Festival Report: Against the Tide Holli Keeble reports back from Margate's archive dreamland

Celebrating successes from our UK-wide season of archive film.

Halfway through Shifting Ground, the nationwide programme of archive film events exploring our changing relationship with the environment, we're excited to have lots to look forward to and plenty of successes to celebrate already. We'll be discussing future plans for archive film in the UK at Archive Screening Day on 5 December, but for now we're looking back to throw the spotlight on Margate Film Festival, the first project to receive Shifting Ground support.

Taking place from 23-27 October, Margate Film Festival lived up to its Against the Tide billing by bringing a bold, sometimes confrontational, selection of films to the south east seaside town. Shifting Ground funding supported an archive film programme that charted Margate's fluctuating fate over the past century; from its status as a tourist hotspot, a place of sanctuary for Kosovan refugees and - more recently - a new destination for those looking to get away from London.

Holli Keeble - CEO of Tyneside Cinema, one of Film Hub North's lead venues - was in attendance to experience the sights and sounds of the festival. In her blog, she discusses the unlikely opportunities afforded by Margate's lack of dedicated cinema venues and the festival's commitment to make-shift cultural spaces, and unpacks a programme boasting archive dreamlands, contemporary dystopias and expanded cinema events that bridge the gap between past and present.

Dreamlands, dystopias, past and present

I left Newcastle in late-morning, boarding a train bound for Margate on a 350-mile mission to see and experience the Margate Film Festival. This is a relatively new event on the south east coast, bordered by the sea and born out of the area's changing cultural landscapes. Its theme in 2019 was Against the Tide: A Cinematic Exploration of a Shifting Time and Place.

I was excited for the festival and to visit the seaside town once marred by socio-economic problems, but now gaining a reputation for the regeneration in its cultural and heritage sectors and its status as an increasingly popular choice for those wanting to escape London. I arrived early evening to a beautiful slate grey sky - straight out of a Turner – and to the sight of “Dreamland” in lights. I was immediately charmed.

I shed my rucksack and headed straight out to stretch my legs, get my bearings and find some food! There wasn’t much evidence of a film festival in town, and the owner of the B&B I was staying in seemed bemused but intrigued by the idea of one. You might even wonder if Margate, a town without its own cinema, is an odd location for a film festival. Well, that’s where you’d be wrong. The lack of dedicated cinema venues was clearly liberating for the festival team as they used the canvas of the town and its environs to host their screening programme. This involved taking over Margate’s plethora of arts and cultural spaces to spread the festival joy far and wide – venues included the wonderful Tom Thumb Theatre (as small as the eponymous fairy tale hero!), reclaimed retail units and, of course, Dreamland itself.

Despite the tempting smorgasbord of films and events on offer, I stuck to the brief to catch all 3 events that Film Hub North was supporting. First up was Time Warp, a pop-up video archive and screening space showcasing the past 100 years of Margate on film.

Time Warp had set up shop in a small corner of the much-loved Dreamland: an amusement park dating back to 1920 that had boomed during Margate’s days of heady tourism when it seemed everyone was holidaying in the town. After the gold rush, Dreamland suffered some major problems and closed in 2007 due to a devastating fire. But, following a period of investment, the site was redeveloped and re-opened in 2015. It was the perfect setting for Time Warp. It’s very visible, familiar and accessible for Margate locals, and there was plenty of footage of Dreamland itself in the films shown.

Starting with Magical Margate (1925) and running through to Margate Pride (2019), the films were presented in a conventional linear format that nicely captured the town’s vibrant history. Scenes of old grandeur, packed beaches and exotic animals from the zoo sat alongside the sights and sounds of the funfair. Audiences of all ages enjoyed popping in and out, spotting familiar places and reminiscing. Others stayed on quietly for the full hour of the programme’s runtime, absorbed in the archive.

I followed that with a screening of Exodus featuring a post-show Q&A with director Penny Woolcock. A modern-day take of the Moses story, Exodus uses an age-old narrative framework to explore contemporary themes of terrorism, immigration and right-wing politics. Woolcock said she was interested in what happens "when you leave people to it" – the dystopia that unfolds in her film suggests that people on both ends of the political spectrum make poor and sometimes violent choices in the pursuit of survival.

Made in 2006, and shot and set in Thanet, Exodus takes as its backdrop a Margate that pre-dates the arrival of the Turner Contemporary: a town that has fallen victim to the decline in domestic tourism, the lack of local industry and high levels of unemployment. This was several years after the first wave of Kosovan refugees arrived on these shores, but in some ways the town was still adjusting to their presence.

Exodus is an ambitious work that involved a lot of the local community both behind and in front of the camera. It is now over 10 years old. But in confronting the uncomfortable issues of its day, such as the dehumanisation of refugees, it still feels tragically relevant. These discussions have taken on a heightened significance in the intervening years since its release. Elements of the film, however, didn’t quite stand up in the same way. There are some spectacular moments – not least the burning of Anthony Gormley’s colossal Waste Man sculpture – but at times the narrative was a little clunky, too long and too on the nose.

The question and answer session that followed the screening provided an important space for conversation about the film and its themes. Locals discussed the positive impact the making of the film had on the community at the time, and the dramatic changes in the 13 years that have followed. There was debate on the pros and cons of Margate’s gentrification, the question of who was actually benefiting from the town’s transformation, and the argument that, if you scratch under the surface, the same problems of inequality and poverty remain.

Exodus actually premiered in the former cinema housed in Dreamland – a site that still stands empty, despite the venue’s £1.8 million restoration. This fact serves as a stark reminder that Margate’s transformation is not complete – and that cinema, however fragile it may be, has a role in highlighting these stories in our midst.

After Exodus, I hot-footed it in the rain from the Tom Thumb to The Margate School, an arts space that has taken over the high street site of the town’s ill-fated Woolworths. I was here to catch Cinesthesia. Billed as “a night of immersive cinema with glitchy electronic music, digital art, live visuals and found footage,” this was the event I was most looking forward to. Still, part of me was nervous in case it disappointed, but I needn’t have worried: it was terrific.

It was an event of two halves kicked off by an enchanting, poetic work called old Margate. Footage full of hope, glamour and beauty had been compiled by Leon Hatcher and was presented alongside a performance by Liotia, whose beautiful, soothing vocals and electronic keys complimented the film perfectly. The second half, new Margate, from Colin Welsh, Walkpro3d and Ricky Cox combined new footage of the area with a live cinematic soundscape. This section showed off impressive drone footage, though some of its impact was lost to the multiple effects applied over the images.

The potentially vast space of The Margate School was used well, and the audience skewed younger, demonstrating that there is a space for archive film in everyone’s lives if it’s presented in the right way!

The next day, I couldn’t resist a programme of Buster Keaton shorts with live piano accompaniment, which screened at the historic Palace Cinema just a few miles down the road in Broadstairs. Lovely. That and a hot coffee made for an ideal festival ending.

Overall, top marks to the Margate team. Against the Tide chimed perfectly with what we’re trying to achieve through Shifting Ground: supporting exhibitors to explore and celebrate a century of social change through the treasure troves of film history held in our regional and national archives. Margate Film Festival successfully managed to put together an imaginative programme with broad appeal, which is no mean feat. Until next time.

Holli Keeble is CEO of Tyneside Cinema.

Margate Film Festival's Heritage Strand was supported by the Shifting Ground Engagement Fund. For more information on how we can support your archive film events, contact our team or visit our Screen Heritage Funding homepage.