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Interview: “We’re fighting for filmmakers who have been unfairly forgotten”

Paris, France – Paris-based film distributor and DVD editor Malavida, founded over 15 years ago, boasts one of the sector’s most extensive, unique and socially engaged catalogues for movie-buffs and cinephiles. With movies made by filmmakers like Milos Jancso, Dusan Hanak, Jiri Menzel or Věra Chytilová, Malavida has a strong focus on and personal likeness for Central and Eastern European cinema, most notably movies from the 1960s and 1970s. We met their two founders and directors for an interview: Anne-Laure Brénéol and Lionel Ithurrald.

“Our goals were identical and our backgrounds complemented one another”. That’s how Anne-Laure and Lionel sum it up. In 2004, they co-founded Malavida, with the help of director Philippe Caubère, with whom they’ve been fruitfully collaborating since then. With Malavida, they promote and advocate for a cinema at their own image, both socially and politically engaged and deeply cinephile, focusing primarily on the new waves from Central and Eastern Europe whose movies, at the time, had largely disappeared and fallen into oblivion. Created in the early years of the DVD, Malavida managed to make its way in the industry and soon became an ultimate reference for cinema-lovers all across Europe.

Their first steps as film distributors were, on the other hand, not as straightforward, but they once again managed to stand out from the crowd through their bold, avant-garde choices: including the bizarre Peau de cochon in 2005, the first and for now only movie directed by Philippe Katerine, back then not at all as famous as he is now. Then came, most importantly, the discovery of Nouvelle Donne at the Rouen Nordic Festival in 2008, the first movie of Joachim Trier, whose subsequent success is a testament to Malavida’s  incredible instinct. For the past several years, the company has been coming back to movie theatres, distributing rare heritage movies before releasing their DVD version.

Like Potemkine, other prominent French editor, one can browse through their wonderful DVD collection, among other things, in their Boutika shop in Paris’ Pigalle district. For the little anecdote, Manu Chao reportedly barged in unannounced one day, sang Malavida with his ukulele, before leaving with a huge stack of DVDs, including Alice Comedies, a collection of Walt Disney’s first short films. The second box set of Alice Comedies now includes a short movie with a soundtrack by Manu Chao, proof that Malavida continues to work with its guts, by instinct, both artistic and personal, the two of them often closely intertwined.

Why did you choose to focus on movies from Central and Eastern Europe?

Lionel Ithurralde: What was important for us was to be able to watch movies that had a big impact on us when we were young. We felt the need to share them around us because most of these movies weren’t available anymore. It was impossible to watch them. When we founded Malavida, we also noticed that the popularity and fame of renowned filmmakers are often being built up to the detriment of all those who were forgotten and fell into oblivion, for reasons completely unrelated to the quality of their work. We’re fighting for filmmakers who have been unfairly forgotten.

Anne-Laure Brénéol: Among our common ‘repertoire’, there were many movies from Central and Eastern Europe, but also Scandinavian films… When I first discovered Bo Widerberg’s movies at the Rouen Nordic Festival, it was a complete shock. I only dreamed of one thing, to see them again, to share and disseminate them, but it was impossible because the movies had completely disappeared. We needed to reach an agreement with the beneficiaries, the heirs and inheritors… Now, Bo Widerberg is one of Malavida’s main filmmakers.

We just bought the rights of his latest feature film, All Things Fair, that will premiere at the next Lumière Festival in Lyon. It’s really a long-haul work: we have already released ten of his movies in DVD and supported the release of eight of them in cinemas. At Malavida, we mainly focus on the European new waves. Although not as well-known as the French New Wave, they existed everywhere. At the start, we worked a lot on Polish movies. The first films of Wojciech Has, Andrzej Wajda, Andrzej Zulawski, Andrzej Munk… At the time, they were all very hard to see!

Is it because of state censorship that these movies remained hidden for so long?

Anne-Laure: There is the censorship issue, yes, but also cost problems. When we launched Malavida, in 2004, there were still VHS, it was only the start of DVDs, the fabrication costs were not what they are today. Re-releasing a movie meant we had to to restore it in 35mm and the heritage cinema market that we know today didn’t exist back then. It only grew thanks to the digitization of the copies.

Lionel: The states are the main owners of the rights of the movies made in Eastern European countries, and they obviously had a problem with the movies from this specific period. As often, the movies we were interested in had been produced under communism, it was hard to export them. They had ideological problems even though they knew, as we did, that it was often the golden age in terms of cinematographic quality. Between the late 1960s until today, almost nothing happened, apart for a few exceptions. It often took time to make them accept the idea that we wanted to promote and relaunch the movies from this period and show them in good conditions.

Anne-Laure: It’s a very painful period for them, and it reminded them of things they didn’t want to see or live again. Since everything was produced by the states, the situation is sometimes even more complex with some filmmakers, like the Czech director Jan Nemec. We edited two extraordinary movies of his: The Party and the Guests and Diamonds of the Night. I exchanged with him several times by e-mail and he had no wish whatsoever for a DVD version, didn’t want to do some interviews nor even support his movies in their theatrical release. From his point of view, the state had stolen his movies from him…

Lionel: For him, this was unlawful. He wasn’t angry against us personally, but considered that he had been dispossessed from his rights.

Anne-Laure: To this day, the state has refused to retrocede any right whatsoever. There are many Czech filmmakers who are up in arms. It’s an extremely complicated situation: they don’t want to legitimize the work done around their movies exploited by a state who, according to them, shouldn’t own the rights.

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Anne-Laure Brénéol and Lionel Ithurrald

The 1960s and 70s represented a golden age for Central and Eastern European cinema. It’s not the case anymore. Now, even in places like the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, there are very few young Czech filmmakers. Why is that?

Lionel: In Central and Eastern Europe, the state funded the movie industry during the 1950s and 1960s. With start of the normalization period in Czechoslovakia in 1969, there was a huge halt, while state censorship became much more significant, blocking the emergence of new filmmakers throughout the entire Eastern bloc. During the 1970s, we always found the same filmmakers everywhere: Wajda in Poland, Jiri Menzel and Vera Chytilova in Czechia… Chytilova is the only one who continued to enjoy complete freedom to make movies in her country, albeit at the margin.

With the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, those countries opened up to the world, but their film production system was completely disorganized and chaotic. Strange Kafkaesque situations arose, with issues of ownership rights regarding movies that had already been done and financing problems for the productions to come. The schools were training a new generation of filmmakers, but there simply wasn’t any money to actually produce them…

Your collection also has a strong focus on surrealist and Dadaist experiences from the first half of the 20th century. We can see, through the movies you edit, their clear impact on Central and Eastern European cinema, Czechs in particular. Someone like Bertrand Mandico is a good example of this melting-pot of experiences.

Anne-Laure: Bertrand was a customer of our shop and the movies we edited was part of his ‘bedside films’. When we discovered his own movies, we immediately saw in it the cinema that we loved. It was like a puzzle where everyone and everything falls into place. Our encounter with Bertrand turned into a real friendship and common desire to safeguard his work. We worked on a DVD collection to present his short films, his clips, his ads… A second one is due to come out soon. In 2014, we were once again pioneers when we organized the theatrical release of Boro in the Box and Living Still Life. It was the beginning of a renewed fame for him.

Lionel: It was great to realize how much the type of cinema we had been promoting for so long could find a new voice with contemporary filmmakers as talented as Bertrand. It was a reward to see this cinema resurface with such a modern momentum.

Anne-Laure: Bertrand incorporated all those influences, he’s like some type of wheel that continuously spins around, an extraordinary artist. With him, Joachim Trier and Philippe Katerine, it’s safe to say that we made the right choices when it comes to contemporary filmmakers. We’re always on the quest for a new movie or filmmaker that will sweep our heart away!

Apart from these few examples of recent releases, you also distribute many heritage movies, additionally to your DVD editions. You recently organized a retrospective on Jerzy Skolimowski that coincided with the one held at the Cinémathèque Française in early spring. Do you try to coordinate your releases with the own schedule of film festivals and institutes?

Anne-Laure: Yes, the idea is always to support our releases with large festivals, it gives visibility. We work on a regular basis with Cannes, for instance, which remains an unequaled international showcase and stepping-stone. The Lumière Festival also takes great interest in our work and support us immensely. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, considering more and more heritage movies are being released and most of them are restored in very good conditions. The standards and expectations are higher.

It’s great, it helps us show once more many incredible movies, but it can also overcrowd and jam theatres. That’s why it’s essential to use all the events that can amplify and increase our outreach. Our model is the same as the one used by Carlotta. They were the first ones to present and work on heritage movies as if they were new releases. Same thing for us: every single time, we design a new poster, a trailer, a booklet to re-contextualize, so that all of our releases became an event in their own right.

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You also organize many programs for young audiences. Have animated movies been there since the beginning of Malavida?

Lionel: Yes and no. Animal Farm by John Halas and Joy Batchelor was one of the first movies we released in DVD and theatres. Like for the rest of the production in Eastern Europe, the greatest period for animated movies was the one spanning from the 1950s to the 1970s. This cinema then almost completely disappeared, eradicated by the productions coming from English-speaking countries. We wanted to dig them up once again and present them to the world.

Children are immediately receptive to these stories, it’s not an outdated cinema at all. We even hear echoes of them in the contemporary Pixar. The greatest creators of contemporary animation, like John Lasseter or Michel Ocelot, grew up with Czech animated movies. To combat the standardization of images and pictures, it’s critical to promote these kind of movies and present them to children who might become tomorrow’s filmmakers.

Anne-Laure: We choose the movies by browsing through the short films of authors, we restore them in France ourselves. Since they weren’t produced in France, we don’t receive any financial support from the French National Center for Cinema (CNC) for this technical work. We always try to draw attention to specific things to see and look for, to the mere beauty of animation.

This enables us to give the viewings a specific focus and narrative, so that children won’t forget the screening the next day and that they don’t fade away and get buried under the never-ending stream of images they keep seeing throughout the day. Malavida is an activist structure: the films we promote have a strong political message and sometimes address current affairs. Our goal is to intellectually and artistically cater to the children who will become the filmmakers of tomorrow.

The end of 2019 was particularly busy for Malavida, with two film restorations – The Cremator by Juraj Herz (November 20) and Kanal d’Andrzej Wajda (December 4) – and several DVD editions: the second volume of Alice Comedies (with Manu Chao’s music), a unique collection of five movies by Hermina Tyrlova, The Hourglass Sanatorium by Wojciech Has and Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds.

Interview conducted by Antoine du Jeu and simultaneously published in French on Le Courrier d’Europe centrale, an official partner of Kafkadesk.

Born in Paris, Antoine du Jeu studied literature (Sorbonne Nouvelle) and cinema (ESEC graduate, Masters in screenwriting at the Sorbonne Panthéon) in France. He wrote his master’s thesis on the philosophy of revolt while studying at Charles University in Prague. Antoine has also worked for the Cahiers du Cinéma, French radio station France Inter and directed three independent short-films. Feel free to check out his articles here!

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