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Interview with Dana Keith: Founder and Director of Miami Beach Cinematheque, Chevalier of Arts et Letters

Interview with Dana Keith, Founder and Director of the MB Cinematheque, conferred the medal of Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Consul General of France in Miami on August 2, 2017.

-      You are being rewarded as Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French government to recognize your commitment to French Cinema and Culture. What does this mean for you? And why is French Cinema particularly important to your view?


As long as I can remember, I have been interested in French culture, and especially French cinema.  My third grade teacher set me up with a French “pen pal,” with the purpose of communicating with and learning from those in foreign countries, and since that early milestone I have been interested in the French point of view and the French way of operating. It is a great honor for me to be acknowledged with this reward fifty years later, to be honored for appreciating what I have loved for so many years.  French cinema, in particular, is a very important reflection of French culture. From the Frères Lumiere to the new auteurs, the richness of French cinema has told the multi-faceted stories of a country. But the important thing is the support it receives in France, because cinema there is deeply ingrained as an essential contribution to culture, so it has been preserved to this day as a foundation for artistic growth. The French system of keeping it alive is as important as the works themselves. The industry is built in a way to be sustainable, to pay back not only the filmmakers but the cinemas that exhibit their work, and this is why there is a constant and varied flow of quality work and quality support. This great honor is another example of how the country values appreciation and enhancement of the arts, and specifically the “seventh art”.   


-      As soon as you created the Miami Beach Cinematheque, you indeed decided to program a series of French films. Can you tell us more about your beginnings with programming French films?


First, the idea to call it a cinematheque was a humble way to keep the tradition going in an unexpected area. Not really a “library for films” in the traditional sense, we were a presenter rather than a collection of actual celluloid films.  Our collection of film related paper soon grew however, making MBC a home for a comprehensive memorabilia and ephemera collection on the history of cinema. And along the way, bien sur, French film history was there at every opportunity. Soon after I founded the Miami Beach Film Society in 1993, the centennial of the first public presentation of film by the Lumieres at Grand Café in Paris meant that we could once again show those first films in a French café, Lyon Frères on Lincoln Road, on December 28, 1995. The Miami Beach Mayor renamed Lincoln Road “Grand Boulevard” for one day.  On our tenth anniversary I opened the original Miami Beach Cinematheque on Española Way, right next to, and because of it being next door, A La Folie French Café, which had Jean Cocteau inspired murals on the walls. I was their first customer in 2002 as the owner Olivier hand-made his Bretagne-shaped entry tile. I told him I was going to build a cinematheque next door, and he laughed but said “C’est parfait.” Oui, indeed, it was.


We eventually outgrew the space and moved to Historic City Hall on Washington Avenue, a much upgraded venue, the present MBC that was built by its Founding Circle and members. Ever since, we have continued retrospectives such as on Bunuel’s French period or the Claire Denis partnership with her longtime composers Tindersticks and cinematographer Agnés Godard. And in 2014 we installed state-of-the-art 3/D equipment for 83 year old Jean-Luc Godard’s experiment with it, Adieu au langage.          


-      How did the Miami Beach audience receive typical French films (what we call in France “films d’auteurs”) in Miami Beach? Has the public changed since then?


As I discovered new “films d’auteur,” mainly at the Cannes Film Festival which I have now attended for thirty five years, I brought the films back to share with Miami Beach audiences. One of the most memorable developments has been with the “enfant terrible” of cinema, Bruno Dumont. From his debut La vie de Jésus in 1997 to his totally bonkers Ma Loute (Slack Bay) in 2017, I have sought after his films to screen at MBC. I just saw and loved his latest avant garde work Jeannette: l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc at this year’s festival and it doesn’t yet have distribution in the USA. I intend on screening it no matter what, however, and have made arrangements directly with the French distributor if need be, because I have screened all of his previous films and after speaking to him and his cinematographer at Cannes, I surprisingly discovered that MBC is the only venue in the USA to have done so. Many people’s minds have changed dramatically after experiencing the entire oeuvre of one artist such as Dumont. His intensity has changed from dark to hilarious to outrageous, and over time sophisticated audiences have been appreciative to our motto “Ordinary Movies? Never” that specializes in opening eyes to the unexpected.


-      You also invited a number of French filmmakers or actors. Do you remember any “hits”?


The girls of Girlhood were a big hit, especially when they sang and danced alongside the onscreen clip of the film with them singing “Diamonds” by Briana. “Speaking in Cinema” was a two year series made possible by a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, supported by the French Embassy’s Cultural Services among other entities, so we were able to bring visitors from several countries to MBC. The retrospective of the works of cinematographer Benoit Debîe complemented his visit for the series, and his idea of 3/D with Gaspar Noé was easily as much of a hit as Godard’s. Both of their 3/D films, not at all what Hollywood is doing with the technological rediscovery, screened at the cinematheque for weeks. Brontis Jodorowsky, son of Alejandro and star of his film The Dance of Reality, was another hit. He came in from Paris and shared story after story way beyond the time during the panel discussion.      


-      You travelled to Europe in the 1980 and early 90’s as a photographer and actor. What did you then learn about European and French cinema? How did they change from the eighties to nowadays? Did this experience impact your work and vision about the film industry?


I went from studying cinema at the University of California, Santa Barbara, directly to Paris in 1982, sent by a modeling agency because I started making more money with that side-job than my full time job, assistant manager of the Arlington Theatre. I was expecting to spend a month, finally visiting Europe, but I stayed a decade. This ever-mobile work in the fashion business allowed me to engulf my passion into the business I preferred, the cinema industry, and particularly the cinema history industry. That’s when I started attending Cannes and other major film festivals, and I spent all my spare time in cinematheques, film museums, at auctions of film memorabilia, and in archives. I literally lived and breathed cinema, even though I was in the fashion business. In some ways they intertwined, in fact a memorable highlight of my modeling career was working with the legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan and his longtime assistant, who shot Cocteau’s La belle et la bête in 1946 and a Johnny Walker Red liquor campaign with me in 1987. They were both about eighty years young, with more energy and more lights (I could have sworn 100 tiny pin lights) than anyone else on set.


Of course, much of my time was spent watching films, and what I learned was that people in France have more appreciation for cinema than anywhere else in Europe, maybe the world. The French would stand in line at any time of the year (and miraculously still do), not only to see big premieres at festivals and commercial cinemas, but to see Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, for example, on the big screen at one of many cinémas d’art et d’essai in almost every arrondissement of Paris. This formed my desire to open a cinematheque eventually, and as soon as I returned to the USA I did, almost. It took time, money, support, and it eventually happened. And I’m very glad to see that Isabelle Huppert has bought one of my favorite little cinemas in Paris, Action Christine, with her son programming, purposely to carry on the tradition and to change almost nothing.


-      During that period of time, you also realized an important research about film history, collecting a huge amount of archives. Can you share some stories related to those film archives, which contrast with our world of instantaneity and online videos?


The MBC Archive started in 1968 when I attended the film by Carol Reed, Oliver. The souvenir program was for sale in the lobby of the Bonanza Hotel theatre in Las Vegas (which was demolished a few years later to make way for the MGM Grand Hotel, where I saw classic MGM movies in the `70’s in their screening room devoted to that purpose, in about the same spot where I saw Oliver back in `68. That program was to be the first of thousands now in the archive, encompassing the history of cinema and telling the stories of many of the most heralded and also lesser known films. In many cases of silent films, the paper documents are the only thing left surviving from the films which, as nitrate celluloid, either disintegrated or were lost or thrown away. In the 1980’s while I lived in Europe, the collection grew because many European countries have long standing traditions of souvenir programs and other marketing materials for documenting movie-going. Before eBay and other online auctions came along, I combed through flea markets, antique stores, and met face to face with collectors who discovered I was serious in my search for the crème de la crème of collector’s items. Attending auctions in person was a rare opportunity, and is now even rarer, but is usually where “the good stuff” is to be found. Finding an extremely rare item among a sea of “junk” is a great reward, after spending way too much time searching. But as the saying goes, “one man’s junk is another’s treasure”, so keeping an open mind is key. The pleasure of collecting is finding and preserving the original release materials from iconic landmarks in history, or discovering a whole new path to history by uncovering something “unknown”.          


-      In fact, you are about to reveal to the public those archives through an important digitalization project. Can you tell us more about it and the role of French movies there?


The Knight Foundation has made possible the accessibility of my fifty year collection through its Knight Arts Challenge grant.  We are currently working on the digitization of the archive for the “MBC Interactive Archive Project”. By the end of the year we will begin a period of revealing it decade by decade, as a digital presentation on screen at the cinematheque through events dedicated to a particular decade, complemented by a retrospective of films of the period and exhibitions of some of the actual items. Each presentation will include visiting experts on certain genres, studios, periods and directors. So when we get to the nouvelle vague at the end of the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, for example, we will invite someone specializing in that movement to speak or write on its significance, referencing the archive items that will illustrate the presentations.


Instead of being available as a website, the idea is to get people into the cinematheque to experience the archive there, either at the events, or interactively, before or after screenings, between events. The presentation will begin as a map of the world, to be discovered how you choose, depending on what part of film history you are looking for or would like to know more about. We will also invite other cinematheques and film institutions to have access to the entire presentation as it grows, to share it with their audiences for research and fun. I am now meeting with cinematheques in other countries to inform them and involve them in the project.


French cinema is a rich, detailed maze of information and discovery that begins at the very beginning, the 1880’s. It is also one that is still vital and vibrant over a century later due to the support and infrastructure that has been retained through wars and other obstacles. This project is just one of many that illustrate that, and I’m happy to be helping to tell the story and very honored to be acknowledged.