Neighbourhood Watching

By Graham Hodge

lift-mark-isaacs.jpgLift, Mark Isaacs, 2001

Cinema and community come together to great effect on an east London estate

Neighbourhood Watching is a new initiative to bring film and local communities closer together.  It began in September this year with a series of short films shown on a giant screen in the playground of the St Peters housing estate in Bethnal Green, east London. The three-hour programme of short films – shown once during the day and again in the evening – included Lynne Ramsay's Gasman and the award-winning A Love Supreme, directed by Nilesh Patel.

The event was curated by Michael Needham, secretary of the St Peters Tenants and Residents Association. One of his aims was to create a new outlet for films usually only exhibited at festivals and art-house cinemas. “I was basically becoming an independent exhibitor, wanting to show films to a not necessarily cinema-going audience,” he explains.

It wasn't just a case of showing films in a new setting however: The main objective of Neighbourhood Watching was to involve the local community. Needham, a filmmaker himself, created a piece especially for the event. My Familiar Place comprises a series of encounters with diverse groups of Bethnal Green residents. Another local director, Marc Isaacs, supplied Lift, which was shot in the nearby Denning Point tower block (it depicts the block’s goings-on from within its lift and was voted the audience's favourite on the day).

Needham also commissioned east London artists Ashley McCormick and Rayna Nadeem to work with people from the neighbourhood to produce material especially for the screening. This took the form of “video portraits” of residents and animations advertising local businesses, drawn and voiced by children from the estate and the nearby Elizabeth Selby Infant School. These were shown between films.

The involvement of the community was one of the attractions for London Arts, the body that, along with the Lottery Awards For All scheme, funded the project. “It was a nice straightforward way to make a connection. Many artists' work doesn't link up directly with where they live,” says Peter Cross, Visual Arts Officer for London Arts.

neighbourhood-watching-2.jpg© Caroline Furneaux

This appealed to distributors too. Scottish Screen, responsible for funding and distributing films by new filmmaking talent in Scotland, provided Neighbourhood Watching with three films. For Wendy Fisher, Scottish Screen's Distribution and Sales Officer, it was not just a question of reaching a greater number of film-enthusiasts: “I liked the idea of taking the films to a location that they don't normally go to, giving them a different audience and a wider scope of people who are going to see them.” Moreover, she felt that the estate was the perfect environment for one film in particular. Night Windows, an animation by Anwyn Beier is, Fisher says, “just like a housing estate, with all the people in one window looking at all the people in the next window, everyone doing their own thing."

Gary Holding of Loud Mouse Productions was the producer of another film shown in the programme: Landmark, directed by James Gibson. He is similarly interested in finding audiences that have specific connections to films. “We filmed it in Bradford and tried to get as many people as possible from the local community to work on the film, and it's interesting to bring it back to the community,” he says. He feels that more funding should be made available for projects of this kind, which give the wider public access to these films: “Money mainly goes to art-house cinemas and distributors to support films that wouldn't get distribution; getting films into cinemas, rather then expanding audiences.”

There are other benefits to be derived from involving the community in film production. Holding cites outreach training courses he was involved with in Sheffield, which the police were happy to finance on the grounds that “every hour these kids were inside learning something about film or making a short, they weren't on the street breaking into cars."

Film-makers share the view that Neighbourhood Watching is playing an important role in broadening the appeal of film in general. A Love Supreme focuses on the hands of director Nilesh Patel's mother as they make samosas, which he believes is suitably accessible material: “samosas are familiar to everyone in London, and I hope both the Asian and non-Asian members of the audience will have appreciated the skill and artistry involved in their creation.” In addition, Marc Isaacs believes Neighbourhood Watching “has the potential to reflect the lives and local concerns of its target audience in a way that larger festivals can’t really achieve. It can involve the community not just the existing film community.”

All these efforts appeared to have had the desired effect: as well as filling the seats in front of the screen with a diverse crowd, both screenings brought large numbers of residents to doorways, balconies and windows. Needham is now working on the next stages of the project (it is likely another screening will take place next year). Even more encouragingly for those who have enthused about the first phase, Needham reveals that plans are under way for equivalent events in other locations. “It is important to build on this initiative,” he says. But he cautions that the continued involvement of the community is key. “Consultation with residents is foremost and determines the success of screening in unfamiliar settings.”

Graham Hodge is a freelance writer.­

The Tower Hamlets and Hackney Film Fund is offering grants of up to £4,000 to make a short film. Deadline for applications: 14 March 2003. For further information contact: Sarah Wren, Tower Hamlets Film Office, Brady Centre, 192 Hanbury Street, London E1 5HU. Tel: 020 7364 7920