Offering photochemical film as a crucial medium for contemporary and future filmmakers is the #1 goal at Navire Argo. The French non-profit organization is focused on developing a vibrant, artist-led filmmaker's hub, complete with photochemical lab and film screening facilities on the former site of the iconic Éclair Labs in Paris.
Navire Argo is close to its aim of creating this landmark, hands-on atelier dedicated to photochemical film – a place to create projects and access precious skills and valuable knowledge, anchored in an environment that resonates with historical and cultural significance.
"There is a lot of passion out there for photochemical film, especially amongst younger people, in France and around the world," explains French filmmaker Nicolas Rey, one of the co-founders of L'Abominable, the collective that is leading the Navire Argo project.
"Many directors, cinematographers and visual artists actively want to use photochemical film as their means of creative expression. Film is particularly compelling and inspiring amongst the younger generation, as it gives them something unique to experiment with and learn from that digital simply does not have."
For over 25 years, L'Abominable has been operating as a non-profit, filmmaker-led film laboratory and is part of the thriving Filmlabs network that includes no fewer than 63 artist-run film labs around the world. L'Abominable has helped produce, in a DIY fashion, almost 400 films and will relocate its processing and printing equipment into the new Navire Argo facility, which will also feature a cinema that can host public screenings.
"We want to keep the passion and fire about photochemical filmmaking alive by creating a space where filmmakers are welcomed and encouraged to use every single element of the analog film medium – from the camera to film development, editing, sound and film print projection – on color and B&W S8mm, 16mm and 35mm film," Rey exclaims.
"The vision is for Navire Argo to be a hands-on, do-it-yourself atelier where filmmakers can bring their projects, operate the machines themselves, do their own film processing and film printing, and enjoy the freedom to see things through the way they want them to be done."
Navire Argo has already achieved considerable success with its campaign. The premises themselves were formerly the home of Laboratoires Éclair, established by Charles Jourjon in 1907, which blossomed into a film production, film laboratory, movie camera manufacturing and post-production facility of world renown, before closing in 2015.
Now owned by the city council of Épinay-sur-Seine, and the focal point of a major regeneration initiative, the property will be put at Navire Argo's disposal, rent-free for 35 years, in exchange for the renovation of the 1,600sq/m building. This work consists of making the building functional again, as it was left with no insulation, heating, plumbing and electricity supplies, plus the fitting and compliance of running a cinema that will open to the public.
The Navire Argo team is comprised of film stalwarts and lab veterans with many decades of combined photochemical experience. They have already raised the best part of €2.7 million euros for the renovation works, primarily through the backing of public sector partners, including CNC (National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image), the Île-de-France region and Seine-Saint-Denis department.
They are now seeking to raise €50,000 in France, plus another €50,000 from abroad, for a total of €100,000 that will help complete the funding round and enable the renovations to commence.
"This work, plus the technical installation of the lab and associated filmmaking equipment, is expected to start next September and take around eight months, and we are hopeful of an official opening date around the end of 2024," says Rey.
In addition to the development of what could be called a 'laboratoire of love,' the facility will include an 89-seat cinema, that will be regularly open to the public. It will feature a projection booth specially equipped with film projectors for screening S8mm, 16mm and 35mm film prints.
"The cinema itself will be a unique venue in France and Europe, designed to keep the experience of film projection alive for decades to come, by means of an eclectic mix of historical archive works shown in their original film print formats, as well as contemporary films made on film," notes Rey.
"If there is a film print available for a particular work, Navire Argo will be a place where you can be sure it will be shown on film, along the lines of the Charter of Cinematographic Projection in the 21st Century (www.filmprojection21.org). To help feed the programming, Navire Argo will archive a film collection on-site that will be preserved with proper long-term temperature and humidity conditions. This collection is currently being built from contributions from other film archives, filmmakers, distributors and film collectors.
Navire Argo will also be available for a range of other activities, ranging from workshops and professional training sessions, art installations and exhibitions, live performances, and an annual festival, all supporting cultural outreach.
Indeed, the historic significance of filmmaking in France is not to be underestimated in all that Navire Argo embodies. The birth of cinema is widely credited to two inventive Frenchmen, Auguste and Louis Lumière. In 1895 they patented the Cinématographe, a device that recorded moving images on film and also allowed them to be projected on to a screen. The Lumière brothers also caused a sensation with their first film, the 46-second La Sortie de L'Usine Lumière à Lyon.
From these roots, and over the course of more than 125 years, French cinema has attained huge success and cultural significance on the national and international stage, with pioneers such as Gaumont, Pathé, French New Wave and auteur directors all at the vanguard of filmmaking, not forgetting the Éclair name in this mix.
"Filmmaking is woven into the fabric of French culture," says Rey. "It is very important to a lot of people in France, and elsewhere around the world, that Navire Argo will be a welcoming place for visual artists, filmmakers and cinephiles to experiment, create, project and share skills and knowledge about analogue filmmaking techniques, with help from people who really know and care about the process. In this way we will all help to preserve precious photochemical capability and knowledge, and who knows what incredible new talents and artistic endeavours will emerge as result of their exposure to the magic of film?
"This project is well on track," concludes Rey, "and we would be grateful for any pledges of support for this living conservatory of cinematographic creation, training and culture."
For more information about Navire Argo visit www.navireargo.org