The ICA cinema opened in April 1968 on the Mall, right in the middle of a year marked by revolutionary mayhem all over the world. It was a fitting birth for a cinema that explicitly devoted itself to the screening of radical, challenging and often sexually open and politically engaged films. In order to be able to screen these movies, some of which had come under fire from the British censors, the cinema was run as a private members’ club (something that is reflected in the title of the season, Club Deluxe). This allowed cinema programmer Hercules Belleville to show such films as Weekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s incendiary denunciation of Western bourgeois society, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s SalÃÂ² or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), a devastatingly dark allegory of Mussolini’s murderous last months in power. Both were banned by the British Board of Film Classification, for ‘sexual and political subversion’ and ‘gross indecency’ respectively. SalÃÂ² did not receive UK certification until 2000, which only confirms how vital a role the ICA cinema played in its early years, allowing audiences access to films that would have been impossible to see otherwise.
The first film to be screened at the ICA was Don Levy’s Herostratus. Brutal and beautiful in equal measures, this story of a young man who sells his suicide to an advertising agency remains a strikingly idiosyncratic entry in the history of British filmmaking. It was a clear declaration of the Institute’s determination to focus on the experimental, alternative side of cinema and in the following decades the ICA championed the work of Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman and Derek Jarman among others.
The ICA always showed a strong interest in the cinema of the Far East, in particular Hong Kong, and was among the first to screen the work of Wong Kar Wai and Takeshi Kitano. They also enthusiastically supported Japanese animation and their 1992 Manga! Manga! Manga! season introduced Londoners to many animé classics for the first time. This dedication to animation continues to this day with the annual Comica festival, while two of this year’s best animé releases, Origins: Spirit of the Past and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, had their only theatrical run at the ICA.
In the last two decades, however, it is undeniable that the ICA has lost some of its edge, and the bulk of its programming has tended to be dominated by middle-of-the-road indie fare. Films such as Kitchen Stories (2003) or Blame It on Fidel (2006), for instance, were decent but dull. This, of course, poses the eternal question of how radical you can remain once you become an institution. However, at a time when the number of outlets for independent film distributors has been drastically reduced, the ICA still has a crucial part to play on the London scene. Where else would you see an oddball silent movie from Argentina like La Antena? Or the absurdist South Korean thriller A Bloody Aria? These two films have made it on to several best-of-2008 lists here at Electric Sheep, and yet, without the ICA, they may never have had a theatrical release in London. Here’s to hoping that a look back at its exhilarating history will re-energise the ICA’s film programming and entice the Institute’s powers-that-be to épater le bourgeois once more.