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Film: Rich Cinematic culture in Bristol

Our city’s increasingly rich cinematic culture – combining Hollywood heritage, world-class festivals, facilities and wide-ranging mainstream and alternative filmic clubs and events – has resulted in international attention and renewed resources

Bristol’s considerable, continued contribution to television and filmmaking was officially recognised by UNESCO recently (the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural arm) as a ‘city of film’, alongside the likes of Sydney, Rome, Galway, Sofia, Santos, Qingdao and Yamagata (yes we had to Google those last ones).

Little wonder, you might think, with the city having long housed world-leading media; Aardman Animations set up shop in 1976, finding film-world fame with Wallace and Gromit, while BBC Bristol has produced globally recognised radio, drama, factual and natural history film and television for decades, the latter thanks to a creative unit putting out the world’s largest concentration of wildlife content and earning the city the nickname ‘Green Hollywood’. Then there’s The Bottle Yard, the biggest production facility in the West of England; independent film and TV production outfit Films at 59, which just won Best Post Production House Award at the Broadcast Awards; while for the regular cinema goer, there’s Arnolfini, Watershed, Clevedon’s historic Curzon, the Everyman and everything in between – plus a host of alternative film clubs and experiential hybrid events (more on that later).

All in all, with Bristol’s 11 community-driven international festivals dedicated to film, 10 cinemas, and two major universities providing 28 film-related degrees, we can see why the folks at UNESCO wanted the city in its network of like-minded cities – and it will no doubt play a central role, further to its ringing endorsement.Audiences will pile into Redcliffe Caves this month to watch Pulp Fiction

“The recognition is extremely significant, and positive,” says Owen Franklin, director of Bristol Film Festival. “The British film and television industry is becoming less London-centric (the government pressure for Channel 4 to relocate is just one recent example of this at the highest levels) and it’s fantastic that Bristol is already ahead of the curve and functioning as an increasingly popular destination for film production, both with the bigger studios and, of course, the thriving independent community. The UNESCO title validates what we already knew about Bristol’s rich film culture on a global platform, celebrating its heritage and supporting and encouraging creativity for years to come.”

Another creative encouraged by the richness of the city is Bristol’s BAFTA-winning This is England screenwriter Jack Thorne. “It’s the most fascinating city in the country,” he posits. “There’s always something to do and experience; from the incredible outdoor spaces to the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft; the brilliant Bristol Old Vic to the amazing carnival. I’m so proud it’s got this new status; it’s a place where stories should be told.”

Timon Singh, programmer of Bristol’s Bad Film Club and Sunset Cinema, feels the same way. “This is richly-deserved and long overdue,” he agrees. “Not only is the city the birthplace of Hollywood legends like Cary Grant, Jeremy Irons and Darth Vader himself, David Prowse, but it has also become a hub for creative talent thanks to institutions like Aardman and IMDb (also founded in Bristol) and the backdrop for shows like Sherlock, Doctor Who, Skins, Being Human and films like Starter For 10. With such cinematic pedigree, it is only natural that UNESCO recognised the city’s contribution to the industry.”

So what does it actually mean for the city, going forward? Last month saw industry figures gather at Watershed for the launch of the City of Film programme, which will work on further improving Bristol’s reputation as a dynamic, fertile film centre, attracting inward investment; broadening engagement through screen heritage projects; and bringing together film and music initiatives to widen audience participation. There’ll also be more of an emphasis on learning through film: unlocking talent, improving skills and engaging with schools to reduce inequalities and promote inclusivity; using film to harness the potential of Bristol’s multiculturality.

“Being part of the global UNESCO network with fellow creative cities means we’re expanding our ability to build international relationships and exciting new partnerships,” explains mayor Marvin Rees. “Our goal is to ensure those relationships directly benefit all communities and help establish opportunities to support filmmaking talent, education, training and employment, while widening cultural participation and engagement for audiences.”Bristol Film Festival teams up with unique local venues to bring new and often interactive dimensions to the cinema-going experience

Cinema in the community

It’s not just in the production of films that the city excels, with regular events and screenings everywhere from Arnos Vale Cemetery to the Old Fire Station, bringing new and more interactive dimensions to the cinema-going experience. “We’re celebrating the film festival’s third birthday with a fortnight of immersive screenings, bringing classics to life in our own Bristolian way!” says Owen Franklin. “We’ll be returning to long-standing partner venues like Averys Wine Cellars (for ‘drinkalong’ screenings and wine tastings) and Redcliffe Caves (for cult classics in the ‘Underground Cinema’). We’re also debuting events at The Island, which will host prison-themed movies in the former cell block, and working with Bristol Cathedral in their beautiful Chapter House for the first time for screenings of Chariots Of Fire and La Traviata. One more highlight: a screening of Airplane! underneath Concorde at Aerospace Bristol. It’s sure to be a brilliant evening, pairing one of the all-time great comedies with a feat of Bristol engineering and aviation history.”

It’s as busy a calendar year as always for film events in Bristol. “The guys at Bristol’s International Jazz & Blues Festival – who we collaborated with last year – are teaming up with Get the Blessing and award-winning, long-time GTB and Portishead collaborator John Minton, to present Bristopolis,” says Owen, “a film which examines over a century of Bristol captured on film by local people, with a live score from one of the city’s most famous jazz exports. Our friends at the Cary Grant Festival are planning events for 23-25 November and, finally, for anybody not already on the mailing list, Bristol Bad Film Club is running monthly screenings that have to be witnessed to be believed!”

He’s not wrong: billed as a place to ‘behold some of the most unique and notorious films ever put to celluloid’, Bristol Bad Film Club goers can expect rarely shown cult or childhood classics as well as infinitely entertaining ‘bad’ films, with all profits going to charity. “Bristol caters to a wide range of film fans, whether they want to see the latest blockbusters at the city’s many multiplexes or more cerebral or quirky fare at independent venues like Watershed and The Cube,” says Ti Singh. “However, if they want to scrape the bottom of the cinematic barrel, then they come to the Bristol Bad Film Club – our screenings of films that are ‘so bad, they’re great’ have gone from strength to strength as the city has embraced our weird and wonderful programme.

“When we first started, it was 50 people above a pub. Last year, we had The Room’s Tommy Wiseau come to the city twice for a series of sell-out screenings, and accompanied Greg Sestero nationwide for a week of special screenings of The Disaster Artist (a film about the making of The Room – widely dubbed ‘the Citizen Kane of bad films’). On the back of the club’s achievements, we’ve also been able to attract other Hollywood stars to the city – last year Bristol Sunset Cinema put on a Q&A event with the writer of The Martian, Andy Weir, at the planetarium.

“The fact that we can stand alongside the likes of Watershed, The Cube, Arnolfini and the many other film venues around the city shows just how diverse Bristol’s offerings are for cinephiles and we’re constantly grateful people keep returning for trash like Hard To Die (screening at Bristol Improv Theatre on 29 March!)”Filming in Sherlock: The Abominable Bride in Bristol

DIY developments

One of our personal favourite film venues in town is Twentieth Century Flicks on Christmas Steps – a rental store cum veritable library with myriad titles on DVD, plus its own bijou cinema.

“It’s something we often take for granted, living in such a film-loving city, but this new status is a reminder, to all of us that have quietly and industriously contributed to Bristol’s film culture over the decades, that our efforts have been noticed!” says co-owner Dave Taylor. “Hopefully it will allow us to build on that reputation. Our tiny 11-seat cinema (‘The Kino’) is available for people to hire out to watch any of the 20,000 films in our collection and this month we plan to open our second screening room, an 18-seater called The Videodrome! It’s something we are in a unique position to offer as we keep our massive collection on-site so people can literally walk in, pick anything they want and watch it on the big(ish) screen. A bit like a movie jukebox!

“For the past six years we have also put on a film night once a month at The Cube microplex, showing rarely screened classics like Le Samourai, Breaking Away, Love Streams and Tampopo. Find out what’s next via the Cube website or our Facebook group 20th Century Cube.”

So what if you fancy starting your own cinema club? Say Bristol’s countless clubs and events still haven’t got your niche covered? “The boring but important legal/licensing information can be found via the Independent Cinema Office and other excellent resources,” offers Owen. “In terms of putting together a group, though, the key is to establish what style/genre/theme/hook you’re most keen to enjoy and stick with it (if you’re lacking inspiration, a brief chat with the über-knowledgable 20th Century Flicks team will get you on track!). Bristol’s audiences are a wonderfully diverse bunch and you’ll be sure to find like-minded fans for any style of movie you wish to screen. There’s something unbeatable about watching a great film in company – particularly horrors and comedies, from experience – so it’s well worth rallying a group, even if it’s to go to the cinema (or film festival…) and sharing in that feel-good factor en masse.”

Further filmic fun to look out for in Bristol

• Cinema Rediscovered: Returning to the city for a third edition from 26 – 29 July. Tapping into the increasing appetite for rediscovering riches from film history and bringing the finest digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities back to the big screen at cinemas including Watershed and Clevedon’s Curzon Cinema.

• South West Silents: Preserving the memory of silent film and producing events and screenings at venues such as The Cube and The Lansdown pub in Clifton. You can also find them at Cinema Rediscovered this year. Next event 25 March – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) at the Curzon.

Hellfire Video Club: Monthly night of ‘vintage psychotropic celluloid’ at The Cube Microplex, the autonomous, atypical artspace in Kingsdown where the DIY ethic is as strong (expect own-recipe cola) as the social ethic (the Cube team sent volunteers to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake to screen films for survivors, and nowadays entry to the Bristol cinema is free for asylum seekers). Expect ‘cult/sleaze/psychedelic/worldwide-weirdness’ that always comes in double-bill form.

Bristol Film and Video Society: All aspects of film making covered at twice monthly meetings at Filton Town Council Pavilion. Membership is £35 per year, including guest speakers, ‘how to’ sessions, practical events and optional involvement in ongoing projects and productions.

TruthOutCinema: Free, weekly film club running every Monday at the Arts House Café, Stokes Croft, which has just reopened after changing hands and being refurbished. They show predominantly political films with themes that sit close to the hearts of members and the local community such as Calais Children: A Case To Answer, and Dispossession, on the housing crisis – plus more lighthearted films and artistic pieces.

SeventySeven Film Club: Also based at The Arts House in Stokes Croft, but dedicated to films of the following ilk: silent and slapstick comedy, German Expressionism, Soviet montage school, indie, cult, trash, experimental and world cinema. Expect anything from the works of Japanese masters Mizoguchi and Ozu to the French and Czechoslovakian new waves and the avant-garde works of Stan Brakhage or Jeff Keen plus examples of ‘blaxploitation’, kung-fu, video nasties and B-movie sci-fi.

Bluescreen: An eclectic mix of locally produced short films at The Cube’s open-screen night – next event 28 March. Support the members of the Bristol filmmaking community who bring their films in to share, and perhaps even be inspired to make a film yourself! Bluescreen is Bristol’s longest running short film night – any genre is welcomed, the wider the variety the better. Films can be up to 20 minutes long and must be on memory stick, formatted for VLC Player, or DVD, formatted for a DVD player (no hard drives allowed).

• Encounters Film Festival: The UK’s leading short film festival, bringing you the best in international short film, animation, and virtual reality. The festival takes place in Bristol from 25 – 30 September this year, offering screenings, special events, networking and lots more.

• Cary Comes Home Festival: The biannual festival is back this autumn, celebrating how Bristol-born Archie Leach changed his fortunes and became internationally famous film star Cary Grant, while always remembering his Bristol roots. Aiming to develop new audiences for classic Cary Grant films and recreate the golden age of cinema-going.

Featured image: It’s a busy calendar year as ever for film in Bristol – this month at the Curzon in Clevedon you can discover the story of Carmen.