Born in Eastern Poland, now part of Ukraine, Ben Barenholtz became one of the most important figures in the American indie film scene. He immigrated to the US in 1947 and began his career as an assistant manager of the RKO Bushwick movie theatre in New York in 1959. From 1966 to 1968, he managed the Village Theater, which became an important venue for the counterculture and anti-Vietnam protests. It also featured many jazz giants of that period, such as Nina Simone and John Coltrane, as well as bands like The Who and Cream. In 1968, he opened the Elgin Cinema, which became a key venue for independent filmmakers and repertory cinema. It provided a home for the early film works by luminaries such as Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, and the revival of the Buster Keaton films. He invented the legendary “midnight movie” format, with the screening of El Topo (D: Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970), which helped raise underground filmmaking to cult status. In 1972, Barenholtz founded the distribution company Libra Films, which released films such as Just Before Nightfall (D: Claude Chabrol, 1971), Cousin Cousine (D: Jean-Charles Tacchella, 1975) and Eraserhead (D: David Lynch, 1977). In 1984, he joined Circle Releasing as President, distributing such films as 36 Fillette (D: Catherine Breillat, 1988), Tales from Gimli Hospital (D: Guy Maddin, 1988), Thérèse (D: Alain Cavalier, 1986), and Blood Simple (1984), the Coen brothers’ first feature film.
Barenholtz began his involvement in film production with the Coen brothers, serving as executive producer on Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Barton Fink (1991), which swept the three top prizes at the Cannes film festival. He went on to produce many successful films, such as Georgia (D: Ulu Grosbard, 1995) and Requiem for a Dream (D: Darren Aronofsky, 2000). In 2008, he was invited to join the Jury for the Best First Feature Award at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival. He made his directorial debut, Music Inn, about the famous music venue, in 2005, which was followed by Wakaliwood: The Documentary (2012), shot entirely in Kampala, Uganda.
Ben Barenholtz was awarded the Berlinale Camera on Friday, February 12, 2016 in the cinema at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, with the Coen brothers in attendance. A Q&A moderated by Michael Barker followed a screening of the work-in-progress documentary Perseverance, which was produced by Polish Television, and deals with Barenholtz’s life.
The Berlinale Camera award to Ben Barenholtz kicked off a new tradition of honouring an outstanding producer with the prestigious award each year as part of the European Film Market.