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From Lyon to Los Angeles: the house where Hollywood was born

In 1995, to mark 100 years of cinema, filmmakers re-enacted ‘Workers leaving the factory’ at the original Lyon location. In the foreground, Carlos Diegues (Brazil), André de Toth, Jerry Schatzberg (USA), Mrinal Sen (India), Youssef Chahine (Egypt)
In 1995, to mark 100 years of cinema, filmmakers re-enacted ‘Workers leaving the factory’ at the original Lyon location. In the foreground, Carlos Diegues (Brazil), André de Toth, Jerry Schatzberg (USA), Mrinal Sen (India), Youssef Chahine (Egypt) RFI / Institut Lumière

As Francis Ford Coppola recieves an honorary award in Lyon for the eleventh edition of the Lumière Festival, RFI visits the very spot where cinema, as we know it, was born.

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Watch films like Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood', François Truffaut's 'Day for Night' or Joseph Manckiewicz's 'All about Eve', and you get a glimpse of the 'reality' behind the film industry.

Frightening and fascinating, sordid and glamorous, where stragglers become stars and stars become stardust.

But the real origins of cinema are far less flamboyant.

The birthplace of cinema

Humble attempts to capture motion on film had been in place since the middle of the 19th century.

But it was in the Lumière mansion, in the French city of Lyon, that the "seventh art" was officially born.

The Lumière Villa in Lyon was built in 1899, after the financial success of the Lumière’s dry photographic plate in 1881 and the cinematograph in 1895.
The Lumière Villa in Lyon was built in 1899, after the financial success of the Lumière’s dry photographic plate in 1881 and the cinematograph in 1895. RFI / Arnab Béranger

Locally known at the time as the Lumière château, this bourgeois villa is today a museum showcasing artefacts related to the invention of the moving pictures.

Visiting the villa, one could imagine the inventors, struck by divine inspiration, working night and day to further artistic excellence.

Not at all.

The real reason for inventing the Cinematograph, the first ever film camera, was more prosaic – a 19th century bourgeois industrialist out to make a fortune.

The Lumière family were really a family of industrialists selling material for photography. Their incursion into moving pictures was a brief experiment, lasting only ten years. (Courtesy of the Lumière Museum, Lyon)
The Lumière family were really a family of industrialists selling material for photography. Their incursion into moving pictures was a brief experiment, lasting only ten years. (Courtesy of the Lumière Museum, Lyon) RFI / Arnab Béranger

It all started when Antoine Lumière, a painter turned photographer, set up a photographic plate business in Lyon.

His sons Louis and Auguste worked in the family business. In 1881, young Louis developed a new type of photographic plate, and business boomed.

The Lumière family set up a huge factory next to their mansion in Lyon. Fifteen years later, the factory was producing 15 million photographic plates a year.

Before cinema was invented, the "Lumière" brand was already thriving.

RFI visits the Lumière mansion in Lyon. Here, in 1895, the first film camera was invented, and the very first motion picture shot.
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The first ever motion picture

In 1894, Antoine Lumière, the father, visited an exhibition in Paris where he saw the Kinetoscope – an early invention by Thomas Edison, where one person at a time could watch moving pictures through a peephole.

Before the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope. Only one person at a time could see moving pictures through a peephole. The Lumière brothers improved the system to create a movable film camera with pictures that could be projected on a
Before the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope. Only one person at a time could see moving pictures through a peephole. The Lumière brothers improved the system to create a movable film camera with pictures that could be projected on a RFI / Arnab Béranger

Going back to his factory, Antoine Lumière told his sons to work on a similar device, but without a peephole – a device where films could be projected on an external screen, allowing many people to see the images at the same time.

Louis and Auguste Lumière, inspired by their mother's sewing machine, invented a system where perforated celluloid film was rotated around a wheel by a needle and claw system.

One evening, in 1895, the Lumière brothers went to the entrance of their father's factory to test their device.

The resulting film, called 'Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory', was projected at an industrial meeting in Paris in 1895.

History records this as the first film ever made and projected.

WORKERS LEAVING THE LUMIERE FACTORY (1895) - CREDITED AS THE FIRST EVER MOTION PICTURE

The Lumière brothers subsequently sent operators across the globe. Film shows were held in Bombay, London, Buenos Aires, New York, Cairo.

The foundation was laid for the biggest entertainment industry in the world today.

The entrance of the Lumière factory, where the first ever motion picture was shot (see video above). Today a transparent screen with a photograph indicates the very spot where cinema was invented.
The entrance of the Lumière factory, where the first ever motion picture was shot (see video above). Today a transparent screen with a photograph indicates the very spot where cinema was invented. RFI / Arnab Béranger

Genuis inventors or practical businessmen?

While the Lumière brothers are praised as the inventors of cinema, it is clear that their sole aim was commercial gain. They patented the Cinematograph for their own use, and refused all offers by filmmakers for buying or using their device.

They even discouraged filmmakers of the time from pursuing a career in moving pictures.

The patent of the Lumières’ Cinematograph, registered in February 1895.
The patent of the Lumières’ Cinematograph, registered in February 1895. RFI / Arnab Béranger

So focussed were they in the commercial potential of their invention, they foresaw no future in moving pictures except as a temporary trend to be cashed in upon.

A 19th century startup, if you will. 

Cinema is an invention without any future.

Louis Lumière, inventor of the Cinematograph

In 1905, they realised that their invention had surpassed them. They stopped making films and started on another lucrative invention – colour photography.

Skeletons in the closet

But beyond the image of industrialists unconcerned by artistic endeavour, the Lumière brothers have a far more uncomfortable skeleton in their closet.

In the latter part of their career, Louis and Auguste Lumière are accused of being open supporters of Mussolini's regime in Italy.

When France fell under German occupation in 1940, both went on to become civil servants under France's Vichy regime.

Louis Lumière (left) being decorated by General Pétain, who ruled France with an iron hand during Nazi occupation. The Lumière brothers' links to fascism has often been ignored.
Louis Lumière (left) being decorated by General Pétain, who ruled France with an iron hand during Nazi occupation. The Lumière brothers' links to fascism has often been ignored. INA

In their defense, historians say that their support for these regimes was merely ostentatious, to facilitate their business during the occupation. That even as municipal civil servants under the Vichy regime, they had no real power, and that they were not supporters of fascism nor of Adolf Hitler.

The Lumière Institute and festival

Today, the Lumière mansion has become the Lumière Institute. The factory where the brothers shot their first film has become a pilgrimage spot for famous filmmakers and film lovers.

At the entrance, a "Filmmakers' Wall" lists film personalities who visited the spot.

In 2009, under the aegis of the Cannes Film Festival's artistic director Thierry Frémeaux, the Lumière Festival was launched.

US movie director Francis Ford Coppola poses for photographs upon his arrival for the 11th edition of the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, central eastern France, on October 18, 2019. Coppola is the 2019 recipient of the Lumière award
US movie director Francis Ford Coppola poses for photographs upon his arrival for the 11th edition of the Lumiere Film Festival in Lyon, central eastern France, on October 18, 2019. Coppola is the 2019 recipient of the Lumière award AFP

Paying hommage to classic cinema and legendary filmmakers, the festival showcases restored and rediscovered classic films.

Each year, the honorary Lumière Award pays hommage to a cinema legend. Hollywood greats like Clint Easwood and Martin Scorcese, French actress Catherine Deneuve and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai have received the award.

This year the Lumière Festival honoured Francis Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now, Dracula and The Godfather trilogy.

Nearly 125 years after the first film was shot in Lyon, the birthplace of cinema remains a memorial ground for cinema's rich heritage.

Plaques outside the Lumière Institute commemorating past winners of the Lumière award
Plaques outside the Lumière Institute commemorating past winners of the Lumière award RFI / Arnab Béranger
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