It Happened Here

By Richard Armstrong


Reverence for a diverse cinema thrives in the borders

The Anglo-Welsh border country is one of the most sparsely populated and under-facilitated regions in Britain. Whilst cinemas are rare amid the small towns and scattered farms of this largely agricultural land, nevertheless there has developed a lively film culture.

Its primary engine is the community of British professionals who fled the pressures of metropolitan England in the ’60s and since, in search of alternative rhythms and attitudes. Bringing with them the art school and art house cinephilia of their generation, their enthusiasm has coalesced around the film society at Presteigne, perched on the River Lugg as it flows between Herefordshire and Powys. For Pete Mackenzie, film society members “have an outlook that extends beyond the Borders.” Active since 1974, the society remains true to the ‘difficult’ cosmopolitanism that characterized post-war European cinema and its followers.

For founder member Marjorie Williams, the early years were “heady times,” with new Bressons and Bliers alongside canonical works like Nanook of the North and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In the ’80s the selection doggedly followed Herzog, Ray, Bertolucci and Wenders, while acknowledging the rise of the Australian new wave and the sporadic (re)flowering of cinemas in Russia, China, Iran and Latin America. The reluctance to allow American cinema to dominate the screen persists, with re-releases – Touch of Evil, Cabaret – or images of America care of European eyes – Atlantic City, Paris, Texas – preferred to the output of the studios and their ‘indie’ subsidiaries. The second most profitable film of the 2002-2003 season was Abolfazi Jalili’s Delbaran.

The social life the society affords is vital to a community as relatively isolated as Presteigne, a 46-mile round trip from the nearest city Hereford and a 38-mile round trip from the nearest cinema in Ludlow. For founder member Jane Walsh, “there was an important element of bartering our goods at the meetings – butter, goats, cheese – and there was usually a baby or two there.” Successful enough nowadays to install anamorphic lenses, a new sound system, and have money in the bank, the Society has brought high-quality cinema-going to a remote community.

Based in Hereford but serving distinct cinephile demographics is the nationally renowned DVD outlet Moviemail (see the eponymous website) and, over the road, The Bookworm. Imbued with that nostalgia which stirs in Presteigne, Moviemail’s Carol Hunter is keen to bring unusual films to people who know what they like, as well as those who are new to the game and open to discoveries.

Resolutely Hollywood and repertory, The Bookworm caters to a swift turnover of post-war collectibles from Aldrich to Zinnemann. Based in Arrow View near Kington, Eddie Biesel has one of the biggest collections of postwar American cinema in the region, and writes programme notes for Australia’s Melbourne Cinémathèque. Becoming a cineaste in the ’70s, Eddie represents that Sarrisite crowd which found art in the Hollywood auteurs. “I think there’s a whole bunch of cineastes out there for whom Fritz Lang’s control of space in Rancho Notorious is as interesting as Antonioni’s in The Passenger.”

Yet, it is hard to ignore a familiar British pattern. Whilst the film society sipped Chilean reds after Warm Water Under the Red Bridge, next door there was darts at the Dukes’ Arms with Jean-Claude Van Damme providing the wallpaper. Not only is the demarcation between a taste for cinema’s experimental vocation and the pull of the multiplex, as underwritten by assumptions surrounding education and class, as common in the Borders as it is in Tunbridge Wells, but suspicion of an informed film culture is as rife. For Pete Mackenzie, the Presteigne programme strikes a delicate balance in an imperfect world. “The inclusion of foreign films is enough to raise suspicions of elitism, and many people throw up their hands at the thought of a subtitle.” When somebody came and gave a talk on Surrealism following The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, “it went down like a lead balloon”, founder member Richard Scadding remembers.

Yet the affection there for disparate moving image cultures prompts the hope that it can be drawn upon. Moviemail publishes short appreciations of individual films, directors and movements in their literature. Presteigne Film Society programmes have yielded some inspired reflections, while the buzz surrounding a screening of Cabaret centred around postmodern constructions of Weimar Germany.

In a Britain in which news-stand film literature badly needs rethinking, whilst resistance to getting serious about cinema seems to be a national trait, what people do with their experiences of watching in real, and genuinely social, contexts, however remote, is increasingly relevant to the historicizing of cinema reception. What needs to happen in the Borders is what needs to happen elsewhere. Prejudices around the distribution and exhibition of particular kinds of film need to be questioned, and discussions opened up around the image that are as directed and enthusiastic as its consumption continues to be in rooms throughout the Marches.

Richard Armstrong is an Associate Tutor affiliated to the BFI. His book on Realism appears in the BFI’s ‘Understanding the Moving Image’ series in 2004.