The battle over the future of an arthouse cinema in Melbourne’s inner north looks to be headed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal following a fiery mediation session in which residents clashed with local officials and the proprietor.

Speakeasy Cinema, which made headlines two weeks ago after a number of Australian film industry luminaries spoke out in favour of the applicant, is planned for existing gallery and creative hub The Compound Interest in Keele Street, Collingwood.

The small-scale screening room is emblematic of a gentrification conflict repeated in cities around the world, pitting the last dregs of a suburb’s arts culture against private citizens more concerned about their personal amenity.

(It should be noted at the outset that the author of this article is a close friend of proprietor Ghita Loebenstein).

And based on the vitriol on display at last Thursday’s forum, in which objectors linked Speakeasy to an onset of “drug trafficking” and “s-xual abuse”, the stoush is rapidly becoming a cause celebre.

Sydney has been embroiled in its own controversy over the future of a rooftop cinema proposal in Surry Hills. However, Speakeasy seems a minnow compared to that venture, which involves the building of a brand new level on a heritage-listed building.

Loebenstein has applied to the local Yarra Council to alter the opening hours of the existing space — located in a business planning zone 100 metres from main drag Smith Street — to let her screen under-the-radar flicks until 9pm from Monday to Wednesday and until 11pm Thursday to Sunday. An associated liquor license would enable drinks to be sold from the candy bar.

The mediation talks held last week at the Fitzroy Town Hall — a curious process that local councillors say rarely leads to an acceptable outcome —  left the impression of a gaping chasm between objectors and the actual operation of the cinema, with reservoirs of pathos flowing in between.

A bevy of artsy supporters and Socialist Yarra Councillor Anthony Main looked on dumbstruck as locals went on the offensive, claiming that changes would result in a ” a nightclub” or a “drinking den”.

Many of the objections have been received from business owners who would rarely be anywhere near the premises after 6pm.

“I’ve certainly never heard of drug taking or child abuse arising at an arthouse cinema. I really can’t understand it given it’s such a modest proposal,” Main said this morning.

“It all seems a bit strange. It’s just a small cinema based in an existing arts space…I’m meeting with some of the residents later today to find out what their real objections are.”

There appears to be mass confusion over opening times, with one resident suggesting that based on a planned maximum capacity of 200, “20,000” people could be traipsing in and out of the venue each week. But a quick reading of the application would indicate that clearly isn’t the case.

“There would be a maximum of one event per evening…but realistically the situation at the moment would be much less. But the maximum is what we have to apply for,” Loebenstein told Crikey.

On Thursday night, one resident, who has engaged top-end-of-town planners Hansen Yuncken to defend him, complained about a “white MG” that had once backed down an adjoining laneway late at night. Another labelled the proposal an “entertainment centre” and said the cinema was “essentially a bar” in disguise.

“You’re really talking about introducing a nightclub in the area”, insisted the local owner of a medical staff placement company.

Others noted that planning changes would apply to the premises regardless of who was running it: “Mick Gatto” could take over in subsequent years and exploit the license. In the interim, a increase in traffic might lead to parked-over driveways and stop him taking an ailing child to the Epworth Hospital in an emergency.

In the meeting’s closing stages, when a supporter suggested that residents needed to consider “what sort of city you guys imagine yourselves to live in” he was shouted down by the owner of the medical business who accused him of spouting “patronising crap”.

The twenty written objections are also savage:

“Their website boasts that the Speakeasy Cinema will be in the ‘dirty heart of Collingwood’. However, they’re just one street too far north of the ‘dirty heart’, because it’s in Keele St, where the ‘beating heart’ of Residential building begins.”

“Are you aware of the many children living in this and surrounding streets? If not please consider their rights to a neighbourhood that is safe and peaceful,” said another.

Others cited damage to property and the apparent propensity for drunk cinefiles to “urinate on property and cars”.

Loebenstein has promised to address any concerns over noise, which based on Crikey‘s visit to the factory on one night last week, would struggle to reach the limits of the internal space, let alone leech onto the street outside.

(The next screening — located in a temporary venue — is quietly-spoken North Korean documentary The Red Chapel).

At the meeting, the presiding Yarra planning official suggested Loebenstein submit some amendments to the original application to address the clarify the assertions over street noise and parking. That is expected to be submitted soon.

Meanwhile, the cinema will again be discussed at a council meeting tomorrow night, with the Internal Development Approvals Committee to issue a ruling in the coming months. If the proposal is accepted, residents can object to VCAT.

UPDATE: Less than a week after a fiery “mediation session” to discuss the future of the Speakeasy Cinema planned for an existing arts space in Keele Street — during which unhinged residents cried foul over increases in “drug trafficking” and “child abuse” that would follow in its wake — the cinema’s temporary site in nearby Johnston Street has been raided by the local Yarra Council.

Speakeasy had planned to show a screening of North Korean documentary The Red Chapel this weekend at the temporary digs, a fledgling video art gallery. Proprietor Ghita Loebenstein (who is a friend of this author) took to Facebook yesterday to denounce the attack which resulted in an electrician being ordered off the premises and the building shut down by plain-clothes officers waving paperwork:

“On Tuesday 15th February, without warning, council workers marched in to the Johnston Street building, citing inane technical misdemeanours and a barrage of convoluted and confusing planning issues as reasons why everything must be shut down. Two days on the phone to several heads of departments, underlings and councillors reveal that the rules are so complicated, contradictory and confusing that everyone has a different interpretation.

“…I can’t ignore the glaring link between my advertised screening and the surprise visit from council’s building inspectors.”

Crikey understands the shutdown was ordered by a Yarra councillor following secret lobbying from one of the aggrieved middle-aged residents in Keele Street who had spied an opportunity to inflict more pain on the initiative, despite having nothing to do with the Johnston Street screening located several hundred metres away in a commercial precinct.

Socialist councillors Stephen Jolly and Anthony Main are up in arms and are believed to be pushing for crisis talks with Yarra CEO Andi Diamond. A spokesperson for Diamond didn’t respond to Crikey’s requests for comment this morning.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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