Basically, we owe the evolution of the Renaissance and later European culture to the simple fact that, during the early middle ages, manuscripts from antiquity were kept and copied in Europe’s monasteries, and thus saved from obliteration and preserved for future generations. This keeping and conserving may be fairly an unspectacular activity to the outside world, but to a culture it is essential. What would the art works of yesterday and today mean to future generations if they would not be there to look at again and again, could not be studied and scrutinised, could no longer serve as a source of inspiration.
Jacques Ledoux, whom we are honouring and commemorating today, has carried out incomparably important work for European culture, and for film culture in particular. The great role that Ledoux played in the film world emerged recently during the celebration, in Brussels, of the fiftieth anniversary of the Royal Film Archive; a milestone which, tragically, our prize-winner was no longer with us to witness. Many men – and I myself am one of them – love to make films themselves as amateurs and even more enjoy watching films made by the real professional artists. I am in the fortunate position to enjoy this pleasure in my own home, a circumstance which I of course value very highly. But few of us are as enthusiastic about film as Jacques Ledoux was. As a young man, at the age of 17, he was present at the founding of the Belgian Film Archive, the institute he was to devote his life to. After Ledoux narrowly escaped deportation during the German occupation, he took refuge for some time in a Benedictine monastery where he unearthed a rare copy of Robert Flaherty’s film Nanook of the North, which, after the war he was to donate to the film archive which had been set up in 1938. Originally a volunteer, Ledoux became curator of the archive after 1948, which, under his leadership, expanded to become one of the most important film archives in the world, containing 45,000 film reels, kept in especially designed vaults at a constant temperature and humidity. Ledoux also built up a film library and an international documentation centre in which he worked as the last ‘romantic archivist’, as a critic once called him, surrounded by photographs, cuttings, documents, letters and reviews.
The problems confronting a normal library, at least, that is the way I have heard it, are straightforward by comparison with the problem of keeping a film archive. The names of the authors or actors in many old films are unknown, so that they are virtually impossible to catalogue. Many films are incomplete. Another problem is the question of which copy of a film is closest to the original; colour films, particularly, present difficulties on this front, while many, moreover, are coloured-in later. Another difficulty is obtaining films, because under certain contracts the screening rights are often tied to a set period after which the film has to be destroyed, or, at any rate, it may no longer be shown for commercial purposes. Ledoux’s work also convinced the commercial filmmakers, producers and distributors, above all, of the importance and value of the film archives. Flammable nitrate films are at enormous risk and for that reason have to be transferred to acetate film. We have moreover only twenty per cent of the material produced during the silent film era, not just because of the perishability of the material, but also because many of those films were alas deliberately destroyed.
Although Ledoux’s primary impact was as a collector and curator, the role he played in inspiring people in the film world was no less significant. From as early as 1947 onwards, he was one of the driving forces behind the film festivals in Brussels, Antibes and Cannes. It was at these festivals that his unconventional and experimental views emerged. Prompted by his curiosity, his appetite for the new and his interest in films which were not commercially distributed, he organised events on an international scale, such as the festival of experimental film in Knokke in 1948. At later festivals, famous directors such as Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Dusan Kakavejev were to make their name. It is gratifying to see the growing interest in the art of film in the Netherlands, as reflected in the art cinemas and the succesful festivals in Rotterdam and Utrecht. Given such developments it comes as no surprise to find that some quarters are urging for a chair of cinematography to be founded at a Dutch university alongside the chairs for music and drama.
Ledoux could become particularly agitated about the misunderstanding prevailing among the public and in government that the film was a purely commercial or industrial affair. He was always glad to point to the parallel with the art of painting, which also had an obvious commercial side to it. Art galleries often do good business but nonetheless people have never regarded this as a reason for not concerning themselves with the visual arts. It was this idea which prompted Ledoux to set up the annual ‘L’Age d’Or’ festival to give anti-conformist filmmakers a chance. No wonder Ledoux came to be on familiar terms with directors such as Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Demy and Varda, who later were to become the famous filmmakers of the ‘Nouvelle Vague’. No wonder either that, for years, Ledoux was Secretary General of the ‘Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film’. But contrary to what one perhaps might expect from everything he did, this unconventional man was never anxious to be in the limelight. He always avoided personal questions; he never talked about himself. Characteristic of Ledoux’s modesty was the fact that in the past he has refused the many prizes he was awarded. The irony of fate is that the first and only prize that he wanted to accept is being awarded to him today posthumously. Through his fanatical love and enthusiasm for the art of film, through his ironic and sometimes biting humour, his candid and unequivocal statements, Ledoux, alongside his many friends, of course also had opponents, who did not make things easy for him when he made such a fervid effort to gain support for his film archive.
From 1962 onwards, when the Belgian film archive became the ‘Royal’ Belgian Film Archive, Ledoux, while continuing with his archive work, started setting up a film museum and a Cinémathèque for the public in Brussels. As a curator, he was very well aware of the problem of, on the one hand, wishing to show the public as many films as possible while, on the other, ensuring that the material remained intact; a problem confronting many a library or print collection. Ledoux found an acceptable compromise. His film library has become a veritable model, because of the quality and originality of the programmes. Five films are shown every day. Through a cooperative arrangement with the biennial event, Europalia, major international reviews are held. Ledoux also installed a separate room, then unique in the world, where silent films are accompanied by live piano music. Through all these activities – and the film history courses, the summer schools and the distribution of films should certainly not be forgotten – Ledoux’s film centre has expanded into a vibrant part of our cultural heritage, where numerous film makers gain their inspiration or carry out research. In exemplary fashion, Ledoux has combined collecting and conserving with innovation, experiment and creativity.
Taken from us too soon, he has left us an institute of immense cultural significance. The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation wanted to emphasize this significance by commissioning Anne Head to write a book which makes clear the lasting merit of Jacques Ledoux and his work. As a token of our admiration for what he has done, I would like to ask you, Madame Ledoux, to accept the first copy of A True Love for Cinema and the 1988 Erasmus Prize.