Occupy La Clef, 2019-2022

The occupation of La Clef begins on September 20th, 2019, when a group of artists, squatters, local residents and young film professionals enter the building illegally and get the projectors running again, aiming to draw attention to the threat of definitive closure looming over the cinema.

For two and a half years, the collective thus formed organizes daily screenings highlighting lesser-known works: activist and genre films, independent documentaries and promising shorts by young filmmakers. This eclectic, pioneering program, to which every programmer contributes their own sensibility and the joy of sharing a beloved film, is true to the spirit of the place: since it opened in the 1970s, La Clef had always given pride of place to films that weren’t shown elsewhere.

The collective has a pay-what-you-can pricing policy, to ensure that everyone can attend the screenings. They’re generally followed by long discussions with the film’s crew, as many professionnals come share their experiences to show their support — even Jean-Luc Godard programs a week-long carte blanche at La Clef —, or with other spectators, at the small bar that we’ve set up and operate ourselves, in a corner of the large reception hall. The cinema is entirely run by volunteers, so there’s an emphasis on the transmission of knowledge: we teach each other how to operate the projectors, change a keg, organize a conversation with a filmmaker…

Little by little, our activities diversify, whether in response to the political and social context or following individual inspiration. Although we are in a legal battle with the owner, we take advantage of our illegal status to explore new means of film exhibition and creation.
For example, when cinemas are forced to close during the pandemic, we move screenings to the façade of La Clef, so that neighbors and passers-by can continue to enjoy films collectively. During the lockdown, several members of the collective set up an ephemeral radio station, with discussions on cinema, the right to the city and culture as commons, encounters with authors and activists, concerts… Others imagine “Studio 34“, a creative residency that aims to support five self-produced short film projects from start to finish by pooling resources and knowledge, and offers free and open-to-all introductory workshops in film techniques. There’s also a weekly fanzine, educational workshops for children (the “Tiny Escape“)… And La Clef serves as a support base for other collectives who lack spaces to organize, such as the neighborhood’s Solidarity Brigades.

It’s a truly exhilarating time of invention, sharing and community building. The public, film professionals and the press loudly support us — with their help, we manage to hold on to the premises and discourage potential buyers who would like to speculate on the building and the occupation’s growing popularity.

But after two and a half years of joyful resistance, the threat of eviction becomes imminent.
The collective decides to open the cinema from dawn to dusk so that the crowd of spectators can deter police intervention. For five weeks straight, supporters show up all day long for screenings starting as early as 6 am. The huge turnout and the support expressed during the daily public forum testify to the importance of places like La Clef: spaces for discovery, exchange, collective organization, learning, irreverence and freedom, in the heart of cities.
But despite the success of this vibrant improvised festival, the occupation comes to an end on March 1st, 2022, when the police breaks down the cinema‘s doors.

The eviction, however, is not the end of our fight. Galvanized by public enthusiasm and the renunciation of the last potential buyer, we take on a new battle, following the craziest idea to emerge from the occupation: buying the cinema ourselves, to continue running it according to our desires.