BEAUTIFUL ALT. CINEMA
(FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WITH A SOCIAL LIFE)
19th August 2018
For the last few years, I’ve escaped conventional social activities to focus on what’s really important to me - watching thousands of films, sat mostly in the cinema, by myself.
If nothing else, this has given me a fair insight into the strengths and weaknesses of different types of film programming, especially around Central London.
Yet I’m conscious that the pleasures of a good rep. cinema program, screening a wide selection of world cinema, old and new, ..t e n d.. to be enjoyed by a fairly narrow set of people.
And that even so-called cinephiles often prefer to watch something at home, rather than visit a cinema.
So, how do we fix this?
Drawing on these experiences, I’d propose an alternative, more sociable approach to film programming, which focuses on film screenings as an ‘event’: something you simply can’t miss, nor recreate in the comfort of your own home.
Similar things do take place, but not in the fashion I dream of, nor do they occur on a sufficiently regular basis.
A number of *fantastic* London-based programming groups exist - such as Club des Femmes, Badlands Collective, The Final Girls, and Reel Good Film Club - many of which aim to challenge underrepresentation in programming by leading cinemas.
My key distinction with these groups is to suggest we focus on the cinema experience not simply to discover extraordinary unknown films, but to meet wonderful new people, too. Sometimes, these groups facilitate this, but more could be done.
I’d also like to predominantly organise these events within a cinema’s internal structure - either as a regular collaboration, or run by the cinema itself - rather than simply hiring out a venue.
And I’d be curious to present short films, talks and small exhibitions relating to themes surrounding the feature film, collaborating with young artists, writers and curators.
Further to this, these ideas are targeted primarily at ‘young people’ - those around 16 - 35 years old. Plastic bag carriers of a certain age may still be welcome, though.
So, my model for this vision will be the BFI Southbank.
Already, this is one of the best cinemas in the UK. Their £3 ticket scheme, exclusively for those 25 and under (available on the day of a screening), is fantastic, and a major solution to helping build young audiences.
Nevertheless, the BFI still carries an overbearing feeling of formality, too often coming across as somewhere which only begrudgingly moves with the times.
Future Film Recommends, which I volunteered for back in 2015, gives young people the chance to act as programmers, and their screenings are the BFI’s main attempt at encouraging a youthful audience.
Unfortunately, a lack of freedom and independence prevents this scheme from reaching its full potential.
Each film they suggest is drawn from an existing season, and each screening is already on the calendar; the primary distinction is that sometimes these are followed by a discussion elsewhere, exclusively for young people.
To be successful, young programmers need the freedom to actually schedule an independent ‘event’, not simply latch on to an existing screening in the calendar.
The Barbican’s similar Young Programmers scheme offers a good comparison. Over around 9 months, a small group are taught programming skills, and then run their own film festival over a weekend in March, where they select the films - many of which are currently unknown in the UK.
I believe the best way forward would be a fortnightly or monthly program, distinct from the rest of the BFI’s seasons, that focuses on films traditionally ignored even in arthouse circles, yet which are highly deserving of notice - especially if they’re stylistically innovative, fresh and distinctive in their representations, and focused on youth.
Sometimes, these could relate to an existing season - last year, Club des Femmes worked with the BFI to show a piece of feminist New German Cinema, to counter a Fassbinder season.
But this shouldn’t be a requirement.
To be a success, there’d need to be 1 - 3 supervisors from the BFI’s regular programming team, to encourage young programmers to explore lesser-known cinema.
Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver and 2001: A Space Odyssey are not unknown, and films like these should be prevented in favour of something genuinely unusual.
Why 2001, when you could show Ikarie XB-1? Or Sun Ra: Space is the Place? How about one of the dozens of Brazilian sci-fi films? Perhaps even something from Nollywood (Nigeria)?
Additionally, these helpers would take each person through the bureaucracy of obtaining prints, negotiating permissions, and other boring things we’d prefer not to do but simply have to.
Plus, this ‘helping hand’ approach would, by easing people in, significantly increase the chances of each person feeling confident enough to program more events independently in the future.
It’d be similar to both the Barbican scheme and Deptford Cinema, a community-run venue which gives old and new the chance to program anything they desire (subject to rental costs).
DC has a fascinating mix, shifting from the well known to the totally obscure, often showing films that are fresh and distinctive in their styles and representations.
Friends of mine have recently programmed female-directed 1960s softcore porn, a contemporary Welsh experimental landscape film, and a retrospective of Menelik Shabazz, a pioneer of Black-British cinema.
Thinking back to these new events, why, too, can’t there be Double Bills? Triple Bills? The Prince Charles Cinema, one of the most youth-friendly cinemas in London, clearly loves them.
Or, perhaps, one feature film, mixed with a number of shorts, to give a more balanced commentary on key topics? Or just shorts entirely?
And there needs to be the freedom to push - in film selection, themes, and event structure - for something fun / strange / totally peculiar: to show "the weirdest shit", as my friend Madeleine would suggest.
And what if each film was a *SURPRISE*, with only key themes revealed in advance?
(The BFI London Film Festival’s Surprise Film is one of their most popular events, after all).
For even more ideas how fun - and obscure - these films could be, check out Church of Film. They’re based in Portland, USA, and program the most extraordinary films you’ve never heard of.
Recent seasons include the Cinema of North Korea, Japanese Avant-Garde shorts, Indian auteur Mani Kaul, and Czech animations by Jiří Barta. They create charming new trailers for each screening, and watching them is now one of my favourite pastimes on YouTube.
Another model would be the BFI’s regular hosting of Mark Kermode Live in 3D / 4D, and Adam Buxton’s BUG.
3D is a platform for one of the UK’s most popular film critics to converse with his fans about film, whilst 4D features a special guest introducing a film they consider a 'guilty-pleasure', followed by a screening and Q&A.
And BUG showcases some of the best recent music videos, interspersed by Buxton’s comedic interludes.
Significantly, these events - aimed at a slightly older audience - have succeeded by gaining a regular, loyal fan base, who enjoy the format and regard it as a fun night out. BUG, launched in 2007, has now run for almost 60 editions.
So, if the BFI is to succeed in youthful event programming that appeals beyond a small fringe, it needs to build an audience who’ll turn up almost every time.
For many years, they’ve achieved something similar via their monthly BFI Future Film Saturday events, which primarily focus on introducing young people to the practical side of filmmaking.
I was a near-obsessive devotee to these for almost 3 years, learning so much and befriending so many like-minded people.
Potentially, the best way to make this a success would be to give these proposed events a prime early Saturday evening slot (around 6:30 - 7:30 PM), and tie them in with the BFI Future Film events earlier in the day.
By doing this, you not only achieve the obvious aim of encouraging people interested in one or the other to try *both*, but you also make it more welcoming for people not based in London.
Easily forgotten is the fact that outside London Zone 1, arthouse cinemas - especially those showing old films in a rep. programme - are almost non-existent.
Yet the existing Future Film events frequently have visitors from all across the UK, who come up to London for the day, as it feels like a **special event**.
By hosting these screenings at a weekend, and linked with those events earlier in the day, you’re able to acknowledge the realities of geographically disproportionate arthouse film exhibition, and give young people more of an incentive to try something new.
There's also a possibility, perhaps, of expanding these events into a 'monthly takeover' of the BFI. I suspect there'd be fierce resistance to this by senior programmers, but I see this as a fantastic - and necessary - target.
Uniqlo Tate Lates, at Tate Modern, are one easy comparison. These are 'after-hours' events, often featuring talks by artists and experts, live performances, experimental film screenings, small exhibitions, a book fair, live drawings, 10 Minute Art Talks by Tate staff / volunteers about pieces they particularly respect, and many other things; all soundtracked by up-and-coming DJs.
A BFI equivalent could adapt - and build on - so much of this.
In the Box Office lobby, there could be zine-making workshops, exhibitions, art installations, pop-up shops, live performances; in the Studio, the Blue Room and in NFT3, debates and talks with young artists, critics and activists about urgent contemporary issues, in film and beyond; in NFT2, a screening of new short films; in the Atrium, VR and 360° video experiences; and in NFT1, eventually, the main film screening + conversation.
And I love the concept of BFI staff / volunteers giving 10 Minute Film Talks, sharing feelings about films currently showing (or in the Mediatheque) which have genuinely affected them.
This may all sound ambitious, yet anyone who’s visited the BFI Future Film Festival on a weekend will know how popular - and sold out - these events can be.
It may also be familiar to anyone who experienced the BFI's Woman With A Movie Camera Summit, in June 2018. I wasn't there, though I do have a program, and it's rather fantastic.
Especially striking, was the focus on linking film with other creative mediums - such as video games, illustration and music - to highlight how various art forms can work together to create radical change, particularly via 'Drop In' sessions.
These are bite-size moments, which can be enjoyed between talks / interviews / screenings (the main events, perhaps), and make everything else more fun, yet are still able to push new ideas, and keep attendees focused on the bigger picture.
Soooo, how could these programmes look?
18:00 - EVENTS: talks, performances, exhibitions + more
19:30 - INTRODUCTION by young programmers
19:35 - SHORT FILM, by a young filmmaker
19:50 - FEATURE FILM: ‘Birds, Orphans and Fools’
21:15 - CONVERSATION
22:00 - EVENT ENDS.. though those in no rush (and 18+) are encouraged to stay and chat at the bar
So, I’ll select Birds, Orphans and Fools (Juraj Jakubisko, 1969), a little-known Czechoslovakian film shot right in the middle of a Soviet invasion.
It captures a trio of young people who are totally disillusioned with society, and live in their own world, away from an oppressive, authoritarian political reality.
Their views on life can be summarised as: the world’s going to shit, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and have fun.
Unsurprisingly, many parallels can be drawn with the world today.
This example reflects my particular interest in whimsical 1960s Central European cinema, though others could use it as a fantastic way to highlight rather more urgent social issues, too.
Rarely seen films by and about People of Colour, working class and LGBTQ+ individuals could be given a wonderful new platform.
And you could use international examples which relate to major political debates in the UK today, in the absence of almost any new British films tackling urgent issues.
Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012), a film about healthcare issues in the Bulgarian capital, could be used as a starting point for a conversation on the NHS funding crisis.
And the rich archives - many held by the BFI - of The Wednesday Play, Armchair Theatre, Play For Today and similar TV series between the 1950s - 1980s could highlight Britain’s previous strengths in tackling urgent social issues on screen, and the near total absence of anything so rapid or frequent today.
(FYI, these platforms launched the careers of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke).
Emphasising the Conversation after the feature, and the chance to socialise, is a fun way to lead people into making friends who also care deeply about cinema, as well as finding someone who they can collaborate with creatively. Often, I found that people who came to the BFI Future Film events for the first time had almost no friends with an interest in film.
By including a short film before the main feature, too, with similar themes, and a broader mix in a separate programme, all by young directors, you’re able to give fresh talent an amazing platform to help establish themselves, and remind their peers how many promising young artists are working today, encouraging networking afterwards.
The BFI have just launched a new initiative, 'SCENE', a quarterly screening event where young curators select films by young people, and screen them in BFI Southbank.
This is clearly a step in the right direction, but I still believe this needs to be more regular, and incorporated within a wider event.
For this imaginary takeover, a separate programme in NFT2, just focused on shorts, would show a selection loosely related to the main feature, yet with a mixture of styles / budgets / genres / subjects / nationalities, to explore a more balanced vision of the night's themes - in this case, political oppression.
Alongside this, there could be live performances by 'Performance Design and Practice' students from Central Saint Martins, inspired by themes in the film.
A speaker from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies could give a talk contextualising the feature, with a focus on the Prague Spring and the subsequent political crackdown.
Peter Hames, a world expert on Czech and Slovak cinema, could introduce key figures in the Czechoslovakian New Wave cinema, and explore how the reversal of liberal reforms affected their careers.
Exhibitions would highlight political oppression today - in Britain, and perhaps the rest of the world - inviting young and emerging artists, especially students, to showcase their work.
And these would be supported - in NFT3, the Blue Room and the Studio - by debates with activists, artists, academics, and anyone with something interesting to say, on modern threats to freedom of expression.
A major point to remember is that these events need to feel accessible to a wide audience, too. That doesn’t mean going for the obvious arthouse films, though, nor for indulging in cheap gimmicks.
It means fun programmes, with a diverse mix of things to see and do, presented in a way that welcomes people unfamiliar, and those who are knowledgable; neither patronising, nor simplistic.
These must be supported by wide promotion across social media, distribution of postcards or leaflets around the local area and at similar events, and developing relationships with universities, young artists / filmmakers, and key interest groups.
And there need to be volunteer opportunities that allow people to do something genuinely interesting.
So, however unlikely it may be that the BFI will care, I do at least offer this as a suggestion.
Never-the-less, I’d like to be clear, that although this is modelled specifically on the BFI, it may be easily customised for smaller venues. The point is not so much to make the BFI even better, but to encourage more young people to feel engaged with alternative cinema, and secure an audience for the future.
The key factors, which together distinguish this model from almost everything else, involve focusing on:
1) Cinema as a social - and artistic - EVENT
2) Selecting genuinely unknown - and exciting - films
3) Making this a regular thing: probably taking place every 2 - 4 weeks.
This format may be suitable as a template for an ambitious screening series anywhere, from major cinemas to small film clubs, independent or institutional.
Should anyone be interested in trying this in London, feel free to get in touch...