Back to 2016


Is the punk spirit still alive in British cinema? Part 2

  • Strolling


In her second essay, Sophie Brown looks at the punk attitude in getting non-mainstream films to audiences.

This is the second and final instalment in our essay series, 'Is the punk spirit still alive in British cinema? Read part one here.

As Malcolm Maclaren said, “Punk will always come back in new forms always because the attitude is so very very good; it’s to do with people doing things for themselves, controlling their own methods and their own culture."

In Britain today, those new forms are usually seen on the fringes of the film industry as the demands of the system require compromise. Survival in our commercially driven culture is precarious -- evident in the recent closure of UK distribution company Metrodome, who championed an eclectic selection of challenging and alterative titles, from subversive sci-fi body-horror Evolution to George Amponsah’s documentary The Hard Stop, LGBTQ indie hits such as But I’m A Cheerleader and Tangerine, to Lucas Moodysson’s teengirl punk film We Are The Best.

Filmmaker and distributor Ashley Horner founded independent distribution company Jukebox Kino –  whose releases include Rona Mark’s riotous feature film, Objects Attack! and Matt Hulse’s experimental Dummy Jimin response to his discontent with the usual system: “Jukebox Kino comes more from a dissatisfaction with what we actually get to see in the UK, that is cinema, but is not mainstream or award-laden – it’s not easy to make money out of, so therefore it’s not distributed.”

Having begun with a model based on record-label subscriptions, where you would trust a label’s taste and be sent a mixed bag of their releases, Horner is developing a new way to bring edgier films to audiences. “We need to be creating fresh distribution networks," he urges. "We need to find a way of doing it more cheaply and getting more films out there. Films that Curzon or Netflix don’t show. And they’re not going to be high art, I want them to be low art, I want them to be gonzo, I want them to be weird, I want them to be punk, I want them to be rough. It’s our responsibility to create more places where people can see stuff that’s more eclectic and different...Our job is to basically remove filters and get stuff out there. That’s the punk thing; we’ve got to do it ourselves.”

In the 'club'

That attitude carries over to exhibition. Film clubs are a vital movement to getting the unseen seen, and finding your comrades. One of the biggest collective movements in the UK of cinephile activism is Scalarama: “a DIY celebration of cinema, for everyone, by everyone, everywhere, every September.” Envisioned by Philip Foxwood and Michael Pierce, Scalarama encourages people to fill the screens with what they feel is missing, and what they want to celebrate, together. Scalarama works with distributors to make screening fees more affordable, provides guidance for film-lovers who want to put on screenings, and lead on the re-release of John Water’s Polyester in full-blown Odorama with scratch’n’sniff cards.

Reel Good Film Club – who began with a screening of Sidewalk Stories during Scalarama, and have since put on rarely-screened classics such as The Watermelon Woman and hosted a Black Lives Matter fundraiser screening of Fruitvale Station – emerged from this frustration with the filters in cinema, (see Simran Hans’ article British Cinemas Need to do better for Black Audiences) and the racism, privilege, sexism and homophobia lurking within our culture and establishments.

“We were really disheartened by university, and feeling out of place when we simply expressed our views on films, and because there were no films by people of colour,” says Maria Cabrera of RGFC. “The film club’s purpose is now about having a space in which people can come and see a film for cheap and where we can feel comfortable to discuss film in whatever way we want to and feel safe doing so. So many people we know feel alienated in film institutions and in attempting to enter the industry - I think, in a small way, we're trying to say film is really for everyone and it can be a powerful tool to get new perspectives out there.”

Tara Brown, programmer of Wotever DIY Film Festival, adds, “Basically – if you have a DVD, a projector and a room, you have a film club. There is definitely a pushing against the mainstream here; many of these clubs are local and run by passionate people on a staggering variety of films that the mainstream cinema system can't do.”

Programming and exhibition can be an empowering and political action, as Brown elaborates: “As a black queer woman, one of the main delights of programming a queer DIY film with Wotever DIY Film Festival is being able to see and curate films where queer marginalised people are choosing and celebrating how they want to be portrayed on screen. It's hugely powerful.”

Selina Robertson, co-founder of Club des Femmes, a queer feminist film curating collective who regularly host screenings, discussions and readings, highlights radical writer and director Jane Arden, artist filmmakers Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers and the contemporary work of Campbell X within the British punk cinema legacy. Campbell X’s manifesto encapsulates their outsider, punk position: “Campbell constantly pushes boundaries in visual aesthetics and content in moving image for people who have been shut out of representation of mainstream film and TV."

“Punk is also to do with having an outsider anti-establishment state of mind and when it comes to queer feminism then it’s standing up to patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, mono cultural neo-liberal values,” says Robertson. “I think that punk is alive today in British queer feminist cinema & culture but as usual our history and contribution is being erased.” Robertson recalls Viv Albertine's recent protest at the British Library's punk exhibition due to its exclusion of important female bands such as the Slits, Siouxsie Sioux, and X-Ray Spex.

Positive energy

RGFC’s Maria Cabrera says, "For me ‘punk’ is taking something negative and choosing to overcome it by creating something new, positive and open to others.” She points to filmmaker Cecile Emeke, “whose approach is in the spirit of punk because she brought so many important discussions out to the world with her camera with Strolling” and Sorta Kinda Maybe Yeah, a female film collective who have recently made a web series, “they got together because they weren't seeing their stories represented out there.”

Lead programmer of the Experimenta strand at the BFI London Film Festival, Helen de Witt, emphasises the dynamism of contemporary feminism: “Young women today seem to have a lot of energy, a lot of activity is online so it’s a different arena, but in terms of ideas and attitudes, it seems to me that feminism missed a generation, but people even in the teens, certainly in their twenties and early thirties these days seem much much more engaged, active and understanding of feminism.”

Punk in cinema today is empowering, inclusive, and defies the typical way of doing things and mainstream modes of thought. It is a way of not accepting the way various systems restrict or repress people, and repress the way they express themselves. And it’s everywhere, if you look for it.