Doing the Work: Gwen Deglise, American Cinematheque

by Ersi Danou April 22, 2020
Gwen Deglise

Doing the Work is a series profiling key recipients of HFPA Philanthropy.

As the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) grows and takes a more active role in its philanthropic activities as a promoter of educational and cultural initiatives, it is strengthening ties with local film and media institutions. The American Cinematheque is a case in point. The HFPA and the Cinematheque have collaborated on the Foreign Language Film Symposium, the Foreign Language Film Series as well as last year’s Film Restoration Summit. But it is the people who work diligently behind the scenes that turn such collaborative efforts into successful events. This could not be truer about Gwen Deglise, Program Director of the American Cinematheque.

An art history and philosophy graduate from the Sorbonne and the University of Paris, Deglise followed her heart when she decided to emigrate to the US in the ‘90s. With little ambition for herself but the great love of global cinema, she landed at the Cinematheque volunteering at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. That turned out to be the humble beginning of a 23-year term at the organization, for several years now as Program Director. She was rewarded for her work at the American Cinematheque by the French government with the honorary title of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, in March 2019. Even more touching perhaps is the acknowledgment she got in 2007 by Agnés Varda who made a five-minute “friendship” short film called GWEN LA BRETONNE, which is now free for viewing (click on the button below).

As a non-profit, the Cinematheque runs the historic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as well as the smaller but equally storied Aero in Santa Monica. There is a lot of speculation lately about the death of the theaters, about everything turning virtual. Deglise weighs in on the other side of the argument: “The physical encounter in a dark room, the catharsis of emotions – together – is very unique and will continue to exist”.  The Cinematheque, in particular, is not a first-run theater, and therefore it does not face the same difficulties. Rather, the programs at the Egyptian or the Aero are more like “community gatherings around a filmmaker with events that are always singular”. “There may be more presence online as well, as we are all reborn into a new sense of community,” she added, “but I do believe that the programs of the Cinematheque will stay relevant”.

For many years the Cinematheque has hosted the symposium of Golden Globe-nominated directors which takes place at the Egyptian on the eve of the Awards ceremony. The lively debates are preceded by the screening of the five nominated pictures. Last year the HFPA programmed its inaugural Foreign Film Screening series at the Cinematheque theaters and the annual HFPA Restoration summit was held at the Egyptian in February to packed houses. “I love the encounter of the audience, the film, and the filmmaker,” says Deglise with passionate conviction. “We watch a film by ourselves and we know what it does… and we watch a film in a dark room, bigger, where we have no other choice but to stay completely immersed in it together, and it is a transformative experience.” A transformative experience, indeed, on both, personal and communal levels: “Our city is alive because there are places of connection. And I see [the American Cinematheque] as serving the community”. “We are not a place where you see one type of movie,” she continued. “We are really a place where there is complete diversity of tastes. We are not telling our audience what a good movie is. We take every opportunity to show a film and let the audience judge.”

Serving the multi-ethnic audience of Los Angeles, her focus stays on artistic diversity and balance, and “not just go with the genre, the foreign or the new but to show all the different kinds of cinema that exist but each time to ask this question – how do we find the audience? It isn’t enough to just say ‘OK, we’ll show this film’, because if no one comes [to see it], we will not have achieved what we set out to do. So, it’s always about pushing the boundaries of – how do we communicate? Is it the right time to show something, the right angle? These are some of the questions we are asking – here’s the intention, but how do we translate it so that it is actually exciting for the audience?”

In the world capital of film industry, the Cinematheque remains a rare non-commercial beacon, a hub for the film as art and cultural expression. Drawing a positive audience response has little to do with commercial viability for Deglise and her team. Her aim is a lot nobler: “It’s the way for all of us to communicate our humanity, and to stay human. Each time I’m touched by a film, I connect with my humanity and with the others’ humanity, and – together – we suddenly understand each other”. Whether one chooses literature, music, mathematics, or cinema, it always comes down to how “we express our humanity and how we live together. I think a movie theater is an amazing place to live together, and cinema is an amazing tool to tell stories about each other and to understand each other”.

While championing her idea of an artistic community, Deglise does not shun the work that it takes to create it. She enjoys “coming up with ideas, making sure we are a place where filmmakers feel welcome, that their films are shown the way they want their films to be shown technically – the aspect ratio, the sound, the quality of light, quality of the image – and also a place for the audience to listen and to ask questions to the filmmakers”.

Through the years the Cinematheque has faced challenges and the chronic shortfall in funding that affects cultural non-profits.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has stepped in with donations that afforded it to renovate its famed but aging courtyard murals and art deco interiors as well as build a projection booth for showing nitrate prints – one of only four in the country. When I ask about the lack of support by public resources – in stark contrast to the practices in her native France – Deglise’s answer is unequivocal: “The part that is missing,” she said, “is that a cinematheque in Europe is fully funded by the government. In Europe, even a local theater could not survive without the city’s involvement. This is [about] political will. What’s unique about the French system is that, after World War II, it was added in the constitution that culture is a right for everyone. And because it was added in the constitution, it became a duty of the government to make sure culture is accessible to everyone at very low cost”. In contrast, the Cinematheque has had to negotiate the sale of the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix. It may become a necessary compromise for the sake of the organization’s survival.

“We are doing super-well with our audience at the [American] Cinematheque,” she went on. “If you were to compare the numbers of attendance (for cinematheques) worldwide, we would be at the top – because we have pushed ourselves constantly by thinking who we are and what we do. We have an audience. What we don’t have is a political structure that funds cultural institutions”.

The challenges facing the Cinematheque have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has forced the temporary closure of its exhibition spaces. As an alternative, the Cinematheque team decided to put online treasures of their archives – Q&A sessions with filmmakers, audio recordings, and photos of past events. “With this current crisis, we have to expand on our sense of community,” Deglise said. “We thought, at first, let us revisit what we have done and communicate with our audience, members, volunteers … It is important to take time to find our own voice in this new landscape and to be able, in the long run, to expand into a virtual Cinematheque Hub for the film community. And when the theater doors reopen, both the theatrical and virtual hubs would become uniquely complementary … I do believe that when it is time to be back, the function of the movie theater and who we are in that landscape are really important – the community around cinema, the sharing together”. 

No wonder the French knighted Gwen la Bretonne, who used to bike around Los Angeles and volunteer at the doors of the Egyptian Theatre … “We are not the artists,” she confirmed. “We are the agents of culture … We are the workers, the little ants that make the connection between the audience and the filmmaker”.