History of La Clef cinema

1973. La Clef first opens its doors in october 1973, in the Latin Quarter : a neighbourhood frequented by many students and a Mecca for film lovers. Its founder, Claude Frank-Forter, and main programmer Bernard Martin and foster new talent, organize festivals and facilitated access for students and retirees.

1981. Economic difficulties force Frank-Forter to sell his cinema in 1981. The buyer, the works council of a French bank (CSECEIDF), transforms part of the building into a cultural center dedicated to the activities of its employees and their families. The programming of the remaining two screens, with 120 and 65 seats respectively, is entrusted to associations.

La Clef, screeningroom in the 1980s
Screeningroom in La Clef in the 1980s

1990. One of the associations operating La Clef definitively shapes the cinema’s cultural identity : “Images d’Ailleurs”, initiated by Sanvi Panou. It is dedicated to the promotion of works from black and under-represented cultures, which aren’t showcased anywhere else in Paris. After “Images d’ailleurs” ceases to operate in 2010, the associations “L’usage du monde” and “Le cinéma La Clef” perpetuate this effort to raise the profile of lesser-seen films and marginalized authors. With its committed programming, La Clef stands out from the many other cinemas in the area.

2015. In June 2015, the owner of the building, the CSECEIDF, decides to sell it, setting the price at €1,5 M. The cinema’s director at the time, Raphaël Vion, makes an unsuccessful bid to buy La Clef back. No other buyer comes forward.

2018. In April 2018, La Clef’s closes down. The cinema’s employees launch a new attempt to buy the cinema, but are met with a tremendous setback: under new liberal leadership, the CSECEIDF suddenly raises the price to €4 M. In the Latin Quarter, one of Paris’ historic and central districts, real estate is expensive: the CSECEIDF knows it will find an investor willing to pay a premium price to convert La Clef into offices or a hotel.

2019. In May 2019, the former employees give up hope of buying and reopening the cinema.
So a collective of squatters (DOC!, le Post, le jardin Denfert, Curry-Vavart), local residents (Laissez-nous La Clef collective), emerging film professionals and cinema lovers (le SMAC, Les Froufrous de Lilith, Conséquence, La Serrure, GRAVE) is formed in total secret. They have a plan to preserve La Clef: occupy it.

On September 20th, 2019, after dark, they illegally enter the building. And the very next day, they reopen the doors to the public, for the first of hundreds of pay-what-you-can screenings: Attica by Cinda Firestone. Their demand is simple:

they will only leave the premises once they have been assured, in front of witnesses, that it will remain an associative cinema.

Little did they know, then, that the occupation would last two and a half years and have an international impact.

Read also:

La Clef, front entrance
Occupy La Clef, 2019-2022
La Clef, front entrance
Buying La Clef cinema
Martin Scorsese to the collectif La Clef Revival
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