Issue #024 Published: 17-05-2019 // Written by: Pablo van Wetten

An Interview with Jeffrey Babcock

Ext. A bench in front of the Athenaeum Bookstore - Day

Jeffrey and Pablo have known each other for years, and whenever they run in to each other they find a wall to lean against, or a bench to sit on, and make some time to shoot the breeze. This is the first time they have actually arranged to meet ahead of time.

Fade in, mid conversation.

Jeffrey
I always pay with cash because I feel every time you pay with a card you are voting for a cashless world. What they really want is a cashless society because once that happens we’re fucked, they can monitor every fucking little move you make and in reality you don’t have money anymore. It’s the bank that has the money then and allows you to have some, but if you have cash you can...

Pablo
Bury it…

Jeffrey
Yeah Bury it whatever you want to do with it, and it also creates an alternative economy in the city. You know if everything is totally official we’re kind of screwed... So I refuse to go to places that demand you can only use a card. The Eye Filmmuseum for example (laughs). I went there once and the computers broke down, and since they didn’t allow people to pay with cash, everything was blocked. People wanted to see the movie, but they could not see the movie.

Pablo
So they should’ve made the movie screening free and everybody would have had a good time right?

Jeffrey
Definitely, that’s what life is about, that’s what this city used to be about, having a great time! I came to Amsterdam in 1985 and there’s a big difference between the city then and now. Just yesterday there was some great news though. There is a squat called the Klokhuis on the Zeeburgerpad over by The windmill in the east. Well, they got an eviction notice. I showed a movie there before the eviction date, but they decided to take it to court and that’s not easy to do actually. First of all three people have to sign their names to the complaint, and of course they go on the shit list with the government… they don’t make it easy for people. And then yesterday I found out they won! First time in the last 10 years that squatters have won a court case, and I was really supporting them because even if the odds are totally against you, you might get a good judge one time, and if you win the case you have a precedent to go by in the future.... So let’s jump to London 1984 where I was arrested on ridiculous charges and I even spent some time in prison before I got out on bail. So I was forced to live in London waiting for my trial. One day I had to go to a little hearing with a judge, and the judge looked at the papers and said there is no evidence at all for the accusation, and then the judge says “Everybody’s free to go.” My lawyer said there was no chance of this happening, legally yes it’s possible, but he had never seen it happen. Then I found myself speeding across London in my lawyer’s car, and so then I learned you never know what’s going to happen next. You should always go for it and be as strong and positive as you possibly can, even if the odds are totally against you. And so that’s how I felt with these squatters also, it’s really great that they took it to court. I think it’s wonderful.

Pablo
That’s fantastic. Is that the place that was going to be torn down anyway so they might as well let the squatter stay there for the remaining two years?

Jeffrey
Yes I believe it’s two years. At the same time, it was a judge, a single person, maybe one of those old-school Amsterdam people in the system still, and so it wasn’t a decision of Femke [Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam]. If it was up to Femke I believe they would be out. The city of Amsterdam is trying to  eradicate as many alternative spaces as possible. So in terms of squatting they don’t even want people to stay in a place even if it’s going to be torn down in two years. They don’t want positive examples of people doing things in alternative ways. They don’t want examples of people doing things outside of the marketplace in the city anymore.

Pablo
In all the years I know you you have seem to really have focused on that single point more than anything else, the disappearing alternatives.

Jeffrey
Yeah, well Amsterdam used to be a city of alternatives.

Pablo
Is that what drew you to the city?

Jeffrey
Yes, alternatives were the mainstream in Amsterdam. And alternative isn’t a single direction, it’s about diversity. And we’re not talking about diversity only in terms of gender or skin color - we’re talking about diversity in radically different ways of living. Amsterdam was great because people could move here and jump into the city and live here even if they had no money. There were two economies in Amsterdam in the 1980s: one was the official economy which is all around us right now, and you could choose for that option; but you could also live in a cashless society. That’s really a cashless society, if you can live with no money (laughs), in a positive way! A huge part of the city was squatted, so people without money could come and live here and not worry.

Pablo
How would you describe the movies you show?

Jeffrey
I feel that every film I show is absolutely unique. I focus on films that are disappearing. So my criteria is basically to save these forgotten films and get them screened for at least one night… There is darkness you know, the darkness of the internet, the overloading of information. Because people can’t see their way through it they just gravitate to what they all already know, and so my film screenings are a way of interrupting that situation and therefore they function as a sort of filter. If people want to take a chance and see something different then they can come to my nomadic cinema.

Pablo
And to see movies together.

Jeffrey
Right. Collectively, not like some lonely motherfucker on their laptop.

Pablo
Also Jeffrey I’m a big fan of your mailing list can you talk about that

Jeffrey
Well the mailing list is based on friends telling friends, so there is no website, there is no social media, there is no advertising. It’s all based on friendship and it’s grown tremendously. The history of cinema is very rich and what is playing downtown, especially in relationship to superhero movies and everything, is becoming so narrow in terms of content but also in terms of style. And so let’s go back into the history of cinema and look for other possibilities because there are so many. So what’s fresh now is going back to look at those films because they are bringing something new to you. I also want my audience to be roughly equal in terms of gender, so if for instance I notice there are less women coming, that means something to me, and I have to change the programming...

On the square in front of the bench our two friends watch a worker load heavy barrels into a truck, he seems to take pleasure in making as much noise as possible. On the benches around the plaza many people sit staring at their mobile phones. An Italian tourist with red eyes eats a chocolate muffin. There is a nasty wind; it’s almost too cold to sit outside.

Pablo
Do you consider yourself a champion of the underdog?

Jeffrey
Well, for me a city is built on diversity and poor people are a part of that diversity. You can’t just put them in a ghetto on the outskirts of town on the other side of the fucking highway and then just clean up the entire center and expect it to be a livable place. It won’t be a living place, it will be like a museum, a sort of a dead zone. If you go to Paris, the centre is largely dead, you can feel something has been ripped out. For instance, Le Marais is a quaint area but you just feel it’s dead. Everything is well painted on the surface, but the atmosphere and the energy... everything is dead about it. And so this is also what they’re doing to Amsterdam, they’re killing the spirit, they are killing the creativity, they’re killing the artistry, they’re killing the history. You know this city still has it, it’s still there. They haven’t smothered it out totally and that’s why we have to tap into those aspects and bring them back to life again. They are like embers and if you fan them you can make them come to life again. And in terms of people at the bottom I really respect them a lot. For instance the people at the Zeeburgerpad. I offered them some money because I knew they had court cases coming up and they didn’t even have heaters last winter, and they said, “well you know if we really need money we will come to you but we would rather fix it ourselves, we can always go to the junkyard, find some old heaters, repair them and install them ourselves.” And I thought to myself, yeah, that’s right, if you can do it yourself you should always do it yourself, and you can apply that to the filmmaking process also. You don’t necessarily need a subsidy, you can work outside of that system also. We have too many artists now just filling out paperwork, trying to get money from the government, to allow them to be creative, supposedly. But creativity is a part of life.

Pablo
Amen

Jeffrey
(Laughs)

Pablo
We almost forgot to mention the places you show films...

Jeffrey
You know I’m showing movies four or five times a week. And once again the cinemas are based on diversity, so I think the places are very different from each other. It’s hard for me to say which one I like the most because what I like is the difference between the places. For me that’s the strong point of the cinemas. I have some steady places at the moment but at the same time I’ve had a lot of places that have come and gone over the years and I can’t even begin to describe all the places. From churches to offices and everything in between. I feel Cavia’s film programming is getting sharper all the time. Most lately I am showing movies at the Paleisstraat and that’s important for me because it used to be a crucial squatted art gallery called ‘Aorta’ back in the 1980s, so for me it feels like home in that space.

Pablo turns off the recorder and the friends decide to move to a cafe to warm up a bit. Through the window, they can be seen to be talking but they can’t be heard. Instead: the sounds of the city. Cars and pigeons, bicycles and the wind. Their view is blocked by a young woman taking a selfie. She seems pleased with the result.


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Jeffrey Babcock is a film programmer, writer, and cultural activist. He is the recipient of the AFK Amsterdam prijs voor de kunst 2019.
Pablo van Wetten is an Amsterdam based multimedia artist and performer.

 

Photo: Lorelei Heyligers