Cinema Rediscovered The past and present in conversation in Bristol

Our Programme Coordinator Roisin Mullins reports back from Cinema Rediscovered.

Last month, our team was in Bristol for Cinema Rediscovered: the UK's annual celebration of classic cinema, new digital restorations and film print rarities that takes its cue from Cineteca di Bologna's venerable cinephile pilgrimage, Il Cinema Ritrovato. We were there to gather colleagues from across the archive and exhibition sectors for a session on Reframing Film Heritage. We discussed the possibilities afforded by engaging with archive material in novel ways and the opportunities presented by Shifting Ground, our new nationwide funding programme for archive film screenings.

But it was also an opportunity to experience the power of screen heritage in action and to dive into a diverse programme which, for our Programme Coordinator Roisin Mullins, was a bracing example of what can happen when our film past is put in conversation with our political present. Moving from stories of The Troubles to retrospectives of under-appreciated female filmmakers, her guest article highlights how archive film can profoundly mark the progress of history and, in less fortunate cases, how little some things have really changed.

Past and present

Cinema Rediscovered is a space for celebrating the innovative, the underappreciated and the misunderstood of film history. The festival seeks to examine the past through the lens of the present; excavating the forgotten and unseen, and making the case for their presence in the screen heritage canon. As a first-time attendee, it was a weird and wonderful exploration of classic cinema, and it’s given me a newfound love for all things archive. What was most striking, however, was how the programme felt less like a historical exercise and more like a comment on some of the most pressing issues of our times.

My festival opened with a session titled Reframing Film Heritage, which became a thematic frame of reference for my experience of the weekend as a whole. The contributors considered what film heritage was and who its gatekeepers were. Curator Karen Alexander and Il Cinema Ritrovato Co-director Ehsan Khoshbakht discussed the need to reconsider conventional understandings of the past, challenging the idea that cinema history is a coherent, homogenous narrative. The film archives are collections of memories – personal and universal, social and political – with the potential to represent a plethora of voices.

Andy Robson, Screen Heritage Producer at Film Hub North, led a panel made up of archivists and exhibitors who each presented case studies highlighting the unconventional ways they’ve worked with archive film. Belfast-based documentary specialists Second Chance Cinema discussed how the varied views held in the archive allowed them to engage with the challenging subject of The Troubles from unexpected angles, testing audiences whilst tapping into their desire to reckon with their collective pasts.

The idea that the films of the past can be recontextualised and made to speak to the present was evident throughout the rest of Cinema Rediscovered’s diverse programme. One such highlight was Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien’s The Passion of Remembrance - a film that feels both timely and urgent. Deeply rooted in history, it is an exploration of the personal and political identities of black and brown people in the UK. Through a mixture of narrative drama and archive footage, it tells the story of a socially progressive youth struggling against the boundaries of race, class and culture, and the toxic intersection of these oppressions.

In a particularly jarring scene, two police officers come upon a group of young men hammering on the front door of a home. We never see the family inside, but from the hateful and racist language the young men are using, we know they are not white British. After a brief discussion, the gang are free to go and the police carry on with their beat, rationalising that the youths were just having a bit of fun. This scene does not play solely as a horror of outdated attitudes. Viewed today, when hate crimes – specifically religious hate crimes – are reported as being on the rise, it still feels particularly pertinent. It’s a damning indictment of intolerance in the UK and it inevitably raises questions about how much has really changed.

Past prejudices were evident elsewhere in the programme, though sometimes through absence rather than blunt impact. Nic Roeg’s Performance is seething with homoerotic undertones and depicts a world of decadence, hedonism and crime. At a test screening prior to its original release, the film was so shocking that the wife of a Warner Brothers executive vomited! During a post-screening Q&A, the film’s producer, Sandy Lieberson, remarked that the film’s history of passing through multiple cuts was the result of pressure to tone down the romantic relationship between its two male leads – played by Mick Jagger and James Fox.

This dynamic within the film might seem very tame to today’s audiences. But it’s worth noting that in 2017 Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight became the first film centring on an LGBT story to win the Oscar for Best Picture, 47 years after the release of Performance. What’s even more shocking is that same sex marriage is still illegal in part of the UK. It’s easy to look back at the sensibilities of ages gone by and scoff from our socially woke present, but Cinema Rediscovered encourages the sort of careful examination which reveals that the past is more present than we might think.

The final highlight of my Cinema Rediscovered experience was seeing the films of Alice Guy-Blaché: pioneering French filmmaker, innovator and experimenter. She is credited as being one of the first filmmakers to make narrative fiction films and the first to cast a film with entirely African American actors. Although not all of her films age well – there’s some questionable jokes about race – she was certainly a revolutionary voice in early cinema.

And, in an industry where women are still grossly underrepresented, it’s important to champion the legacy of filmmakers like Guy-Blaché, who may have been the only female filmmaker working between the period of 1896 to 1906. The numbers on this point don’t lie. Of the top 250 highest grossing films released in the UK in 2017, only 11% of directors and 17% of writers were female. The progress that has made in the intervening century since Guy-Blaché was working is not good enough.

Cinema Rediscovered should be a destination for all film lovers; it has an exciting programme that creates a dialogue between the past and the present. I urge all of those not able to make it to Bristol this time around to seek out their touring programme and get a flavour for this unique festival.

Roisin Mullins is Programme Coordinator at Film Hub North.

Images: The Patriot Game (Arthur MacCaig, 1979), Reframing Film Heritage session, The Passion of Remembrance (Maureen Blackwood, Isaac Julien, 1986), Performance (Nicolas Roeg, 1970).