Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Film Nights at the HIve

Meet Peter. He’s tall, dark haired and has a beard. He wears glasses.  He smiles a lot. He cycles. His favourite author is Philip Roth. He’s Assistant Head of Adam’s Grammar School, and he teaches Maths. From 2007-2011 he chaired the international board of Amnesty, which he described as a culmination of years of involvement in the human rights movement. He’s also a film buff. 

I first met Peter at the Shrewsbury Film Society [or film club, as I think of it], which meets at the Hive on Belmont Bank. It was the chance of seeing 'Badlands' on the big screen, as well as my favourite film, 'Babette’s Feast', that first caught my eye.  Peter’s been helping to run the film club since his wife Sally started it with their friend Corinne and him back in 2011. He was telling me about it the other day, sitting in my kitchen over a cup of coffee. Cineworld was providing a certain sort of film, he said, the Old Market Hall another and the gap between the two, he'd reckoned, was in need of filling, especially in mixing new and older films. 

The film society began with six films. It drew in tiny audiences, sometimes as low as seventeen, with a maximum of forty. For a season nothing much changed, but just over a year ago, when the autumn season started in September 2012, seventy-five members suddenly turned up.

‘The word must have got out,’ said Peter.  ‘People must have been talking.  It wasn’t down to us. It was all down to word of mouth.’

The Hive is Shrewsbury’s main arts centre, situated in a quiet but attractive corner of our town opposite the ruins of Old St Chad’s church. It meets a real need, providing exhibition space and a venue for all sorts of arts’ events - jazz network evenings, folk concerts, youth activities including children’s pottery, life drawing, theatre and now the Shrewsbury Film Society.

To begin with, Peter said, film evenings were all fairly amateurish. ‘We didn’t even have a proper screen. We started with a large white sheet and an ancient projector. One of our main preoccupations during that first season was with whether it would fall apart and hit someone on the head.’

Two grants from Shropshire Council covered the cost of a new screen and surround sound system. Then the Co-op Community Fund provided the film club with a projector and DVD player. More recently, the Society succeeded in buying a hundred chairs for the knock-down price of £400. ‘So now films can be watched in comfort too,’ Peter said.

Plainly Peter knows what’s needed to make a good film club tick. Shrewsbury’s isn’t the first film society he’s ever helped to run. The first was back in the eighties, down in Fareham in the day when films were made of celluloid and the cost of postage was prohibitive.  ‘It’s so much easier now,’ said Peter. ‘And there’s the additional bonus that if members miss a showing, there’s always the chance of lending them the DVD.’

How were films chosen, I wondered. Peter said that the committee would sift through a mass of films every year, trying to achieve the right mix.  ‘As a committee we’re all of us very different,’ he said, ‘and that comes out in our choice of films. And it’s important to remember that our audience is different again. That was a piece of advice Corinne picked up at a British Film Institute course on running film clubs.  People wouldn’t necessarily like the same films as their committees, and that needed to be born in mind.' 

People wanted a mix, Peter said.  They wanted humour as well as drama. They wanted specialist films alongside broad interest ones. They wanted popular cinema, and they wanted art house too.  You had to bear all of that in mind. 'What you’re after is a balanced programme, something for everyone,’  Peter said.

The first film this season – ‘Welcome to the Sticks’ – came as a result of a member suggesting it, as does ‘Moonrise Kingdom’, which is still to be shown, and Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours’.  

My own favourite film so far as a Shrewsbury Film Society member has been Wim Wender’s ‘Pina’, about the life of the legendary, now deceased choreographer, Pina Bauer.  It was the sort of film I’d have enjoyed seeing on TV, but on the big screen it was really something else.  Peter agreed with me. I asked if he had any favourites yet to show.  ‘Tokyo Story’ was a film he mentioned immediately – a gentle film, he said, on the subject of parents’ disappointment with their children.  He’d also like to show some Hitchcock, or do a Jack Nicholson series.  Nicholson was a fantastic actor in his early days, as seen in Antonioni’s film, ‘The Passenger’, shown earlier this season. ‘Chinatown’ would be another great film to show.  Again Nicholson at his best, directed by Roman Polanski.

How did Peter first become interested in film? ‘I grew up in North London, close to Hampstead,’ he said. ‘There was a local cinema called the Everyman.  The films were different every day.  Sometimes there would be a double, or even triple bill and the films were on a loop. You could go in at whatever point you wanted and stay for as long as you liked.’

In addition, Peter remembers BBC2’s Saturday night World Cinema evenings, which I remember too.  Nowadays, Peter reckons, you’d be hard pressed to find a foreign language film on non-subscription television, let alone on a Saturday night. Back then, however, Saturday night TV had been his introduction to the films of Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard and all those other great names, particularly those of the French New Wave.

I love film too. For a while we sat at the kitchen table bandying about names.  Wim Wenders and his ‘Wings of Desire’ -  I said I particularly loved the way it changed so suddenly to colour from black and white.  Werner Herzog and ‘Aguirre – Wrath of   God’. What a weird film that was. Hard to tell, Peter said, who was madder, the director or Klaus Kinski, his star.   

Peter said that his bias in choosing films was always towards the idea of the director as an authorial voice.  Was that voice unique? Did it have anything special to say - that special something that makes a film stand out?  The showing, a couple of weeks ago, of Roman Polanski’s ‘Tess’ was a case in point. Generally Peter doesn’t show films over two hours in length, but for ‘Tess’, he said, he’d made an exception.  ‘I watched ‘Tess’ back in the spring,’ he said, ‘and was surprised how much I enjoyed it.  It’s a very striking film. And you could see Polanski’s skills as a maker of horror films creeping in.’

The club doesn’t show shorts either, largely because they’re hard to get hold of on an individual basis. It also avoids contemporary films with 18 certificates, though back in the sixties and seventies, 18 was different to what it is today. ‘Badlands’, for example, which the film club showed last season, would never have an 18 rating today.

I asked Peter what were his top all-time favourite films.  ‘Citizen Kane’ came up straight away.  Everybody who’s a film buff always brings up ‘Citizen Kane’. Then there was ‘The Travelling Players’, which told the story of Greece between the '30s and '60s and was  directed by Theo Angelopoulos, who was killed in a motorbike accident last year.  That film was made while the Colonels were still in power, Peter said.  The film’s chronology was muddled up, and the director experimented with some very long takes.

On the subject of long takes, I mentioned ‘Russian Ark’, the extraordinary film by Alexander Sokurov which was made in one two-hour long unblinking take.  Peter mentioned ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky. It was another of his favourite films.  Geoff Dyer had written a book – Zona it was called – all about the film, taking it apart shot by shot.  ‘I heard Dyer speaking at Hay,’ Peter said.  ‘He said ‘hands up who’s seen the film,’ - after all, it’s not that well known – ‘but every hand went up.’

Peter and his colleagues go down to the British Federation of Film Societies annual meeting and come away with new directors and films that would be good for Shrewsbury.  ‘Like Father, Like Son’ by Hirokazu Kore-Eda is one, and 'No', which they showed in May, is another.  Peter would love to put on a day of films, laced together with discussion. The committee also like it when members' choices include them getting up before the showing to speak about what the film means to them and why they chose it. 

Over the couple of years that the film club has been running, Peter said, he and the rest of the committee had got to know the regulars. They were a fairly broad mix. A small number knew a lot about film. Others were just there for a night out - to sit down and enjoy themselves.

‘You get a good deal from membership,’ Peter said. ‘If you have a season ticket, that’s a night out for £2.25, exclusive of drinks. Where else in Shrewsbury can you get that? And, if you turn up on spec and buy on the door it’s still only £5.’

A lot of people I’ve talked to don’t know about film club nights at the Hive, but the number that do is growing - and members are being drawn into Shrewsbury from far and wide. This appears to be part of a trend. Film clubs and special showings are happening all over Shropshire.  Owestry has a film society, so does Bishop’s Castle. Peter gets down to the Bishop’s Castle one from time to time. Wem shows films too, and so does the Assembly Rooms in Ludlow.

Coming up this Saturday night, 8.00pm, at the Shrewsbury Film Society is 'The Gatekeepers', which Time Out [New York version] describe as 'Gripping, unnerving... worthy of a Bourne movie', the Guardian calls 'a compelling overview of a modern security agency,' and Film 4 calls 'a fascinating film offering a startling look inside one of the most tightlipped intelligence agencies on the planet.'  

I won't be there [an engagement elsewhere] but I will as often as I can. Since becoming a member, it’s not just the films I know that I’ve enjoyed, but ones I’d never heard of before, discovering new directors, new actors and stories that challenge, fascinate, entertain and sometimes touch me deeply. I commend the film club to you. What more can I say?

Shrewsbury Film Society at the Hive: http://www.hiveonline.org.uk/shrewsburyfilmsociety/

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Email Shrewsbury Film Society  shrewsburyfilmsociety@gmail.com

Wings of Desire


Pina Bauer

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