Tolpuddle Radical Film weekend Laura from Film Fringe contemplates future film adventures, under the stars.
The Tolpuddle Radical Film Festival is part of the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, which is a smallish outdoor festival, held in July in Dorset. Despite having known about the existence of this festival for a few years, this was my first visit to Tolpuddle, which is a quintessentially English rural village not far from Glastonbury, in the south of England.
Film Hub North supported me to attend the festival this year and also to present at a conference that was taking place there, so I am pleased to be able to share my experiences and thoughts in return.
The festival takes place in a field beside the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum.
The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is perhaps the best known case in the early history of the Trade Union Movement. The 'martyrs' were six agricultural labourers, all of them men, who were at the centre of an important political moment in 1834. These desperately poor workers were found 'guilty' of organising a trade union and sent to a penal colony in Australia. Later, after much popular protest in the UK, they were pardoned and brought back to Britain.
The festival is dedicated to the memory of their struggle and the ongoing struggles of working people everywhere, it has been running in this form since 1997. It is therefore an important event for the Trades Unions and those on the political left.
The film festival
Chris Jury and Reuben Irving started screening films at Tolpuddle Martyrs festival in 2014.
Their 'cinema' on the site takes the form of the Vintage Cinema Bus which is a nice surprise to festival-goers when they encounter it, parked by a hedgerow on a sunny day.
The bus itself also has an interesting political history.
It was one of a fleet of seven Bedford buses produced in Britain in the 1960s as mobile units to inform and educate manufacturing businesses.
The buses were funded by the Ministry of Technology and bore the name Production Engineering Advisory Service.
The ambition of this scheme was to increase efficiency in engineering and industry through sharing best practice and customised advice between a team of experts funded by Government, and individual factory managers.
The last remaining bus, carefully restored, upgraded to project films from laptops and containing 22 real cinema seats, now hosts the Tolpuddle Radical Film Festival's annual Small Axe short film award (winners here, selected from 30 new films) as well as showing several features and documentaries over the weekend, all for free. The film festival is organised by volunteers and funded by trade unions.
"It is an opportunity to enjoy overtly political works that offer a direct challenge to the cultural orthodoxy of mainstream media."
The film was banned by the BBC for many years because it contains such disturbing images and concepts; summary executions, death by asphyxiation and the forced rehoming of refugees fleeing from cities into less populated areas.
I also watched a lot of the short films in the Small Axe competition, which was a diverse selection of mixed genre films. For example Dare to Dream is a 30 minute long documentary about the Latin American Medical School (ELAM in Spanish) in Havana, Cuba, which offers scholarships to people from around world train to become doctors. The story is told through the experiences of several US students who received scholarships there and want to use this opportunity to practice medicine in under-served communities in the USA.
By contrast, Tachinahare by Aljoscha Seuss is a graduate film, just 3 minutes long, but it packed a punch. A collage of images and objects were used to respond creatively to a piece of audio about health problems arising from environmental pollution, especially plastics. The end of the film revealed that this audio clip dates back to Japan in 1970, proving that pollution has been known to affect the life chances of humans for decades.
The Tolpuddle Radical Film Festival is affiliated to the Radical Film Network (RFN) and this year some of the network's members also organised their annual conference to take place at the festival.
The RFN is a distributed network of affiliated film and media organisations, founded in the UK in September 2013. I studied the emergence and development of the network as part of my PhD and have been a member since 2014. Since its inception, the network has grown through meetings and actions on a local, independent level. It has become a unique organisation, promoting and facilitating a healthy, active and vibrant sector of specialist and highly diverse film activity.
Its members are makers, exhibitors, teachers and researchers of ‘radical film’, including grass roots, political and experimental film practices from around the world. The film and media promoted through the network is also strongly aligned with the political left and its concerns are wide-ranging, from those around aesthetics, form and representation to issues of distribution, exhibition and associated political practices.
I wrote about the inaugural RFN conference in 2015 here and last year I took part in its Glasgow incarnation, which was billed as a radical film festival that coincided with an 'unconference'. The inclusive and non-hierarchical model of the unconference meant that the form and content of its proceedings were decided upon by the attendees on the first day.
My contribution to the RFN at meetings and its 2016 conference has been to consider how the network might respond collectively to the anniversary of the political moment of 1968. I'm interested in how this moment lives on in the popular imagination, and in using film as a basis for starting conversations around this subject.
Michael Pierce and Phil Foxwood from Scalarama have also been involved in these discussions, as the distributed festival model they have developed for their annual festival provides a potential blueprint for the RFN event in 2018.
The initial slide presentation from 2016 is online here.
Last weekend, the idea was once again put out to the rest of the network; there are now only 6 months until the start of 2018!
The first session at the Tolpuddle RFN conference was a workshop jointly organised between myself and David Archibald of RFN Scotland, to reflect on how things were done to produce the 2016 festival in Glasgow and to discuss and to shape the '68 festival in 2018, with the involvement of conference attendees.
As the conference was taking place in a marquee in a field, I had printed the slides from last time in case the projector didn't work, and so these were stuck to one of the marquee walls. There were sheets of paper and pens out on the table for people to use to start collecting their own thoughts.
David read out a piece he had written that brought to mind the events of 68, setting them in a global context.
From the Dagenham women workers strike in the UK to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Marin Luther King, via the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Prague uprising, as well as the famous closure of the Cannes film festival that year, the words cast the other people around the table into a quiet and contemplative mood.
In 1968, the Viet Cong launches The Tet Offensive
In 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover describes the Black Panther Party for self-defence as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country"
In 1968, Planet of the Apes, Black Jesus, The Producers and The Girl on a Motorcycle
In 1968, Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech on immigration
In 1968, Billie-Jean King wins the Women’s Singles Championship at Wimbledon
In 1968, Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea releases Memories of Underdevelopment
In 1968, The Prague Spring blossoms in Czechoslovakia
In 1968, 850 women at the Ford factory in Dagenham strike for equal pay
In 1968, Pictures of Matchstick Men, With a Little Help from My Friends, Son of A Preacher Man and Those Were the Days ....
We then wanted to know what other people thought so far about this approach, and how it could be applied to a festival inspired by 1968.
Also provided at this session, as reading matter, were a number of articles from an issue of Vertigo which had reflected critically on 1968 at 40 years on, in 2008, that could be browsed during the rest of the conference.
After this session, over in the cinema bus, Tony Dowmunt from Goldsmiths, University of London, gave a presentation on the London Community Video Archive (LCVA), which has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to create and archive of 1960s and 1970s videos from London and the South East.
The London Screen Archive have used their KinoVan, another travelling cinema-in-a-van, to screen some of these films in the communities in which they were made, decades ago.
There was a break for a barbecue, then the conference continued into the evening with a selection of experimental films called A reason to scream: New Artist film and video, curated by Marcy Saude. This was a selection of recent short films that exhibited a connection between radical form and interest in political activism.
The Forcing (no. 6) (2016) by Lydia Moyer.
From Sea to See (2014) by Eve-Lauryn LaFountain
Typologies of Whiteness: White People Love Police (2017) by Heath Schultz
Cut Out (2014) by Guli Silberstein
The next day, the conference continued with back to back sessions throughout the day, starting with a session on interrupted screenings.
Elena Boschi is an academic at Edge Hill University. She first presented on this topic at the first RFN conference in 2015 and since then she has been investigating the form through practice.
In an interrupted screening, the film is stopped to allow the audience to discuss it as they are watching it. This format offers a break from the hierarchical cinema screening. It requires you not to escape into the film, but to pay full attention, and it has been used as a tool of consciousness raising, not least by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas who made the four-hour documentary The Hour of the Furnaces (La Hora de Los Hornos) in 1968.
Mobility, Testimony and Video Activism was a two-paper panel session.
The experiences and orientations of researcher Max Kramer and film maker Julia Lazarus were discussed in relation to their respective projects: Digital film practices and the Kashmir Conflict, which followed a contemporary independent filmmaker's route to reaching her audience in a conflict zone, and a new activist documentary film on the Turkish ecological activist group “Northern Forest Defense”.
This was followed by a panel discussion on film makers and trade unions working together in the marquee, with Morag Livingstone (writer, producer and director of the film 'Belonging: The Truth Behind the Headlines), Brett Sparkes (Unite the Union: Unite Community South West), John Callow (Education Officer at GFTU) and Paula Geraghty (Dublin Workers Film Festival and Trade Union TV).
The Short Axe films were just starting in the cinema bus, so I spent the rest of the evening watching short films with other festival goers.
There was one more conference session on the Saturday.
As part of his Comrades and curators session, Julian McDougal, professor in Media and Education at Bournemouth University, invited us to individually reflect on a film we had watched in the past that connected our own history and politics in a personally meaningful way, and then discuss it in pairs and draw maps of the connections we made. It was a very personal exercise that he said he had developed to use with a number of groups, the device of a film from memory was designed to get people to think deeply about how politics affected them.
Finally, Steve Presence, an academic researcher and longstanding RFN organiser, summed up this year's conference and we then discussed and made plans for the next one.
On the final day at Tolpuddle, the trades unions present at the festival lined up on the road to form a procession that each year takes the political message from the festival into the village, along the high street.
Those of us who were still at the festival joined in the procession with our RFN banner. To our surprise, as we neared the end of the march, we were joined by Jeremy Corbyn!
I really enjoyed my time at Tolpuddle in 2017 and although the conference will be in another place next year, I'd recommend going to the festival to anyone who has an interest in trade unions and left politics.
And as I said to one of the conference organisers when I got back to Leeds, I thought the whole 'conference in a field' thing had been ambitious, but very successful and that as a group who had barely known each other before arriving at the festival, we had pulled it together really well, without it ever feeling like some crazy 'team building' type of thing.