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Farewell, Film Club

Some may wonder why Sydney’s last video rental store mattered in the age of streaming. But for Sydney’s film enthusiasts it was a haven of long-lost cult classics and community.

Art by Katie Hunter.

Film Club was the self-proclaimed “last, best” video rental store in Australia. The brainchild of Ben Kenny, this small shop had been operating out of Darlinghurst for ten years and was a mainstay for the Sydney film community. The shop set itself apart from other rental stores and the large array of streaming services by offering a wide selection of films unavailable elsewhere. Queer cinema, seminal feminist works, silent films, classics, horror, and international imports all lined the packed shelves. Film Club was an attempt to bring a taste of what lay on the outskirts of mainstream cinematic offerings to the public.

I say ‘was’ because last year, Kenny was looking for someone to take the mantle of Film Club owner and purchase the shop before the expiration of the lease in February 2022. Despite the good wishes of the community, film fans offering their time to volunteer, and websites like Time Out and Broadsheet getting the word out, Film Club could not be saved. It closed its doors last Friday.

I can still remember the first time I went there. Kenny greeted me warmly as I stepped inside. A TV hung above the door and was playing a VHS copy of Police Story. I walked in and out of its small overcrowded isles, scanning the vast array of titles, both overwhelmed and excited at everything I could see. 

That day, I rushed out with a sizable stack of titles: Le Million, Audition, Honeyland, Dawson City: Frozen Time, I Was a Male War Bride and Paterson. The autumn leaves crunched underfoot as I walked along the footpaths behind The National Art School, flicking through my pile over and over again, reading the backs, eager to pop them in my player when I got home.

And to think I could rent them for only $2 each! As a student, guaranteed value at such a low price is leagues ahead of streaming services that go underused and demand hours of you to find anything worthwhile.

I can recall returning every so often over the coming months. I’d trek from the Northern Beaches and rush through pounding rain or beating heat to borrow once more. 

I remember overfilling my bag with goodies that made lugging them around public transport a nightmare. 

I miss chatting with the owner over films, his jubilated eagerness to help find titles I was after, and his banter with the regulars.

Film Club was a space that fostered burgeoning relationships and strengthened the bonds between those who crossed its threshold. 

My brother and his girlfriend went to Film Club on one of their earliest dates. She had been there before, but it was his first time. He described how they fell for each other over their shared excitement for the variety of titles on offer, like kids in a candy store.

That day they rented The Green Ray, Benny’s Video, Good Morning, My Night at Maud’s, Scenes from a Marriage, and Boyfriends and Girlfriends. He describes how he regrets not renting more while they were open, or buying any of their stuff during the closing down sale. The only remnant of Film Club he has is a copy of Code Unknown his partner bought him just before they shut.

Speaking to aspiring director and FilmSoc alum, Chloe Callow says that Film Club has been extremely important to her.

“[It’s been] incredibly formative in my past relationships. It kind of became a meaningful meeting area for a lot of my friendship groups, especially those who are into film,” she says.

At the same time, Callow suggests it “exposed me to all sorts of different cinema that I didn’t have access to on Netflix or even Kanopy, and is just such a treasure trove of collections, especially for out of print stuff. It’s a real shame that Film Club is gone now because it’s not just a loss for people watching movies, but it was a fantastic archive for all these out of print releases that you literally cannot buy anywhere now.

“These guys really weren’t in it for the money, they were in it for the depth of knowledge which is, once again, completely devastating now it’s gone.

“At this rate, now that places like Film Club are gone forever and there’s no other video rental stores, it just opens the doors for piracy to be the only way to acquire inaccessible movies. And that’s by no means their fault. That’s just the current state of distribution in Australia,” she says.

Everyone else I talked to spoke fondly of the shop, but always in a melancholic way. They wished they went more often, wished they watched more movies, or wished they could have done something to save it.

I, too, wish I had done more. Despite writing this article, I didn’t visit the shop nearly as much as I would have liked. I never became a regular they had banter with. I didn’t make it to their closing down sale. When someone or something is with you, you take that thing for granted, expecting it always to be there. I never thought Film Club would actually shut. I thought someone would swoop in at the last second, buy it, and keep it running for another decade. Instead, it’s gone forever, and there’s nothing we can do. 

Farewell, Film Club, parting is such sweet sorrow.

While Film Club may be gone, it will live on in the hearts and minds of those who visited its little storefront, and a small piece of it will reside on the shelves of collectors who grabbed some of their titles when they shut their doors for good.
“Film Club is Dead. Long Live Film Club.” – Ben Kenny