Marin Karmitz, the subject of a tribute at this week’s Jerusalem Film Festival, talks to Melanie Goodfellow about his journey from militant film-maker to building MK2, a leading exhibitor, producer and distributor in France.

In 1947, nine-year-old Marin Karmitz and his family tried to disembark from a ship carrying Jewish refugees from eastern Europe at the Israeli port of Haifa but were repelled by British troops who fired at the ship.

“The boat travelled all over the Mediterranean looking for a place to dock. It tried Istanbul, Naples and Haifa, where the British shot at us, which I always thought was curious,” says veteran producer Karmitz. “We were finally allowed to alight in Marseilles. I think it was my parents’ real desire to go to France, especially my mother’s — she spoke good French and was a great admirer of French culture.”

Nearly 70 years later and Karmitz is a guest of honour at Jerusalem Film Festival for a retrospective to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his Paris-based production and exhibition company, MK2.

Before the Second World War, Karmitz’s family owned a successful pharmaceutical company in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. “We were assimilated, integrated Jews, you could say. I only really discovered Judaism when I was in my 20s,” explains Karmitz, who says he now has deep links with the religion. “My personal story is very mixed up with the films I wanted to direct, produce or distribute. I did it all within the framework of my understanding of what it means to be Jewish, that we areguests in this world and we should try to leave it in a better state than when we arrived.”

Karmitz opened his first cinema in Paris in 1974 out of necessity. Two years earlier he had directed the militant film Blow For Blow (Coup Pour Coup) about a group of female textile workers who ignore union advice and take their factory boss hostage in protest over sweatshop conditions.

The docu-drama, featuring some real-life textile workers, did not win Karmitz many friends in post-1968 France.

“It shocked both the establishment and the unions, the latter were used to being the interlocutors between the workers and the bosses but after 1968 a lot of workers didn’t want them any more,” says Karmitz. “The film showed this and they didn’t like it.”

Acting independently

Blow For Blow was shut out of France’s mainstream circuits and Karmitz was blacklisted. He toured the film himself, screening it in makeshift venues across France.

It was this experience that convinced Karmitz he should open an independent cinema to show the sort of anti-establishment films he was making at the time. Fittingly, he found a small venue just off French Revolution landmark Place de la Bastille in Paris, which he renamed the Le 14-Juillet Bastille. Karmitz’s socialist convictions fed into how he set up and ran the venue.

“I wanted it to be a space in which cinema would act as a platform for other forms of creation such as painting, music and photography. We held debates and even installed a small library and exhibition space,” says Karmitz.

It was the beginning of a model that remains at the heart of the MK2 ethos and has since been emulated by countless other cinema chains.

“I was convinced a cinema and the way it was used as a space could change a neighbourhood,” continues Karmitz.

He finally tested this theory with the opening of MK2 Le Quai de Seine multiplex close to Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad in north-east Paris in 1996. At the time it was an impoverished area known as the drugs supermarket of the French capital. But the beautiful old venue was situated in a refurbished building designed by Gustave Eiffel and quickly became a catalyst for change.

The past 15 years has seen the rapidly gentrifying area undergo an extensive urban renewal programme. The cinema itself has become a textbook example of exactly what Karmitz was dreaming of when he took over the tiny Le 14-Juillet Bastille in 1974: the 12-screen Le Quai de Seine’s programme combines mainstream blockbuster fare with arthouse titles as well as special events around niche sectors such as children’s films and documentaries.

It also boasts a cinema-focused book and DVD shop as well as a restaurant and café. It welcomed 1.2 million spectators in 2012 and it was joined by a similar venue, MK2 Bibliotheque, in 2003.

Strong showing

Four decades on from the opening of Le 14-Juillet Bastille, MK2 is now the third biggest exhibition circuit in France, controlling 11 cinemas with 65 screens in Paris as well as four smaller high-end cinemas available for private hire. And the company recently made its first foray outside of France with the acquisition of Cinesur, Spain’s third biggest chain.

As well as building the MK2 circuit, Karmitz is known internationally as one of France’s most prolific arthouse producers. Abbas Kiarostami, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jean-Luc Godard, the Taviani brothers, Michael Haneke, Claude Chabrol, Hiner Saleem and Raphael Nadjari are just some of the 50-plus film-makers for whom Karmitz has produced.

“I’ve always seen my role as making visible what was invisible. It’s a complicated process,” he says, citing Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man For Himself (Sauve Qui Peut) and Claude Chabrol’s Poulet Au Vinaigre as films that may not have made it to the big screen without his support.

“These are films that were refused by everyone but went on to be hits,” Karmitz says. “Sometimes you have to fight against mediocrity and banality and not get too comfortable. It’s that which kills creativity.”

A colourful collaborator

One of Karmitz’s most creative collaborations was with the late Kieslowski, whose Three Colours trilogy Karmitz produced. “I put the same amount of energy and emotional charge into every film I produce,” Karmitz says. “It’s the human relationships, the adventures I have with the directors that have been important. I had a strong relationship with Kieslowski — I didn’t feel like producing any more after he died — and more recently with Kiarostami these last 10 years.”

In 2005, Karmitz handed over control of the day-to-day running of his company to sons Nathanael and Elisha. Nathanael is CEO while Elisha is the head of MK2 Agency, which specialises in events, consulting, publishing and advertising.

“The boys are both passionate about the business and capable. If that had not been the case, I would have sold up,” says Karmitz. “We learn a lot from one another. I try to teach them everything that I’ve learned over the years but they teach me a lot of new stuff too.”

He cites MK2’s Cinema Paradiso event in June 2013 — held in the Grand Palais exhibition space at the end of the Champs Elysées in Paris and which was masterminded by Elisha — as something he would never have been capable of pulling off. The drive-in themed operation featuring screenings, dance nights, champagne soirées and restaurants drew some 80,000 people over 10 days. “I was over in America recently and people who had seen it or read about it were blown away by the concept,” says Karmitz.

In February 2013, the company closed down its distribution division and signed a servicing deal with Diaphana Films. It also announced it was pulling out of production following the disappointing box-office performance of films including On The Road and Like Someone In Love.

Karmitz says the company will get back into production but in a different way. The international sales operation remains strong.

“At the time, we were losing our identity, producing and acquiring too many films just to feed the distribution machine,” he says. “We decided to stop everything in order to return to basics. We will continue to support directors that we like — either through taking on international sales, co-producing or backing in some way ‹ but in a more focused, elitist way. We’ve gone back to our roots.”