The Metamorphosis of the Cinematheque

A tradition in the Colombian capital, the Cinemateca Distrital, which opened its doors more than four decades ago as a refuge for lovers of great cinema, is about to change headquarters to become the Cinemateca de Bogotá and, in keeping with the times, it has taken on the characteristics of an impressive cultural center, serving not only for those interested in the seventh art, but also researchers and devotees of the fine arts, literature, art history, architecture, video, new communication technologies and, most important of all, the everyday citizen.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos : Lisa Palomino


The Old Film

The genesis of the institution is recalled with a mixture of reverence, Proustian nostalgia, and aesthetic rapture. As Gertrude Stein might have put it, it seems like a time when we were all ten years old. It was 1971, a faraway past, but one from which a gentle murmur continues to reach us. Misael Pastrana Borrero was President of Colombia and Richard Nixon was doing all he could in the United States to hang on to power. The Rolling Stones were still iconoclastic youngsters, LSD was becoming the fashionable drug-of-choice, and the Vietnam War was horrifying the world. Twiggy was the highest-paid model on the catwalk and men let their hair and beards grow and turned their backs on consumer society while young communists read Mao’s Little Red Book and Marx and Engels’ Manifesto. Poets discovered Rimbaud and actors, Brecht and Artaud, women oscillated between the impudence of the miniskirt and the conventional ugliness of the maxi, and Catherine Deneuve was the most admired and beautiful among them, especially in Luis Buñuel’s films. In social circles, the pill was debated as the Vatican blushed and soccer fans raved about the Brazilian Eleven, who, in Mexico the previous year, had taken their third planetary championship behind their leader, Pele. It was another world, another Colombia.

Bogotá, nevertheless, already swollen to overflowing, with streets that seemed to lead to the end of the world, narrow, humble avenues being widened into the improbable, and arrogant buildings that rose to kiss the sky, remained somewhat parochial, a small city, neither too cosmopolitan nor too infernal. 

In the city center, the old cafés of poets and journalists stubbornly persisted, along with the La Rebeca fountain, in which the city’s dispossessed children bathed, the streets where hippies and Nadaists hung out, and the Carrera Séptima, crowned at the corner where it crossed Avenida Jiménez by the iconic El Tiempo newspaper building, the great theater of ideological and union protest, and the imposing presence of the classic Metro, Teusaquillo, El Cid, and Mogador theaters, which unceasingly proclaimed the fruits of Hollywood on beautiful posters.

On April 11, 1971, under the direction of cultural manager Isadora de Norden, with the complicity of her husband, filmmaker Francisco Norden, and the memorable essayist and intellectual, Hernando Valencia Goelkel, the District Cinematheque opened its doors, discreetly and without a fuss, but ready to become the most prodigious purveyor of filmic beauty. It was based in the small Oriol Rangel auditorium at the District Planetarium, where, offering a relaxing respite to imaginative and sensitive viewers, exquisite examples of celluloid began to be screened: the Italian neo-realists and the New French Wave, Fellini and Visconti, Brazil’s Cinema Novo, and Eisenstein, the New German Cinema, and Latin American “Verismo”… The institution later moved to the foyer of the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Theater, after architect Jaques Mosseri remodeled the space.

“It was nothing short of a university,” says Aldemar González, who assiduously attended Cinematheque screenings for more than twenty years. He first went to the theater on the recommendation of his father, a retired social security employee who learned to battle the monster of routine and repetition with beautiful films. “You show up out of restlessness, a kind of inner itch, perhaps even anxiety. And soon you realize that there is a world of beauty, of sublime images, of ephemeral moments that, if places like this didn’t exist, we’d never know about.” Aldemar has followed the Cinematheque’s journey and therefore is not surprised by its transformation into this magnificent setting for culture and fertile imaginations. 

The New Film

Two powerful women are spearheading this new phase: Juliana Restrepo, director of the District Institute of Arts (IDARTES), and Paula Villegas, the Cinematheque’s Audiovisual Arts Manager. Both have enjoyed many happy hours in dark theaters, fantasizing about other lives, immersed in the dreamlike magic of the seventh art, and have designed their programming to plant this seed in the city’s inhabitants, especially the younger ones. They agree that the time is right for this metamorphosis and know very well that it was the sweet, mythical, romantic period in the small auditorium that incubated the newly inaugurated phase.

“The world has changed completely and art is intimately linked to its pulsations,” says Juliana Restrepo, who adds: “The Cinematheque’s classical period was akin to the sowing, and it’s time now for the harvest. It would be no exaggeration to say that the institution was a teacher to the four or five generations that had the privilege of partaking of its delectable offerings. The city’s inhabitants changed, gained lucidity, grew luminous, and developed into Homo ludens, hungry for art, but also anxious to produce it. So, in response to this thirst for production, we began this adventure, which incorporates art and social communion, architecture and philosophy, the intimate experiences of each visitor, citizen, movie buff, but also a collective passion and task. Moving the Cinematheque to a more spacious, more open and appropriate setting was the dream of those who participated in the institution’s activities.” 

“From the beginning,” notes Paula Villegas, “the Cinematheque went beyond a conventional relationship with its adherents. This is apparent in the countless publications to which it gave rise, in particular the illustrious magazine that bears its name, as well as the many thematic series, courses, workshops, seminars, lectures, premieres, and educational and recreational activities that took place there. This temple of fine cinema has helped to refine the common spectator into an alert cinephile, as much an artist, as sensitive and as eager to embody dreams and become a “dreammaker,” as any of the filmmakers, screenwriters, composers, or gaffers responsible for the films they love,” notes Paula Villegas. “And so, during a period in which I felt like I was sleepwalking, given the amount of work and late nights, the threads of what once seemed remote and inaccessible were woven together.”


On Carrera Tercera, between Calle 19 and 20, across from the Colombo-American Center and down the street from the old Torres Blancas, the epic urban adventure known as the new Cinematheque began. The Cinematheque’s neighbors have also benefitted. The area had, for some time, been rather unsafe and unpredictable; even before the Cinematheque opened its doors, the situation changed and the zone was injected with life, new routines, and an unexpected atmosphere of community and safety.

“Like a great laboratory, beaming with benevolent light and intriguing invitations, the new Cinematheque steps off its small-big stage,” says Juliana Restrepo, “to offer a multi-faceted experience, where any curious spirit, without needing to be a consummate artist or intellectual, will find the keys to his or her incipient creativity. Visitors will have access to three levels: on the top floor are three movie theaters, the largest of which will seat up to 272 spectators. This is the grand auditorium, for the most anxiously awaited premieres and films that draw the largest crowds. But there are also two others, each with a capacity to seat 75, where Colombian cinema will have a privileged place, as it always has at the Cinematheque. Sala E opens its doors to creators from diverse areas and artistic disciplines, beyond the cinematic arts. There will also be two multipurpose rooms, a media library, a room specializing in new languages and technologies, and a room designed to stimulate the creativity of young people and children…It’s like a great whale of light that will shelter thousands of future creators in its interior.”

These two women have taken up the flag from previous generations and are the emissaries of new times. They, like the poet, both know that “in order to dream, you need to keep your eyes wide open.”

Bogotá, aunque ya hipertrófica y desaforada, con calles que parecían ir hacia el fin del mundo, avenidas antes estrechas y humildes que se ensanchaban hasta lo inverosímil y edificios arrogantes que parecían besar el cielo, conservaba un hálito de parroquia, de pequeña urbe sin demasiado cosmopolitismo ni mucho infierno.

En el centro de la urbe subsistían tercamente los antiguos cafés de los poetas y los periodistas; el monumento a La Rebeca, en el que los niños desposeídos se bañaban desnudos; las calles de los hippies y los nadaístas, la carrera séptima coronada en la Jiménez por el icónico edificio del diario matutino El Tiempo y gran teatro de la protesta ideológica o sindical y la presencia estelar de los teatros clásicos —Metro, Teusaquillo, El Cid o Mogador—, que anunciaban sin pausa los frutos de Hollywood en bellos cartelones.

El 11 de abril de aquel 1971, comandada por la gestora cultural Isadora de Norden, con la complicidad alerta de su esposo, el cineasta Francisco Norden, y del recordado ensayista e intelectual Hernando Valencia Goelkel, abrió sus puertas la Cinemateca Distrital, discreta y sin aspavientos, pero presta a convertirse en la más prodigiosa dadora de belleza fílmica. Estaba ubicada en la pequeña sala Oriol Rangel, del Planetario Distrital, donde, para solaz de los más imaginativos y sensibles, empezaron a presentarse las más exquisitas piezas del celuloide: los neorrealistas italianos y la Nueva Ola Francesa, Fellini y Visconti, el Cinema Novo brasileño y Eisenstein, el Nuevo Cine Alemán y el verismo latinoamericano… Después habría de ocupar el foyer del Teatro Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, luego de que este fuese intervenido por el arquitecto Jaques Mosseri.

“Fue una universidad, ni más ni menos”, dice ahora Aldemar González, asiduo asistente a las funciones de la Cinemateca desde hace ya más de veinte años, quien llegó allí por recomendación de su padre, un pensionado del seguro social que aprendió a deshacerse del monstruo de la rutina y la repetición con filmes hermosos. “Uno llega por una inquietud, una suerte de mordicación interior, quizás hasta de zozobra. Y pronto se percata de que existe un mundo de belleza, de imágenes sublimes, de momentos fulgurantes que si no existieran sitios así, nos estarían vedados”. Aldemar ha seguido el periplo de la Cinemateca y por eso no le resulta extraño que ahora esta se transforme en el más portentoso de los escenarios para la alta cultura y la imaginación fecunda.