You can barely walk down the street these days without tripping over a new film festival. The cinema seems like the last place anyone would want to watch a film – it’s all about drive-in, rooftop, outdoors, pop-ups, secret. Charging considerable cash for entrance, blankets, drinks and food, and sometimes you are supposed to dress up too. Generally the quirkier the venue, the better. These events can be a lot of fun – though you do have to be feeling flush.
But the Free Film Festivals movement is something a bit different. In 2010, Free Film Festivals was born when Neil Johns and a couple of mates put on a festival in Peckham and Nunhead. New Cross and Deptford followed in 2012, and then Camberwell, and Herne Hill. There are now 12 local free film festivals, 5 of them new this year including the first university one at SOAS (set up by Neil’s son). They are all so far based in London, but it’s not a prerequisite, and the website encourages anyone to set up their own – there are a few things you need to know but really you too can start your own. Go on, why not?
The best bit about them is in their name: they are free. We might shake a bucket for donations, which all go towards putting it on the following year (we also did get some local assembly funding from Lewisham Council this year, thank you Lewisham!) but there is no obligation for the audience to spend any money to see a film screening. This festival makes it free to watch a film in one’s community, with one’s own neighbours (friends and strangers) and often in a space where you don’t usually get to see a film. The best ones have a proper link between the venue and the film. My favourite example of this was a couple of years ago, watching The Hustler (1961 original) in Shades Pool Bar on Deptford High Street. Such a glimpse into a world I would not usually get a glimpse into! Truly a film which became real as pool balls knocked gently behind us (more words and photos here).
We have just had the 2016 New Cross and Deptford Free Film Festival. It was our fifth festival, with 32 events packed into 10 days. If you saw the events list, or joined us for any of them, you might have noticed the breadth of genre, subject matter and venue. If somebody comes to the planning meeting with an idea, it is welcomed, and support is offered to help the screening happen. This is why we end up with a mixture of politics, music, documentary, local, and international films – showing films from Spice World (singalong, of course) to The Divide – a real coup since its non-free version was released in the UK in the very same week. This year we also had a brilliant commemorative Shakespeare strand, which saw versions of Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo + Juliet filling venues all over the two postcodes. The venues, too, are contrasting in style and atmosphere – from the Grade 2 listed St Nicholas’s Church built in 1697 to Buster Mantis, Deptford’s newest bar built under the railway arches in late 2015.
In true film festival spirit, I went to see a mixture of interesting films at some very different venues. As well as co-organising the launch night at The Duke pub in Deptford, and sharing the responsibility for social media for the festival, I also took a fair few photographs (although a few of these were taken by the awesome Jay Alix). I have picked a few of my favourites. Can you name any of the films? Did you go to any of these events too? Did you see that massive inflatable screen erected in Telegraph Hill Park by Electric Pedals?!
The weeks and months of planning the festival seem to be worth it when you see a room (or a park, bar or church) fill up with an audience. It’s great to shed any commercial aspirations and try to bring free film to the local population. It actually feels like quite a successful attempt when 450 people turn up to watch Labyrinth in the park and they even have to pedal their bikes to keep the power running. Long may the Free Film Festivals family continue… and if you want to get involved with your local one, or build a new one where you live, tune in to the website for more details. If you are local to New Cross and Deptford, we will start planning again from November. We will share details on our Facebook page and on Twitter – so do come and join us and bring your ideas with you.
Meanwhile, thanks to all of you who came to this festival, and for any donations in the orange buckets. See you in 2017!
The Free Film Festivals new website is at http://www.freefilmfestivals.org/ and its Twitter page is at https://twitter.com/FreeFilmFests.
Each festival also has its own Twitter and Facebook profile.