Interview by Devrim Bayar

Gawan Fagard is an art historian currently pursuing his PhD at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich where his thesis focuses on film and video. Gwendolyn Lootens is a visual artist who works mostly with drawing and video. Together they ran Cinema W-O-L-K-E, a program of film screenings in an artist-run space in the center of Brussels, which came to a close in 2015. When the refugee crisis escalated in September, they decided to launch Cinemaximiliaan. For Le Salon, Devrim Bayar talked with Fagard and Lootens about their project.


Devrim Bayar Can you start by explaining what Cinemaximiliaan is?


Gawan Fagard and Gwendolyn Lootens Cinemaximiliaan is a pop-up cinema for and with refugees. We started very simply with a projector and a screen under a tarpaulin in the improvised refugee camp in the Maximiliaan Park in Brussels, where many newcomers stayed during the height of the refugee crisis in September 2015. We coordinate the project, but a large and ever-growing group of volunteers have started helping us, too. Many of them happen to be artists, filmmakers, and cinephiles. The cinema offers a moment of distraction and escape from the hardship experienced of being a refugee, but it is also a place of encounter, exchange, and support. Over months, it grew to involve a large community of people, dispersed in asylum centers all over Belgium. We also organize cultural activities. Essentially it is about sharing time together.


DB How did the project start?


GF & GL Starting in September 2015, we showed films daily, thanks to the commitment of many volunteers. In Maximiliaan Park, Cinemaximiliaan provided the recently arrived community with a sense of comfort and security. Then, when the camp was cleared from the park, we moved together with the “Plateforme Citoyenne” to the Maximiliaan hall, where we continued hosting film screenings every night. There we met many people with whom we keep in close contact, mainly over Facebook. These people moved on to asylum centers all over Belgium, and the idea came to visit them and screen movies there. It became clear to us that is very important to organize film screenings in the more remote asylum centers, often located away from urban areas, where people are isolated and in need of cultural exchange with locals. It is not only about the films, it is also about people coming from outside of the asylum center and making contact, forging friendships.


DB What films do you screen and how is a selection made?


GF & GL The cinema follows a kind of ‘video on demand’ principle. In the beginning in the park, the audience consisted of mainly Arabic-speaking people from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. So we often screened movies starring the very popular Egyptian actor Adel Imam. We didn’t know this at all, and we learned a lot. But, since October, many people from Afghanistan arrived. They bring a very different visual culture, mainly Indian films. So we had to find films that were less specific to the regions where the newcomers were from: silent classics (Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, Mr. Bean) proved to be very popular. But of course Hollywood films also manages to bring people together. We try to show some great classic films or screen recently released films everybody is looking forward to see. 

We also collaborate with art-house cinemas in order to make less mainstream program choices. For example, we discovered that many newcomers have rarely seen movies from their own country. So we’re trying present programs with movies from the Middle East, and inviting both an audience from Belgium and newcomers. It is important here that there is also a space for debate as these films often talk about the many problems in this region. But also classic cinema form Syria, for example: there are fantastic gems which we had never encountered, and which we would like to bring to the big screen again.


DB And what has been the reaction of your audience so far?


GF & GL Of course the reactions are very diverse, but it is clear that the cinema screenings bring a sense of relief and joy during the long days in refugee centers. It is important to know that in many Arabic countries, film and television are very present. It is part of the everyday, and gives a homely, comfortable feeling. Cinemaximiliaan provides a sense of normalcy. During the films, people share a good moment together and can forget about their problems for while. Also the children are very happy to meet Tom and Jerry, SpongeBob, and Cinderella again. 

In the case of the specially curated programs in cinemas, dialogue is very important. Not everybody is interested in more art-house films, but still it is a nice occasion to share time and to get introduced to each other and learn about each other’s culture through cinema. It is a constant to and fro between films offering a distraction and films bringing more reflection or contemplation.


DB Have you had any negative response from the refugees or the refugee centers?


GF & GL Of course not everybody likes every movie, and it is a constant search for balance in terms of programming. We discovered that many young men—who make up a large majority in most of the camps—prefer to watch action movies. But they are not exactly the only movies that we would like to show and see, so we try to negotiate and test some different, unexpected films. When people don’t like it, they usually make it very clear, or they just leave the room… so it forces us to talk and agree on a movie that suits everybody.

Besides that, it is important to say that we have never experienced any problems—with the Maximiliaan Park, the hall, or in the asylum centers. Everybody is very kind and generous to us and we meet so many wonderful people with sorrowful stories and wonderful dreams.


DB In addition to the film screenings you also make trips with refugees to visit exhibitions in museums. Where have you been so far and why?


GF & GL It is very important that the many people who we meet in the centers also get the opportunity to go out from time to time and get to know the country better. We like to share the things we do anyways: going to the cinema, visiting exhibitions and museums. First we went with a group to Cultuurcentrum Strombeek in Grimbergen, where Gwendolyn’s work was part of the group show “A line is a line is a line,” which also included the work of Iraqi artist Salam Ata Sabri—an interesting connection. Luk Lambrecht and Lieze Eneman welcomed the group and we did a tour through the exhibition. It was wonderful to see how interested newcomers from so many different backgrounds were to learn about Belgium and Europe through the arts. So we decided to make it an important aspect of our work. We went to S.M.A.K. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent and also in Brussels. S.M.A.K. was very interesting because in the exhibition “A Bottom Line” works by artists from the Middle East were exhibited, and Philippe Van Cauteren spent many hours in the exhibition talking and exchanging ideas with a group of newcomers from Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. The feedback and remarks from Iraqi people on the work of Salam Ata Sabri were very inspiring. We will go back when “Invisible Beauty,” the Iraqi Pavilion from the Venice Biennale, is up, so that we can meet the artists in person. In the future we would like to go also to WIELS, and many other places.


DB Cinemaximiliaan is a not-for-profit initiative so how do you finance all these activities? 


GF & GL As we mentioned, we started very simply, but after having worked for almost six months without any institutional or financial support, we felt that we needed to build a more sustainable way of functioning. So we became a non-profit organization, even though we would like to keep everything as non-bureaucratic as possible. It is very important in this work to remain very grounded, simple, and concrete, and also flexible—since the situation of the refugee crisis changes very swiftly. But when our activities started to expand all over Belgium, we had to think of a way of financing the project. First we received a generous donation from the Goethe-Institut Brussel to start up some projects. Now we have launched a crowdfunding campaign so that everybody can contribute and support the project. The nice thing about our campaign is that when people donate, they’re also invited to take part in one of our activities (in the form of a cinema screening, a museum visit, a screening of an interesting movie at a private residence, or a concert by professional musicians who are newcomers to Belgium). For example there will be an evening at Kaaistudio’s where there will be a program with a dabke dancer from Gaza, a lute player from Bagdad, a violist from Damascus, and a writer from Aleppo. The crowdfunding campaign creates bonds between people and helps Cinemaximiliaan to cover travel costs, buy materials, support the artists, musicians and performers, pay the screening fees, etc.

One of the projects we launched recently, and which will interest the readers of Le Salon, is a fundraising art exhibition. Since there are so many artists helping Cinemaximiliaan as volunteers, the idea grew that we could make a small catalog of works which we would then offer to collectors in benefit of Cinemaximiliaan. Now twenty-one international artists, with a few newcomers among them, generously donated works. We’ll present the works at an exhibition at Villa Empain - Fondation Boghossian, between 5 and 13 March, and also at Z33 – huis voor actuele kunst, in Hasselt (opening March 26). You can have a look at the works on the growfunding webpage!


DB It seems like you have been through some very intense moments with the refugees. Can you tell what is your best memory from the Cinemaximiliaan project so far?


GF & GL That’s a difficult one! There are so many nice memories. I think what remains dear to us were the long nights in the Maximiliaan Park, where we were sheltering under a tarpaulin, trying to stay dry in the heavy September rain, watching comedies by Adel Imam together with a bunch of newcomers, who were gathered around an electricity plug to charge their phones. We were literally and metaphorically charging our batteries there, and we watched one movie after another because it brought light to the long, dark evenings. A man from Syria came up to us after the screening, and told us that for a brief moment he felt at home after many months of constant displacement.


DB Finally, how do you envision the future of Cinemaximiliaan?


GF & GL Cinemaximiliaan started very small and when we see how quickly it grew, we can only suspect that it will continue to do so, as unfortunately more and more people will be forced by the hardships in some parts of the world to come here. As long as there is a need for a warm welcome, and for exchange and mutual understanding, Cinemaximiliaan can continue sharing time by means of movies, art, and culture. We would like our core activities to focus on getting in contact with people by showing movies in remote asylum centers, and invite them to film programs in movie theaters, as well as organizing trips. The activities of Cinemaximiliaan will probably shift according to the ever-changing needs of newcomers, and we hope that we can build a simple but sustainable structure in which we can continue to share our time and our energy in the long term.