A conversation with Richard Dyer to mark the 50th anniversary of his move to Birmingham, where he lived for most of his adult life and where he produced much of his celebrated work. Many thanks to Ian Francis and Flatpack for their foresight in marking the occasion. I too had the foresight to ask whether the conversation could be recorded so that those of you who could not attend the event might nonetheless be able to listen in. However, I then lacked the wit to press the record button on time, so the first five minutes or so of the conversation are missing. In the end you did have to be there I guess, although it´s not a great loss: what´s missing is mainly my fulsome introduction, which he has no need of, and which merely expressed what everyone else feels about him and his work. The conversation is all too brief but touches on his activism at the GLF, the Arts Lab in Birmingham, his arrival the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, his early work on Gays and Film with Jack Babuscio, Stars and White, with some commentary on entertainment, musicals, ‘In Defence of Disco’, filmgoing in Birmingham in the 70s and an introduction to Mai Zetterling´s Loving Couples (Sweden 1964)
A wide-ranging conversation with Ian Francis, founder and director of Flatpack, about cinema, community, building audiences, and developing the festival from a pop-up in a pub 12 years ago to one of the leading festivals in the UK and a cornerstone of film culture in the West Midlands. We talk about cinephilia in Birmingham, about showing films in canal boats, churches, warehouses; about programming mixed-media, animation, shorts, experimental and expanded cinema and how international art-house might now be amongst the biggest challenges; we talk about funding and about ‘Heritage’ projects, from the recent ‘Birmingham 68’ to a forthcoming project on South Asian film from the region. It was a great opportunity to discuss key aspects of culture in general and film culture in particular that, because they often take place behind the scenes, don’t often get the public airing they merit. You can listen to the podcast below.
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), screened to a live score by Alcyona Mick at The Arena venue of the Midlands Arts Centre, made for a magical and very English Summer evening on the 28th of June, 2013. People gathered on this outdoor yet intimate performance space, obviously modeled on a miniature Roman arena but reminding me a little of the small ‘plaza de toros’ of the village I’m from in Spain, with seating built into the space itself out of rock and cement: basic, functional, social. There were grandparents, families, kids running around, groups of friends. A Murnau film had drawn a lot expected film types and some queer folk; the jazz trio, quite a lot of music lovers; everyone at ease with each other. The forecast had dissuaded the mob but there was still a good crowd. There was indeed a gentle drizzle that accompanied the screening, seeming to fall or not, in weightier and lighter drops, as the mood took it; umbrellas came up, went down, came back up again. But the film so enraptured the audience that no one left.
Ian Francis, founder of Flatpack, was on hand to introduce the screening, which he did with a soft voice and with information so humbly presented one might not easily notice how clever it was, and how well thought-through various elements of this event had been put together. He told us that we were watching a copy of Sunrise which had recently been discovered in an archive in the Czech Republic; that at 79 minutes it is considerably shorter than the official 97 minute version; that it was nonetheless of great interest because it was edited differently, not only to make it shorter, but to allow for shots not included in the original; that the original version had had a Fox Movietone sound-on-film soundtrack, but that this 79 minute version had no official score, thus handing Flatpack and Birmingham Jazz an opportunity in 2010 to commission a score from Alcyona Mick; that this lovely score had been performed once before at a special screening in St. Martin’s Church and here it was being performed again, for us, by Alcyona Mick on piano, Calina DeLa Mare on violin and Jon Wygens on guitars.
I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich the cultural life of the city, and not only on the dates the festival is scheduled for.
This screening of Sunrise was an example of the multitude of ways Flatpack is contributing to Birmingham’s cultural life and indeed simply making of Birmingham a more pleasant place to live in. It’s an instance of Flatpack being involved not only in programming, distributing, publicizing, exhibiting etc. but of commissioning and, furthermore, from the moment of commissioning to the screening I saw, of collaborating with at least three other city institutions (Birmingham Jazz, The Midlands Arts Centre, St. Martin’s Chruch); of introducing jazz fans to film, film fans to jazz, young audiences to Silent Cinema, audiences of all ages to one of the great screen classics and in a new and interesting version. The archival, the historic, the cultural and the social all brought together for our attention and pleasure at this event.
Flatpack has introduced me to new parts of the city, places that after living here for ten years I’d never actually been to (I’d been to the MAC but not to the Arena, I’d seen St. Martin’s Church, but only from the outside, I’d never been to the Ladywood Broadway Cinemas). Thus it wasn’t just that Flatpack is introducing Birmingham to festivalgoers arriving for the first time in the city but also a way of re-introducing Brummies into the riches Birmingham has to offer, amongst which Flatpack, both as conduit and as a destination in itself, must be counted and treasured.
As the sun went down and the film began, as we saw George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor try to rediscover what they’d once loved about each other, as the plastic macs went on and the umbrellas up, as the band played, my mind turned to humans making magic. Sunrise is the result of Murnau’s orchestration of a whole army of people arranging particular imprints of light on celluloid, and that now once more needed the absence of light and then more light to bring it to life. The music, the physical effort, breath even, evident in the bending of every note, of the choice of particular rhythms by a group of people making sound out of notations; sounds that surrounded these very beautiful images and connected them to us in a newly designed way; then the event itself, the result of a combination of state (funding for MAC), church (the original site for the first screening in Birmingham), arts organisations (Flatpack, Birmingham Jazz) and the whole team of volunteers who contribute to Flatpack.
The Sub-title of Sunrise is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’. This screening was the result of many humans coming together over time (at least 80 years), space (Hollywood To Birmingham), across many different organization, both state-funded and community-led, professional and volunteer, to create something beautiful. At the end of the screening, when the musicians seem both shy and delighted by the mad applause that accompanied their efforts, I felt gratitude to everyone involved for having taken the trouble. It does take an army. It was worth it. I felt very lucky to be there and to have benefitted from everyone’s efforts. They deserved even more applause than they got.