Radical Film Festival

We spoke to Bristol Radical Film Festival organiser Steve Presence about the rare gems showcasing this year  

Tell us about the Bristol Radical Film Festival and what’s different about the festival this year?

The Bristol Radical Film Festival was founded in 2012 to provide a platform for explicitly political cinema from a range of left-wing perspectives. Within that remit, we show all kinds of films, old and new, that address all kinds of issues. We host a monthly screening at the Cube Cinema as well as an annual festival that usually takes place in a range of progressive, community-based venues across the city.

As well as showcasing films that engage with the politics of the radical left and the traditions of socialism, anarchism and environmentalism that underpin it, we also want to pose the question: ‘what is radical film?’ The concept of radicalism has a wide range of applications and our approach to radicalism in (and on) film is open and inquisitive. From developing new and challenging aesthetic practices and experimenting with the medium itself to applying political ideas to processes of production or exhibition, the question, ‘what is radical film?’ is being answered all the time, all around the world. Our festival, and others like it, provides a space for this work to be seen, explored and celebrated.

This year the festival is rather different from previous editions because we’re commemorating the 40th anniversary of ‘The First Festival of British Independent Cinema’, which took place at the Arnolfini gallery in 1975. The 1975 festival was a landmark event in the history of alternative film in Britain: for the first time, a festival was dedicated to oppositional film in all its guises, and exhibited everything overtly political film to avant-garde and experimental work, with the express intention of encouraging a vibrant independent film culture that cross-pollinated different forms, approaches and traditions.

The extraordinary programme of the 1975 event is the inspiration for the Bristol Radical Film Festival this year, which includes a selection of work from the original programme alongside contemporary films by artists and activists working today. Our intention is very much to celebrate the achievements of independent film in 1970s while hopefully demonstrating the continued existence of radical film today. 

The Amazing Equal Pay Show opens the festival. What’s it about and why is it an important film?

The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1974) is a funny, angry and experimental piece of agit-prop about women’s position in society and issues surrounding the Equal Pay Act, which came into force in 1975. The film was made by the London Women’s Film Group which, having made some more convention documentaries previously, wanted to make something more experimental but which was also both overtly political and entertaining.

The film ended up being deeply political on a number of levels – not only does it address the relationship between capitalism, patriarchy and women’s oppression, but it does so while combining a range of formal approaches – fiction, documentary, performance – and was made using a democratic approach in which the women involved had an equal say in the film’s development and practised role rotation during its production, swapping roles of camera operator, lighting, sound etc. It’s a remarkable film but is not available on DVD (or online), and should be more widely known. 

What other highlights should we look out for?

Every session in the programme is a highlight! Derek Jarman’s little-seen 8mm short films provide an incredible perspective on his later, better known work. The session on community filmmaking includes a gem of a film – Liberation Films’ Starting to Happen (1974), also unavailable on DVD or the internet – as well as a discussion on the role of historical films in politics today. We’re showing contemporary short films as well as films by both Cinema Action and Reel News: the former was militant trade-unionist film collective in the 1970s, the latter is carrying on that tradition today.

Probably the biggest curatorial intervention on our part is the Saturday night film, Blacks Brittanica (1978), which explores the experience of Britain’s black community in the 1970s and offers sharp analyses of both state and street-level racism, as well as the grassroots organising that confronted it. We felt the inclusion of Blacks Brittanica was justified because the original programme was very white, with little films by or about people of colour.  Blacks has also just been re-released, so we’re delighted to show it with the film’s producer, Margaret Henry. There’s also a panel discussion on radical approaches to the medium of film itself – both celluloid and digital – and a rare screening of Penthesilea (1974) followed by a Q+A with one of the film’s directors: the internationally renowned filmmaker and scholar, Laura Mulvey. 

How does radical film culture and its history relate to activism and the current political climate?

That’s a big question with many answers! Film – and moving image media more generally – can be an extraordinarily potent political tool. It can move, challenge, educate and inspire, and can reach very wide audiences quickly and potentially more easily than ever. Most films, however, simply do not engage with ideas that challenge the status quo in any significant way. As such, regardless of other qualities independent films may possess, current power structures and social and economic relationships are typically presented as natural and normal. Radical films counter the dominance of mainstream cinema in a number of fundamental ways, and as such play a significant role in increasing the diversity of our film culture generally and the visibility of left-wing ideas specifically.

Regarding radical film history – the history of radical film is as old as cinema itself but, like so many histories of the left, this tradition is often effaced or overlooked, despite the fact that is has lots to offer us today. These films offer a unique window onto past struggles and their defeats and victories, and as such help us better understand our history and current historical moment. But they also offer a rich source of aesthetic radicalism from which we can also learn. They remind us that, in politics as in art, things can be done differently, and better. Of course, in terms of wider struggles for social, economic and environmental justice, radical film makes but a small contribution. Yet it is as part of these wider movements, alongside the efforts of other activists and movements of all shades, that political film culture can, and does, make a difference.

The Bristol Radical Film Festival takes place Friday 9 October to Sunday 11 October 2015 at the Arnolfini, Bristol. Book a festival pass online.

Steve Presence is a researcher in the Centre for Moving Image Research at the University of the West of England. He co-founded the Bristol Radical Film Festival in 2011 and the Radical Film Network, an international infrastructure for political film culture, in 2013. 

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