The East End on Film

Various directors, East End Film Festival, London

OK, so my girlfriend and I trundled along early one Sunday afternoon to a little cinema on a quiet Kingsland High Street in Dalston, Hackney. There was none of the week-day bustle. The market was deserted. And with just half an hour to go before the commencement of this particular instalment of the ‘festival’, the shutters were down at the Rio. When we eventually got in, we felt like we were making up the numbers of what director Bev Zalcock jokingly referred to in her introduction as the hardcore avant-garde. We sat in eager anticipation of the visual delights to come.

An hour and a half later, we couldn’t have been happier to stumble wearily back out. As my girlfriend put it, they may have been short films but they weren’t short enough for her liking. But as a dedicated Culture Wars reviewer I am obliged to explain why I could only too readily agree. My trawl of the festival website – a last ditch attempt to make sure I wasn’t missing something – didn’t offer any insights into what the suite of films had to say, or why BAFTA nominated director (and here curator), Carol Morley decided to put them together in the first place.

The festival, I eventually discovered after an aborted search of the ‘about’ page, is something to do with ‘paying tribute to the diversity and scope of artistic endeavour coursing through our streets’. But I could only conclude that if anything was still coursing through the streets of the East End, it hadn’t made its way into the cinema. Not recently anyway. These particular films, explained the blurb, were an examination of ‘the East End’s heritage as told by local artist filmmakers’. Which explained why ‘Heritage Shorts’ was printed on our tickets and why they harked back to 1987, 1985, 2004, 1994 and 2004 respectively. The organisers were clearly using the words ‘new and contemporary’ rather liberally, to describe films made in the past twenty-odd years.

Which would have been fine if the material had been of a consistently good quality, or if it held together better. But the quality was variable and the ‘hanging’ failed to convince. The organisers predictably enough had fallen back on tired rhetoric about transcending all sorts of ‘cultural, political and artistic boundaries’. No doubt I am just not suited to such difficult and challenging work. As ‘artist filmmakers’, perhaps they don’t take kindly to bourgeois constraints on their creativity. But surely an attempt to ‘visualise the experience of living and working in the East End of London’ wasn’t a big ask. And yet only a couple managed to do this.

The fourth in the series, A13, directed by William Raban, passed the Ronseal test as it were. It begins with the journey made by traders to Billingsgate market in the early hours, as the newspapers roll off the presses and the traffic begins to roll along the main road past Canary Wharf. There is a poetic quality to it. Perhaps akin to the classic Night Mail, featuring the verse of WH Auden, there is an insistent sense of movement throughout. There is also a rare optimism, an excitement about city life. And there is variation. The day progresses, the light changes. Men out fishing in the shadow of the early morning metropolis, and the scattered orange boxes and dismantling of stalls, as the sun sets.

The other four films, as Zalcock indicated in her introduction, were surreal treatments of their respective subjects. She too seemed to be struggling for a rationale for the showing. But was nevertheless on to something here. The second film, East End Underground Movement, directed by Zalcock herself was easily the weakest though. She got her excuses in early claiming lack of funds. Somewhere between a bad music video and a grainy al-Qaeda call to arms, the title is a play on words taken from a graffiti scrawl. A woman on the tube to East Ham make believes that she is a freedom fighter or the ‘war child’ of the Debbie Harry soundtrack that accompanies it. This is intercut with the mundane reality of travelling eastbound on the district line, staring out at the desolate backdrop of the outerlying boroughs as they recede from view.

The best of the bunch, and the only other to do what it said on the tin/website, is Black Tower, by John Smith. This and Stalin My Neighbour, directed by Morley, both feature a disoriented, and unhinged first person narrator (complicated slightly by the split personality of the latter). Black Tower is also intensely claustrophobic, as the imposing and sinister-looking building of the title appears and re-appears, wherever he goes, crowding out his senses, and obscuring even our vision. His despair is concealed by a slightly comic monotone delivery. This articulates the repressive banality and sheer ordinariness of, and the melancholy induced by, the ‘unfashionable’ (according to Zalcock) and ever-so suburban Leytonstone with which I am all too familiar. It is a highly original work mixing abstraction and lingering still shots of the local area. For me it stood out as both technically and conceptually inventive. It too, however, was overlong.

Stalin My Neighbour features a deceptively straight ‘to camera’ guided tour of the old East End by an increasingly agitated young woman. Her psychogeographical leanings tell us of the lodgings where the Stalin of the title once stayed for an International get together, inform us of the Ripper’s prowlings, and hint at the gentler ambience of Gandhi’s wanderings, for instance. Indeed, just when I thought the East End itself was starting to take shape (if only through the trivia of criminal infamy and the accidents of residence of important historical figures) it turns out that her idiosyncratic historical journey is an expression of what her alter-ego describes as ‘depersonalisation’, a distraction for a troubled psyche trying to avoid a guilty secret. Shame. I was just beginning to find my bearings.

Thankfully, Fisticuffs, by Miranda Pennell, set in a Hackney working men’s club, was a bit of light relief. The film might have reflected on the passing of the political culture that gave rise to these now tired institutional hangovers that like Butlins continue to stumble along. But perhaps nostalgia for past leisure pursuits past isn’t the best response. Fisticuffs ignores all of this anyway and avoids poignancy and social comment altogether, preferring the absurd. The club is no more than a backdrop for a kind of saloon bar ballet. A neatly choreographed cowboy brawl ensues as old ladies chat and knit, blokes play pool, and the line dancing – perhaps the inspiration for the piece – goes on oblivious to the slapstick violence.

Fisticuffs and A13 share a balletic feel and wear their light touch well, but there is something missing. They seem to celebrate the banality of the everyday that is so brooding and arguably more effective for it in the Black Tower. They are as hollow as East End Underground Movement is barren. If there is a unifying theme this is it. The films, with the exception of A13 and possibly Black Tower, said very little if anything about the East End of London. I couldn’t help thinking that the supposed radicalism of such ‘underground’ film making is more a bunker retreat from the people actually ‘living and working in the East End’. A near-deserted auditorium was perhaps testament to this curious absence at the heart of a festival ostensibly dedicated to celebrating the area. Fortunately things had perked up outside. It was Sunday after all, so we went shopping.

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