A cinema with only experimental movies on the list and movie nights where almost anything can happen. Selected as one of Belgium’s finest independent cinemas by The Word Magazine, Art cinema OFFoff in Ghent offers just that.
One must pass the grey, curly-haired elderly tourists listening attentively to their tour guide. Now is not the time for sightseeing. They are all staring at the small beguinage, an enclosed religious community called Our Lady of Ter Hoyen, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. But what’s behind it is much better, even though it may be hard to find at first: it is the Art Cinema OFFoff. Art cinema OFFoff is not a movie theatre in the traditional sense. It is a platform for screening and researching experimental film. Its mission is to offer a space to present what is possible within film. OFFoff is a non-profit organization and it receives funds from the Flemish Community and the city of Ghent.
Upon entering the building that’s home to the OFFoff cinema and walking in its hallways, the calm and serene atmosphere changes when climbing the steps to the first floor. The drums of a rock song, red lights, and cigarette smoke welcome visitors. OFFoff is mostly run by volunteers. One of them is Karen Dick, 29. Tonight she is organizing Young Vagrants festival, which is an open call to entry for everyone. Artist or non-artist, everyone is free to enter his or her piece. “The only criteria is that [the film or performance] have something to do with the silver screen and it has to be under 15 minutes, but we are not tough with the length if it is a performance,” Dick says. OFFoff tries to organize the festival twice a year. The first open call for entry was five years ago. According to Dick, there was a demand from young people for a place to show their work — even if the piece isn’t ready yet or if one just wants to experiment — without the context of a huge exhibition or a cinema. “When you go to an exhibition, someone has already decided before you what was good and what was not. We want to keep it open here,” Dick says. “Audiences like the fact that they can choose for themselves what they like. We always have vibrant discussions at the bar afterwards.” The first of tonight’s performers is Philip Volckaert, 35. He will give a live poetry reading performance while the screen is covered with images and sounds of the sea. “I am from Ostend. It is a touristy place by the sea and I want to break that image. Tourists sometimes forget that a place has an identity of its own and people also live there,” Philip says about his inspiration.
He is a member of a poetry group, De Wolven van La Mancha, that aims to make poetry more accessible and attractive by combining image, sound and words. This way the audience has more to reflect on. The festival is starting. One of the workers welcomes the audience and Philip starts. The room is dead silent. One can hear the squeaking of a leather jacket and someone shifting, adjusting his posture. Philip’s performance goes well. After the applause, the next movie starts running. Throughout the night, the audience will see a documentary about a friendship between an old man and a younger woman, who dress up in each other’s clothing. There are also clips that are only a few minutes long about someone’s nightmares that remind the audience of someone who had too many alien movies. A band named Eraserhead will perform while the screen is filled with images of the human anatomy. As the evening goes on, the number of audience members increases. Three rows of stackable chairs have become crowded. A few audience members come in late and settle for standing next to a wall. ”When we started, we had five to six people in the audience and now easily 35 to 40 for every screening,” says Dany Deprez, 50, chairman of OFFoff. OFFoff Belgium was established 11 years ago. Sven Thompsson, founder of OFFoff in Copenhagen, came to Ghent where he met Hans Martinsson and Dany Deprez. Together, the three of them founded OFFoff Belgium. Deprez has been interested in the world of film from an early age. He is also a director and teaches audio-visual research in the Film Department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and experimental cinema at the LUCA School of Arts, both located in Ghent. “We are doing research in the world of non-genre movies made by artists. The reason is that we believe that artists can change the mentality of making movies to having a larger view on what is possible,” says Deprez. “In the world of film-making, there is no challenge in feature movies because it is made by an industry and industry convention means that you have a production code. All parts of the world want to have commercial movies. Artists do not do that. They do not bend. This is what free thinking is, getting free of the whole mechanism of film-making.” Deprez says that as part of their research, they are looking at films from all over the world, from archives to big film companies. Sometimes they can get a donation from an estate. They are also trying to get in touch with small groups of filmmakers and an audience who shares an interest in experimental cinema. In 10 years, they have developed a good network. On Mondays OFFoff screens experimental films, from old to new ones. And the best part is that most of the things OFFoff shows are not often shown in other places. Maybe it would be possible to find them on the Internet, if one really looked hard. But in OFFoff, the movies are shown as they were meant to be shown: with 16 mm or 35 mm projectors, which most people don’t have at home. Overall, the cinema experience is completed afterwards in the bar, with a discussion. In the future, Deprez would like to transform their office into another theatre with comfortable seats and good projection.
In the room that now serves as a theatre, Eraserhead is finished playing. A group of audience members is heading for a cigarette. Joseph Amdin, 23, is a video artist from North California who met people who know the band and decided to come and see them too. “This is a great art space. Back home they close all the empty places,” he says. Inside people are gathering at the bar. According to Dick, the bar is the best place to hang out after the festival. She even met her husband, a fellow volunteer worker, at the bar while playing a game. “I told you anything can happen at the bar,” she says with a laugh.