I recently did a lot of work for New Cross & Deptford Free Film Festival, one of several such festivals across south-east London. We had 24 events across 10 days, and the response to each one was fantastic. Most venues were packed out, illustrating the neighbourhood’s need for diverse community film events. Lewisham is one of only two London boroughs without a cinema (the other is Waltham Forest). This fact was often quoted throughout the festival, sometimes with mild outrage. I only considered what it meant when one speaker asked: if Lewisham did have a cinema, would you actually go?
It’s probably true that most locals only care about this fact when someone else points it out. There hasn’t been any real organised demand for a cinema in the borough - why? New Cross and Deptford are sandwiched between two large, popular cinemas: the Peckham Plex and Greenwich Picturehouse. The former, an independent multiplex, is big, unfussy and one of London’s last truly affordable cinemas. The latter is of a more up-market Greenwich flavour, in keeping with the area’s hip bars and market.
Both are fine cinemas, and offer two convenient and somewhat different cinema experiences for Lewisham residents. So why should we care that Lewisham doesn’t have a cinema? Working on the festival has taught me, in fact, that we’re better off this way. To keep itself going, the Peckham Plex exclusively screens blockbusters. The purchase of Picturehouse by Cineworld is bad news for arthouse fans, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth even if the programming remains the same. In cinemas across the country the films selected, those selecting them, and the experience of visiting are all growing narrower.
Let’s look instead at what’s on offer in Lewisham. The venues we used in the festival included:
-the back of a lorry,
-Goldsmiths university’s cinema room,
-a housing co-op,
-an old primary school,
-a tattoo parlour, and
-several people’s front windows.
Even when the festival isn’t on, many pubs in the area have film screenings along with live music, stand-up and club nights. The Big Red Pizzeria have weekly screenings of their favourite classics, family-friendly films and TV such as Breaking Bad. Old Tidemill School open up for film events along with their regular gardening sessions. Flatpack Cinema SE screen all kinds of local films in the area. Deptford Film Club regularly shows rarely-screened classics above the Amersham Arms, and even organised a Popular World Cinema festival with local young people. (Every one of these events, when they do charge, costs less than a standard multiplex ticket.)
Looking at the sheer volume of informal film events in south-east London, I shudder at the idea of an Odeon setting up shop here. Because we don’t have a cinema, we already do cinema. Residents decide what we want to see, how we see it, for how much, and the money goes back into local businesses or future events.
This isn’t to denigrate ‘proper’ cinemas - that is still a fantastic experience, and I will still go to the Peckham Plex to watch The World’s End or The Hobbit. However, chain multiplexes are increasingly banal, corporate spaces saturated with advertising and outrageous prices. Lewisham’s absent cinema building is, I think, an opportunity for community cinema that we are already taking advantage of. Our relationship with film is dynamic, mobile, imaginative and creative. Why bother putting it all in one building when we can spread it out?
Sandford Housing Co-operative are doing LOADS of events for New Cross & Deptford Free Film Festival!
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On Thursday 2nd May 16 houses in Telegraph Hill, New Cross, will screen films onto their front windows from inside, creating a cinematic neighbourhood for passersby!
The event, called Light Houses, is part of the New Cross & Deptford Free Film Festival and is (as the name suggests) 100% free!
It was inspired by an original annual event called Lincoln West End Lights. Community cinema on your evening constitutional…
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Underground with strangers
(as usual, London)
watching an old thirty-five millimetre projection
- stumbling reel changes audaciously re-edit -
every colour of grey space brought
to immediate life for us,
a visit from the future of the past.
We move in gleeful ripples like
tugging at the edge of a rainbow-coloured parachute iris
and rushing forward, hands backward, to a black hole pow-wow or
so many goosebumps on a hand that’s on a first darkened date.
And when the planet explodes
in a bright white light from
a box aimed through
a cascade of pictures onto
this underground screen it
rattles the ship and
the entire room and
the robot pilot and
the reel itself
the reel itself almost collapses with scratches
and blemished notches and needly blotches
but come on
such breathtaking immediacy
as if this detonating world of the film
is breaking apart
the very limits
of the reel.
looking at these tiny blown-up images
underground with strangers
how perfect that
the material has finally conspired
with the imaginary
and they don’t even know
that the alien is
I am organising a screening of short films from South-East London as part of the New Cross + Deptford Free Film Festival.
Submit your film, or pass along to those who might!
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New Cross & Deptford Free Film Festival needs your help!
We are currently crowdfunding for a “Film in a day” workshop for local young people. Last year’s was a huge success and we want to do the same again this year.
Lewisham is one of only two London boroughs without a cinema - so events like this are really important to get people into film! Click here to visit the Sponsume page.
Share the link and donate if you can.
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Light Houses is an event inspired by Lincoln West End Lights, whereby residents of a street or neighbourhood project films from their front rooms out onto the street, for the pleasure of neighbours and passersby.
Coming soon to the New Cross + Deptford Free Film Festival!
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26 April-5 May 2013
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This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)
“Some people say we’re racists. We’re not racists. We’re realists.”
Until relatively recently, I didn’t have much interest in British history. Britain was the boring everyday that surrounded me, and appeared to promise more of the same. So I turned my attention to other parts of the world, like the US and east Asia, where every bit of learning felt like something new. This also reflects my (and most people’s) relationship with British cinema - it’s considered in the more institutional end of the concept of ‘heritage,’ and is generally ignored. In the words of BFI curator Bryony Dixon, “each generation has to be told it’s okay to like British films.”
So more power to Shane Meadows, who swiftly turned heads with a impressive filmography that reconciled dynamic storytelling with what is generally called ‘the British social realist cinema tradition’ (read: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh). In 2006 Meadows was at the height of his potential, and This Is England immediately grabbed my attention. Though set at the other end of both the decade and the Midlands from when/where I was born, the film’s handling of racism is so thoughtful that it carries an authenticity recognisable across the country.
The heavily autobiographical story follows Shaun, a young loner whose father has died in the Falklands and who is taken in by a gang of raucous skinheads. The first half of the film is uproariously enjoyable - Meadows’ skill with actors shines through, and the meticulous period recreation of 1983 never upstages the semi-improvised, thoroughly convincing character development. The gang are silly, awkward, petulant, earnest, inarticulate - in short, they generally behave like real people rather than film characters.
After Shaun has been shorn (sorry) and initiated into the gang, out of the blue arrives Combo, an older ex-convict whose 1970s skinhead roots do not come from the ska and two-tone of the youngsters, but from punk and the heyday of the National Front. After an excruciating introduction that includes some ‘slip of the tongue’ racism, Combo delivers a nationalist speech of the kind that defines the skinhead in popular British imagination. Its anti-Thatcher bent, though, inspires the confused Shaun, and he adopts Combo as a father figure. The joyous adventure of the first half is then directly inverted to an increasingly tense path of racist anger, violence and, indeed, boredom.
Much of the power of the film comes from Stephen Graham’s performance as Combo, a character so simultaneously overbearing and pathetic that the shocking climax is made more realistic for its abrupt, illogical manner. His racism is never fully explained, tangled up as it is in social deprivation, family pressures, subculture, inequality, and class. Combo himself never fully understands his own behaviour, and Graham does a magnificent job of laying bare the extent of his contradictions, which are those of the nation. Avoiding easy answers was a brave move by Meadows, though one unfairly punished by the British Board of Film Classification, who rated the film ‘18’ rather than ‘15,’ worried that its realistic treatment of racism would be a dangerous influence on younger viewers. This was a disrespectful decision by the BBFC, and probably their worst in years.
This Is England has been adapted into several TV miniseries, which however hit-and-miss have provided an opportunity to further explore other ‘issues’ within the same familiar, immersive world. The film proved that popular, hip British cinema doesn’t have to be propped up by America, and that ‘heritage’ can articulate itself on the screen in a progressive and complex way. Its characters deal with recent history, and in the TV shows we can watch them approaching our own time with increasing speed. It also, however temporarily or superficially, directed national media attention away from London for once.
Now, working as a community historian, the film not only stokes my interest in heritage, but in fact illustrates historical fiction filmmaking at its best. It respects the seriousness of its subject and so doesn’t simplify or explain. Meadows’ own experiences must be the significant influence in this respect; this is eye-witness reflection at work, and it asks some pretty important questions of the rest of us as we look back too.
Sabotage Times asked me to write a short piece on my favourite film soundtrack for their list. I wrote this on Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love, and they actually published it.
Incoming – or should that be coming in? The lesser-spotted waltz from space. But you’ll be feeling Earth’s gravity threefold under all that work, little boy blue. What a noisy world you’ve got here! Repetition on a motif, like an old romantic movie, like your sister nagging you again and again and again, and makes you feel like you might make a mistake, unless you’re only ever making one continuous mistake. Thrashing out a solo in the Fortress of Solitude, building up to first contact.
You know you’re hopeless when your crush is an alien. Does it count as a blackout when you see colours? What happens when you suspect that you’re the alien invasion? What planet is this, anyway? You’re no Superman, you need wings to fly (and that’s not all he needs, folks!). Yet amidst it all, somewhere, harmony. Aloha! There’s melody in the madness. Carry it home.
He remembers how to fly! The villain’s on the ropes! Pow! Knockout! The music builds, the couple kiss, and we can’t none of us wait to climax. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, boy, talk about a Healthy Choice. Fortress of Altitude. Fortress of Attitude! So here we go.
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Atanarjuat (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001)
“A man who’s serious about killing would keep it to himself.”
I’ll just get this out of the way now: the most exciting film movement of our era is coming out of Nunavut, Canada. Right? Right.
A couple of decades ago, Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk despaired of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation’s south-centric focus, so he quit and went back home. Home was Igloolik, a small, almost entirely Inuit town wracked with depression and teen suicide. Kunuk set up a production company called Isuma, and set to work.
After years of shorts, documentaries and a brilliant TV series, Kunuk eventually set about making the epic Atanarjuat. Atanarjuat is a game-changer. People always use the term ‘game-changer’ without really referring to any games or changes, but here it’s appropriate. The story, from an Inuit myth, was taken from the local elders. The cast and crew were town residents. The catering team were hunters who scouted for seal during the shoot. To make the film, Kunuk put Igloolik to work.
Isuma have continued the trend since, rounding off Atanarjuat with an informal trilogy, and launching a project on Inuit knowledge and climate change. Nunavut struggles for every bit of funding that comes its way, but Kunuk’s company have helped shine a light. Those teens are given an inspiring, community-led example of creative and enterprising employment. Anyway that’s enough about the revolutionary economics of community cinema. What about the film itself?
Appropriately enough, it’s incredible. The aesthetic is unlike anything else, simply because it comes from environmental necessity. Kunuk had to use digital cameras, because the cold would have broken film. Close-ups have to be used in an igloo, because there’s no space to back up. A key scene in which the hero escapes his pursuers by running across an ice sheet naked is jaw-dropping, because…it’s someone running across an ice sheet, naked. The film’s sense of proximity and tangibility reclaims the ethnographic gaze that has dominated Inuit representation on film for a century. Some reviews even confusedly reported the film as a documentary (which, for all it illustrates of traditional Inuit life, it may as well be).
Oh, and by the way, you can watch the film - and EVERYTHING ELSE ISUMA HAVE EVER MADE - on their website for free. But I guess they just knocked that up in an afternoon, because they also gave us an online portal for indigenous film across the entire world. To be honest, I could go on and on about how amazing Isuma are. Fortunately for you, here’s a whole academic essay I made earlier. They are the frontline of revolutionary 21st century cinema. DO. NOT. SLEEP. ON. THEM.
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From now on I’ll be posting short pieces on films that changed my life - a very vague phrase that I won’t define. Enjoy!
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927)
“This song of the Man and his Wife is of no place and every place; you might hear it anywhere, at any time.”
Hollywood’s star was built on the backs of foreign talent, and Sunrise - a silent film released the year sound was introduced - is no exception. Indeed, with its elaborate tracking shots, cartoonish sets, and the use of midgets to make those sets appear bigger, it’s hard to imagine Sunrise being made by anyone other than the audacious German Expressionists. F.W. Murnau, a towering, ostentatious sort whose priority of attractiveness over skill in a personal driver caused his death, and whose death mask lay on Greta Garbo’s desk for years, rose to the task. The film galvanized Hollywood, ushering in the so-called Golden Age and signing off the Silent Era with impeccable style.
The plot of Sunrise, such as it is, hinges on an age-old literary conceit: a Man and his Wife (for those are their names) make a peaceful and sexless life in the country, until Man is tempted by Woman From The City to run away with her. Even better: drown Wife and then run off, to the glamorous, dynamic, anonymous City of gorgeous sin. This structure has played foundation to countless thrillers, absorbed in the conflict within Man over whether to choose Wife or Woman. Sunrise does this too - does it to remarkable, heartbreaking, and sinister effect - but only for half an hour. What happens next, when the other films end, is even more remarkable.
Having brought his oblivious Wife out on a boat trip (after a painfully deferred departure sequence), the Man bottles it at the last second, attempting but failing to drown his Wife and crumpling into crushing guilt. Of course, they’re still in the middle of the lake, and they need to get back to shore; so the Man rows. He rows furiously, lopsidedly, while his Wife almost passes out from terror opposite him. Again, Murnau lets no one off the hook: it takes some time to get back to shore. Once there, the Wife runs for her life, heartbroken and terrified in equal measure. She approaches a train track in the woods and boards a passing train to escape the Man, who nevertheless boards the train too. And then…
They ride the train. That’s it. At one point the Man buys a couple of tickets. They can’t exactly have a conversation - this is a silent film after all, and what would they say anyway? They just stand there, both desperate with fear, while the world passes by behind them. By this point, the murder scene with a postponed climax has turned into a constant, giddy tension so delicate that the film could collapse at any moment. Eventually, they get off the train with a single, pathetic intertitle (“Don’t be afraid of me!”) and step into the chaotic City that the Man had been dreaming of. Dodging traffic, the Man navigates the quasi-catatonic Wife into a restaurant and orders a plate of cake.
In all seriousness: that cake will break your heart. We have followed a Man from coming within a hair’s width of murdering his wife, only to share a train ride with her into the City and now he gives her CAKE. While she cowers and covers her face, he pitifully nudges the plate across the table, an entirely ridiculous and desperate attempt at reconciliation.
This entire sequence, a train ride and an offer of cake, contains such tension, heartbreak and sadness that I cry whenever I watch it. The rest of the film essentially has the couple fall back in love by exploring the City. Again, not much happens: they go to dinner, to the fairground, to the barber’s. They laugh, get drunk, and glow with warmth about how wonderful things are after all. The fearful, shaky tension of heartbreak is replaced by the fearful, shaky tension of ecstatic infatuation.
The point I suppose I’m trying to make is that Sunrise takes a plot so slim, so familiar and so misused that the only sensible thing to do is to abstract it through endless prosaic, absurd ritual until all that’s left is the pure, undiluted common denominator:
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