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Of all the unique cinemas to be found in Paris, none is quite as unique as La Péniche. The name means “barge,” and it is literally a theatre located on an old barge. The Péniche is moored in the Canal de l’Ourq, in the extreme north of Paris. It’s the remotest of cinemas from central Paris, but only a few minutes from the huge science center at Porte de la Villette, accessible by metro and tram. Apart from La Villette, the neighborhood is funky, evoking a Georges Simenon setting with crumbling buildings, gloomy factories, and construction sites presided over by enormous dinosaur-like cranes. The barge is moored near the raucous Cabaret Sauvage, emitting rhythmic sonar bombs as you approach the berth.
The movies are shown not so much on the waves as under them. After passing over the gangway, the public descends a narrow stairway to enter a small beneath-decks screening room. There are comfortable chairs, but limited in number — when this reviewer arrived late for a screening, it was standing room only. The visual and audio quality of the installation was surprisingly good (though the panel discussion afterwards wasn’t amplified well enough to get through the din of the crowd). Despite a cramped (but convivial) environment, there’s room for a well-stocked bar, which serves hot and cold sandwiches as well as drinks. On Saturdays there is a restaurant service, as well. This seems to be the main source of revenue for La Péniche, as admission is free. (The barge can also be rented for special functions.)
La Péniche doesn’t show commercial-run films or even the usual art films. Instead it’s a venue for special programs listed in its website, and has numerous partnerships with arts institutions. Once a month one particular institution, school, or artist puts on a program of their choice, often featuring panel discussions among film professionals.
At the moment the theatre is showing short films made by the production house Artpark, as well as shorts by young film-makers from the Centre Européen de Formation à la Productions des Films.
The evening I attended, many of the aspiring cineastes were having their films screened in public for the first time, which accounted for no little giddy excitement. Yet the films shown were well-made and witty in a surreal, satirical Buñuelesque way. La Péniche, acting as a sort of one-barge Sundance Institute, is always looking for new projects to feature and sifting through the many submissions that come their way. In addition, they offer film courses for young people. The real interest of visiting La Péniche is to get a glimpse into French cinema’s future. If the results are sometimes uneven and not always to everyone’s taste, well, there’s always the Cabaret Sauvage next door.