Bristol Radical Film Festival: film pedagogy in public A weekend of film and discussion with Bristol's political cinephiles.

Bristol Radical Film Festival returned in October 2016 for the fifth consecutive year with another vibrant programme of its distinctive brand of political, activist and experimental films.

The festival is organised by enthusiastic film scholars who in the course of their research uncover rare films and are keen to share them as widely as possible with the public. BRFF programmers specialise in giving a platform to neglected forms of film making; from contemporary video-activism to classic drama, via experimental film practices and historic community cinema, with time built in for unhurried discussion and contemplation.

The Old Malthouse, Bristol

The locations the festival use for their screenings draw attention to the many progressive cultural spaces in Bristol. In previous years their events have occupied community bike workshops, cultural centres and social projects across the city. Last year the festival was held entirely at the Arnolfini art centre because in 1975, this venue had hosted the first Festival of British Independent Cinema, which had been the inspiration for BRFF #4. This year's venue was the Old Malt House, a multi-use space which has been reclaimed from dereliction by a dedicated group of people known as the Jam Jar Collective and now hosts performances, exhibitions and so on.

This year the festival started with a Friday night screening of 1988 drama A Very British Coup (directed by Mick Jackson). Billed in the film guide as “a Jeremy Corbyn special” this turned out to be the perfect feel good film for lefties.

The ‘film’ is really a two-part political drama, adapted from a 1982 British novel by Chris Mullin which was written during the height of the Thatcher years.

It depicts a fictitious future scenario in which charismatic Harry Perkins, a former steelworker and Sheffield Wednesday supporter (played by Ray McAnally), is elected Labour Prime Minister and starts implementing radical policy changes. His policies of nuclear disarmament and wealth redistribution inevitably rattle the establishment and they embark on a Machiavellian plot to undermine him, in which the antics of the press are seen to be crucial. As his political opponents are busy prying into his private life and inventing financial misdemeanours, the press are instrumental in arousing public suspicion in every way they can.

This production was made for Channel 4 and was recently remade as Secret State, this sparkling earlier version however was well worth retrieving from obscurity and I have since discovered that it can be viewed online here.

Saturday was a packed day with back-to-back films and discussions, followed by a bit of a party.

The first film of the day, Black is... Black Ain't (1994, Marlon Riggs), was a poetic, affective documentary that explored black identity using the metaphor of cooking up a pot of gumbo, mixing different African American experiences together to challenge sexism, heteronormative tropes and racial prejudices.

Marlon Riggs was very ill with AIDS when this film was made and it reads as a plea for increased kindness and understanding through difference, which is something everybody could take on board in these difficult times.

Another standout discovery for me on the second day was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968, William Graves), an experimental film which challenged the expectations of the people making it and produced a cleverly skewed view on how human dialogue and behaviour interact with expectation. The discussion afterwards, convened by members of experimental film collective Bristol BEEF, was wide ranging and illuminating, the film had clearly provoked a lot of thought.

The programmmers crated an impressive international short film selection this year, which zapped our brains awake on Sunday afternoon.

Topics ranged from the absurd and seemingly random enforcement of copyright laws and prosecution for piracy, through the complexities of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the humanity of friends trying to survive their passage through Europe, to Mexican protestors who use art and drones combined in public spaces in Mexico.

One Million Steps (2013, Eva Stotz)

I really enjoyed a short film about a tap dancer who joins in with Turkish protesters in dance documentary One Million Steps (2013, Eva Stotz). This film starts with an animated scene in which the dancer jumps through a hole and lands in the middle of protests against the privatisation of public spaces in Istanbul. It premiered in Berlin in 2015 and is making its way around the festival circuit now.

Austerity (2015, Renos Gavris) was a powerful short, inspired by real and tragic events in Greece as people in crisis, dependent on their rapidly shrinking pensions, found themselves unable to cope. The film's director was present and, again, the extra time allowed for post-screening discussion and the relaxed vibe created by the festival organisers allowed everyone present to say whatever they wanted about the films that had moved them most.

Attending this festival in recent years has been, quite literally, an education for me, in terms of improving my film knowledge and in understanding how audiences like to participate. For the first time, the festival team invited the audience to join them in a conversation about the evolution of the festival, before showing the closing film, Light Years, which was made in Bristol and stars Beth Orton in her first acting role. 

With ideas for a DIY political film festival of my own in mind, possibly to take place in May next year, the BRFF team are a shining example of what can be acheived with research, enthusiasm, determination and dedication to the discursive and participatory format, particularly in times of diminished resources for independent film exhibition.


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