for the movie club in 2002.
“Cinema has always played an important role in Vietnamese society,” Herman was quoted in an article published on the website of Screen-Space, an online magazine on world cinema.
"I set up Hanoi Cinematheque with the thought of educating and inspiring a new generation of young Vietnamese filmmakers,” he added.
It has remained the "best kept secret" amongst cinephiles in Southeast Asia.
However, its elegant screening room and art deco façade will be demolished by the end of this month to make way for yet another shopping/parking complex.
But Herman leaves behind a rich cultural legacy. In his backroom DVD library, he preserves his own collection of 3,500 DVDs of films. He said he would offer 400 classics (with Vietnamese subtitles) to Hà Nôi’s Stage and Cinema University.
He also said he would continue promoting Vietnamese cinema to the world and global independent cinema to Việt Nam through classes and conferences.
Herman feels melancholic over the closure of his Cinematheque. He said he would not consider building another cinema like it, as he could not be sure the new cinema would not be demolished in the future as well.
Vietnamese film director Nguyễn Vinh Sơn said with sadness, “I know Hanoi Cinematheque was Gerald’s greatest passion, as he wished to bring the knowledge of cinema to the Vietnamese public and filmmakers through the world’s classic movies. For many years, he had lived far from home, going through many difficulties, dedicated to the effort of building Cinematheque.”
For cinema experts and movie-lovers, the disappearance of Hanoi Cinematheque is a huge loss for Việt Nam’s cultural space. Famed Vietnamese director Đặng Nhật Minh, whose successful films were screened at Cinematheque, said, “I think the closure of the Hanoi Cinematheque means that Hà Nội has lost a great source of pride, because it is a thousand times more difficult to build a cultural space than a trade centre,” he said.
On the website of Screen-Space, an online magazine on world cinema, Jamie Maxtone-Graham, a fan of Cinematheque, said, “For a cinephile in Hà Nội and in Việt Nam, the Cinematheque years have been the best; we might even consider it to be a regional gem. There have simply been no other places around to compare it with, and the loss of this venue, its valuable archives of world-class cinema and the spirit of its tucked-away corner, right in the middle of it all, are irreplaceable. Truly an end. For decades to come, as we look back fondly on the past of this lovely city, we will say, ’Remember Cinematheque?’"
Farewell to what used to be a communal space that has nurtured thousands of people’s love for cinema and that had kept many of their sweet memories closely linked to the sweet fragrance of ylang-ylang flowers.— VNS
Located at 22A Hai Bà Trưng Street, the 89-seat Hanoi Cinematheque is an independent and non-profit movie theater that has been open in Hà Nội since 2002. Despite its modest size, it was hailed for meeting international standards. No tickets were sold here. The Cinematheque operates on a membership system. To become a member, one had to pay only VNĐ200,000 (US$8) per year and then reserve seats to all Cinematheque screenings and events, usually with a VNĐ50,000 “donation" paid per event.
It features regular screenings of newer films and older classic movies from many countries. The Cinematheque often features themed series (such as films from the current year’s Cannes film festival or the latest crop of Oscar winners). They also run director retrospectives, showing most films from a particular director. Additionally, guest filmmakers are brought in to discuss their works with audiences. This unique opportunity allows cinema enthusiasts to interact directly with the artists. The guests range from local and regional filmmakers to artists from Hollywood and beyond.
“Our very best moments have been hosting local and foreign filmmakers who present their works and then discuss them with our audience,” recalled Herman who had hosted the films of Ira Sachs, Philip Noyce, David Bradbury and John Pilger, as well as Les Blank, Albert Berger and Đặng Nhật Minh, to name a few. — VNS