Free Cinema Edgware Road

By James Norton


The combination of several great ideas more often than not produces an unholy mess, but in the case of the Free Cinema School at the Serpentine Gallery’s Centre for Possible Studies located in a shop in Porchester Place off Edgware Road in London this summer has resulted in one of the most thrilling films to be created in Britain this year.

A summary verbal transcription can hardly approximate to the kaleidoscopic joys of the film itself which combines questing forensic documentary, urban dreams, agitprop, archival excavation, optical experiments, memories and up to the minute news. The Kino-Eye of a vintage Bolex fragments and superimposes the vibrant Middle Eastern community of Edgware Road, Marble Arch and Hyde Park as voices from Speakers’ Corner hector the soundtrack. Iraqis celebrate a football victory and their stretch of London is replayed back to us on Iraqi TV. A nun from Tyburn Convent, contemplated and contemplating, describes it as “the holiest place in England” as we are offered antique woodcuts of historical martyrs, the urgent nuances of martyrdom in present day spirituality and conflict never stated but bleeding suggestively out of the montage. Spaces of celebration and desire. A vamp from the golden age of Egyptian musical cinema and melodrama yearns and dances across the screen as we are asked how many female prophets there are in the religion of Islam. No, the question demands an answer. The same actress committed suicide in Edgware Road. A boy wraps himself in newspaper and staggers amongst bemused passers-by who clearly, even here, haven’t seen it all before. A critique of ephemeral media, a protest on behalf of those tossed into society’s dustbin? Just something he’d always wanted to do. A study of possibilities. A journey back from the diaspora to the homeland in Pakistan, now riven by tension. A recent emigrant from the country, former president Musharraf, no less, now lives in a modest flat on Edgware Road, and what are these machine gun toting cops just round the corner? Why, former PM and would-be president Tony Blair lives here too, in “the Connaught Square Maximum Security Prison”. “All dictators turn out to be property speculators”. A blast of Soviet-style graphics, surveillance footage and found sounds, then an item of grainy verité (insert symbol) reportage by the writer Anna Minton on the privatisation and control of public space in the new Paddington Basin development. A young woman dodges traffic to a lovely guitar ballad and reminiscences and photos of the Edgware Road and its communities of decades past return us to a lost world.  

The Serpentine Gallery has long maintained an involvement with its nearest community on Edgware Road, previously resulting in the Dis-assembly project in 2006 in which artists including Christian Boltanski and film-maker Runa Islam worked with pupils at the North Westminster Community School which led to an exhibition, a book and the film Conditional Probability. This year, Sally Tallant, the gallery’s Head of programmes, invited the artists behind to become artists in residence and Karen Mirza, Brad Butler and James Holcombe who run the artists’ project space, set up a Free Cinema School at the Centre for Possible Studies., as well as facilitating and empowering an impressive roster of artists to create non-commercial film-based work, has always been committed to local education programmes. The school was inspired by the Free Cinema documentary movement of the 1950s in which a new wave of British cinema took film production out of the studio to make authored films on the street with handheld cameras. One of the thinkers in the Free Cinema circle was the sociologist George Goetschius who later undertook the study Working with Unattached Youth which examined and advocated community building and creativity amongst young people without state intervention around Edgware Road in the sixties. Goetschius in turn had been trained by the Italian activist Danilo Dolci, pioneer of the ‘reverse strike’ in which spaces were occupied and unauthorised public works for the poor were undertaken without pay. All of these ideals were incorporated into the Free Cinema School, which drew on the talents of artists and equipment belonging to as well as the actors Cressida Trew and Khalid Abdalla, star of The Kite Runner, both of whom are members of the Zero Production film company in Cairo. An enthusiastic and multicultural group of young people were soon attracted by camera crews on the street, others passing by the shopfront dropped in and got involved, adding to collaborators recruited through the Serpentine’s outreach activities and via Facebook. While some taught, others filmed and acted, took photographs, designed posters and devised scenes. Without rules or fixed roles the resulting film is a marvellous tribute to the potential of communal creativity and imagination and was screened at the Serpentine Gallery pavilion on September 11th.

Sharing the space was a concurrently run project by CAMP, a Mumbai collective dedicated to opening up public video from CCTV to personal testimonies and the curating and creating of archive film. The presentation at the Serpentine was of a Block Study, a fascinating exercise in video urban archaeology which uncovered traces behind an Edgware Road shopfront of the once glamorous Gala Cinema, and its production arm which was responsible Peeping Tom, followed by the deterioration of its programming to the joyous German sex ‘education’ film Helga. With the onset of a new era and with the growth of the Middle Eastern community the new owners of Gala went into video production including an amusing Kuwaiti tourist information film about Britain, and the cinema also staged Arabic comedy theatrical shows before being refurbished as a nightclub and a hookah bar, which, threatened by the smoking ban, fell into its current delapidation which a charming musician now uses for a studio. All of which, illustrated with remarkable archive finds, insightful interviews and annotated by critical media materials, made an exemplary and entertaining template for an original approach to urban exploration. The Centre for Possible Studies itself aims to remain open for as long as possible as a base for further film production, screenings and discussions.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler are about to unveil their latest project, The Exception and the Rule, a film to be shown at the forthcoming London Film Festival, a richly experimental work based on their observation of civil unrest in Karachi, including the testimony of local activists and their own performance and graphic interventions to present a radically alternative image of Pakistan to the alarmist spectacle offered by the media, one that engages with the actual textures of the street and local perceptions and strategies. The film is just part of an ambitious Artangel project by Mirza and Butler, The Museum of Non-Participation, which runs from 25 September to 25 October behind Yaseen’s barber shop at 277 Bethnal Green Road in London, which includes an exhibition space, film screenings, discussion groups and its on newspaper.

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Serpentine Gallery

James Norton is a researcher and producer working in arts television in London.