The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams

By Mark Cousins


Film-going as it should be: a Northern dispatch

In August, in the North Eastern Scottish town of Nairn where she lives, Tilda Swinton and I put on a quirky wee community festival called the ‘Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams’.

We named our days ‘½’ , ‘1 ½’, ‘2 ½’ etc. On our final day, 8 ½, we played Fellini’s film of the same name. People got in free with home baking. One person arrived with 8½ pizzas. Our cinema was once a smelly ballroom and bingo hall. Our designer Claire Halleran and her team hung it with Chinese lanterns, painted it midnight blue, and added ultraviolet stripes. We asked Claire if she could make the Ballerina feel like a ghost train, its hallway an expressionist tunnel of stars. Amongst the films we showed were some of the best ever made about children – Mohammed Ali-Talebi’s The Boot, Ozu’s I Was Born, But… (with an astonishing new soundscape by Simon Fisher Turner), the Bill Douglas Trilogy, Palle Alone in the World, Dorota Kedzierzawska’s Crows, etc. We sold nearly six times as many tickets as expected. We were on CNN and in major newspapers across Europe, America, the Middle East (particularly Iran) and Asia. Local people flocked.

What made the Ballerina so all-encompassing? Five things:

1. As the last paragraph suggests, we were kids when we made the Ballerina. We took decisions as children would, based on how much they excited us or how colourful, dramatic or unexpected they were.

8-1-2-federico-fellini.jpg8 ½, 1963

2. Talking of drama: we were tyro theatre directors when we made the Ballerina. Neither Tilda nor I are much inclined to theatre, to be honest, but we took a leaf out of the old girl’s book by borrowing a spotlight, cutting the houselights as the film was about to begin, scanning the spot around the room as if Elvis was about to appear, then playing a song (Judy Garland, The Smiths, Red Kross, Marilyn Manson, Johnny Cash, David Bowie, etc) loud and in full. We tried to make the arrival at the building, the switching off of the lights, and, most of all, the unveiling of the movie screen, theatrical.

3. Yes, we unveiled the screen. Intrigued by the way that icons are covered in Russian Orthodox churches until the sacred moment, Tilda and I climbed step-ladders on either side of our cheap screen, raised a huge bit of material – which became known as “the flag” and on which John Byrne had painted the words The State of Cinema – and then, when the movie was about to begin, we dropped the flag to reveal the holiest of holies, the screen. So we nicked a bit of religious ritual for the Ballerina.

4. Perhaps more politically, the festival was a bit of a boundary crosser. Lots of families with kids showed up, yet the Ballerina was fairly queer. Boys dressed in frocks. Our play list had Judy, Dolly and Doris, etc. And though our festival was childlike, much of its audience was aged 60+. We loved this. We loved old ladies telling us 50-year-old stories about the romance of the ballroom. We loved playing Morning Has Broken one minute and Hurt the next. And we loved the class mash-up of the Ballerina. Tilda and I are from wildly different backgrounds, and our festival was just as rangy. Loads of working class people queued with famous figures from the film world, London culture gurus, and intergalactic cinephiles from Asia, America and Europe. This worked because, to be fancy for a minute, it was clear as soon as you walked down our arrival tunnel (which Kenneth Anger, who popped in, called “Caligari in TechniColor”) that identity at the Ballerina was a bit fluid. People were adult kids, straight queers and common poshers there.

singin-in-the-rain-stanley-donan-gene-kelly.jpgSingin’ in the Rain, 1958

5. I’ve already suggested this, but it’s worth stating clearly: the Ballerina was distinctive because, especially compared to multiplex-going or, even, arthouse cinema-going, the Ballerina was very friendly. We made tea and coffee for, and brought cakes and buns to, those who were standing in line. We danced and welcomed people as they arrived. Again and again we saw people giving their tickets for a movie to someone who was keener to see it. Again and again strangers plumped up each other’s bean-bags. One component of an event’s welcome is its pricing policy. We were far from rapacious. Tickets cost £3/£2, tea and coffee was 50p, cakes were free. Most of the staff worked for free. Our great projection equipment came for free (a mighty thanks to Salzgeber in Berlin and BBFS Scotland).

To say that the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams was childlike, theatrical and friendly, that it played with political ideas about identity and inclusion, and had a touch of the church about it, makes it sound like a curate’s egg, or a bit pretentious. We don’t think it was either. It was certainly ramshackle (it said on our t-shirts “Ramshackle Rocks”). It was small and very much something of and for the fine folk fae Nairn. It was made in the spirit of Scottish Romanticism, of I Know Where I’m Going! We tilted at many a windmill.

We ignored the business and industry agendas. We thought of our film festival as a question of form as well as content. We put on some very challenging films, but not once did the Ballerina feel like a place only for social and cultural elites (as many film festivals do). For these reasons, I suppose, what we did was quite radical.

We are about to announce what we will do next and we think it will be quite a surprise.

Visit the Ballerina Ballroom website and Facebook.

Mark Cousins is one of our finest advocates for an expanded, internationalist sense of what cinema is and can be. His latest book is Widescreen (Wallflower Press)