Dizzy with Possibility

By Metin Alsanjak


Leytonstone’s Vertigo Film Club is an exemplary grass-roots initiative

Vertigo Film Club is a remarkable place. Turned by its occupying squatters into both a living space and screening room complete with video projection, this previously derelict building in Leytonstone, East London now offers a radical exhibition environment entirely in keeping with its originating principles.

“It was a seriously dilapidated building. It had no roof, floorboards were missing…” said Neil Goodwin, who has worked with Jacqueline Steinmetz to realise their mutual dream of running an autonomous film exhibition space, the closest thing the residents of Waltham Forest have to a cinema. “There used to be 26 cinemas in the area, now there are none,” Goodwin observes, and this in Hitchcock’s home borough.

Goodwin’s background is also in film, with study at the London College of Printing and some film-making of his own (documentaries on the notorious road building schemes in the area and the remarkably creative opposition movement). Meanwhile, his project partner Steinmetz is an arts journalist who learnt the ropes working in Berlin. “I got involved in working with film festivals,” she recalls, “and so I felt equipped to do the programming,”

The screening policy is suitably diverse, with the club showing classic and independent titles , as well as rare and exciting work audiences are unlikely to see in more orthodox cinema spaces. “It’s about showing films to a generation of people who wouldn’t have seen them,” Goodwin enthuses.

Among their many exclusive screenings, Vertigo has held the UK premiere of the documentary Cirkosovo, in which Max Reeves follows a group of highly talented street entertainers known as the Serious Road Trip, who clown for the benefit of war-torn Kosovan children. It tells a touching story of helping communities through laughter and shows how the clowns set up a circus school in Kosovo, training the local community to continue their “make laugh not war!” project.

The club has also hosted a Leytonstone Film Festival, which featured the work of many local filmmakers, among them avant-garde director John Smith (Blight, 1996, Shepherd’s Delight, 1984), Paul Kousoulides, (Inferno, 2001), and documentary maker Zoe Broughton, who infiltrated the animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences to expose the cruelty with which experiments were carried out in Countryside Undercover (1997).

And there are imaginative themed events, like a cycle courier art and film night, when over 250 couriers showed up, chaining their legions of bikes outside. “We showed a brilliant documentary film called Red Light Go (Ben and Toby Barraud, 2002),” Goodwin remembers. There has also been a Ukrainian exhibition and film programme, with UK-based Ukrainians, hungry for audiovisual entertainment from ‘back home’, travelling from as far as Scotland to watch national TV adverts and much else besides.

An innovative, grass-roots enterprise of real imagination, Vertigo offers further evidence, if any were needed, that failures in systemic institutional provision can be overcome. Part of a growing alternative national network of collectively-managed exhibition sites, mixing political commitment with an equal cinephile enthusiasm, it’s a model of organisation, a genuinely local operation with an international reach and engagement. Such developments will only increase as mainstream exhibition takes less and less risk with work deemed non-commercial or politically provocative.

Vertigo Film Club is at 485 Grove Green Road, next to the 491 Gallery.

Metin Alsanjak is a London-based freelance writer.