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Paris Underground Cinema

Underground cinema
Hey dig this! Twenty metres below the Paris pavements is another world - a clandestine world inhabited by troglodytes, drug dealers and underground movie freaks. It's a City of Darkness below the City of Light - a vast network of subterranean tunnels that once gave refuge to bandits, smugglers and saints, and cradles the bones of some 6 million Parisians. Some 300 kilometres miles of tunnels and underground passageways honeycomb the underbelly of the city - most old quarries for the Lutecian limestone used to build the French capital. Others house electricity and telephone cables.

In the deepest sphere, some 30+ metres under, lie the catacombs, holding ancient bones from overstocked cemeteries. Part of the catacombs are open to the public, but dropping into the rest is illegal and can be hazardous.

Nearly two years ago the Police were on a training exercise in the catecombs when they stumbled across a huge 400 square metre cinema set up beneath Trocadero across the river from la Tour Eiffel. A projector and movie titles ranging from 1950s film noir classics to modern thrillers were discovered. The cheeky cinephiles had tapped into the public electicity grid to power the projector, lights, fully-stocked bar and a couscous-maker. They even had a phoneline installed ("Hello...underground cinema"). The cinema seated about 30 people on benches carved from rock - and covered with wood for comfort. When les flics returned to bust the underground film-lovers they were long gone. All they'd left behind was a taunting message - "do not try to find us".

Who are these guys? They call themselves The Mexican Perforation apparently after one of their favourite Paris bars - la Mexicaine.

"Paris is a mecca for underground exploration", said Lazar Kunstmann, a spokesman for the group that set up the cinema (and No, I didn't make that name up but maybe he did). The group has seven other subterranean sites, he said, refusing to give details.

In underground Paris, secrecy is sacrosanct, creating a subculture with its own code and names.

There are parties by flashlight in dank, musty quarry rooms bearing names like "Byzance", "The Cellar" and "Room Z".

In the underground cinema a toilet drew water from the Trocadero gardens above, where "there was a permanent leak", said Kunstmann. Electricity was siphoned off by wrapping wires around the state power company's cables, he said. "The problem is not to leave a trace on the electricity counter."

According to Kunstmann, the cinema was a renovation of an existing crude theatre built five years ago.

"There was a certain surprise" when police found the movie house, Commander Rougerie of Paris Police said.

A less sensational but nonetheless interesting discovery was made across town, under the high-security La Sante Prison. There, several tunnels, once shut, were partially reopened. Fears that prisoners were plotting an escape or, worse, that terrorists had invaded the underground set off alarms.

In the end, "we think it's amateurs of the underground looking for an old passage", said a police spokeswoman.

The catacombs have inspired writers from Victor Hugo to Gaston Leroux, whose "Phantom of the Opera" hid in "that infernal underground maze". (By the way, The Phantom of the Opera musical, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is the highest-grossing entertainment event of all time according to Wikipedia.)

Through the ages, the catacombs have harbored an eclectic lot. In the 13th century, bandits hid under the Chateau de Vauvert, now the Luxembourg Gardens, and sorcerers used the quarries for black masses during the 1348 plague.

St. Denis, patron saint of France, said Mass in the quarries during the Christian persecution, according to Simon Lacordaire's "The Secret History of Subterranean Paris". During World War II, Resistance fighters used the network as hideouts.

Scoundrels still haunt the underworld.

People have been caught stealing telephone cables to resell the copper by the kilo. Some have also been found carrying old bones from the catacombs.

Nearly two decades ago, there were reportedly 300 accesses to the quarries. Most have been sealed, but new entryways are uncovered by enterprising explorers.

There's a good interview with les Mexicaines here at The Guardian

You can hear a podcast on the film-loving troglodytes here -


and a very interesting French television clip on the underground cinema here - underground.free.fr

And here's a YouTube clip I made from edited bites of the French television clip -

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