South West Silents have always been firm friends of Scalarama Bristol and we met up with founding member James Harrison to discuss how he got started out, why Bristol is a great city for cinema and the many fantastic screenings they have been involved with this time around.
How did you first get involved in cinema exhibition?
It was weird really, it was one of those situations where I just wanted to start seeing the films I had never been able to see. We once put on a William S. Hart western night and it was fantastic, but it’s not the kind of thing they would put on at somewhere like Watershed because it’s not financially viable for them. We do it in such a way that we can put it on for free and for no other reason than that we love silent cinema.
Do you remember the first screening you put on?
Yeah, it was Asphalt, the German silent film from 1929. We managed to get maybe 56 people along, and it worked. The location wasn’t perfect because you had the music from the bar upstairs and other customers were walking through to get to the toilet. But it was a great atmosphere and we got a local German historian along to do a talk.
What are your audiences like?
We do have regulars, which is great. They share our passion for cinema and in fact Rosie Taylor, who is a co-founder of South West Silents actually started out as an audience member for Bristol Silents screenings before we encouraged her to get involved. People always hang around after the screenings to discuss what they’ve seen, that’s a large part of the experience.
So there’s a nice community feel to it?
Yeah there is. It is inevitably quite a niche interest but we do try and encourage new people to come along. There’s a great silent film festival in Italy called La Giornate Del Cinema Muto, who have a collegium scheme where they will pay for your hotel and your entrance fee for you to watch films all week in return for you writing an article about the festival. So particularly with younger audience members, we encourage them to get involved with that.
Then there’s the launch of our Friese-Green beer for which we are collaborating with Dawkins Ales. That will hopefully get some new faces to come along and find out what we do.
How did that come about?
I knew Glen Dawkins, who is the owner of the Dawkins pubs as well as the brewer from when I had previously enticed him to do an ale for the Slapstick Film Festival. Then he ended up doing a beer for my wedding and then my 30th and then one for W.C. Fields so I really wanted to do one with South West Silents and also one that is a bit more summery. And it’s a real celebration of Bristol, William Friese-Green was a Bristol film pioneer and he lived just down the road from The Victoria pub where we are having the launch. He may even have enjoyed a pint there himself.
South West Silents seem to have an involvement in a lot of what is going on at Scalarama Bristol. Can you talk us through some of it?
Our main event is the A Night Of Early Colour Films we are hosting at our regular venue The Lansdown in Clifton. It is very much a celebration of colour cinematography, but also more specifically this incredible Spanish director – Segundo de Chomón – who is classed as the Spanish Georges Melies. One of our co-founders, Peter Walsh, managed to track down some of his work and it is all incredibly animated and largely unseen over here.
And you’re involved with the London Symphony screenings?
Yeah, I actually noticed this project was coming up about 4 years ago when the kickstarter appeared. My first reaction was “oh god, not another person who wants to try and imitate silent film, it’s going to be a disaster.” But the director Alex Barrett had previously made a short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, and seeing how good that was convinced me to put some money towards the campaign.
I then got in touch with Alex and told him that if he manages to finish the project, we would be really interested in putting on a screening. I was always keeping an eye on the project as it was getting bigger and bigger and looking better and better, then one day I messaged him to check how it was going and he sent me back a screener. So I watched it and I was like “bloody hell! This is actually very good.” He is clearly a big fan of the earlier city symphonies, visually the film is stunning, but most importantly the soundtrack, which I am a real stickler for, works perfectly.
So we’ve ended up putting on three screenings of the film for Scalarama, twice in central Bristol at The Cube and then I am going to be doing a Q & A with Alex for a screening out at the Clevedon Curzon, which is a fantastic old cinema to show it in.
How do you find Bristol is for putting on screenings?
I think it’s great and that’s down largely to the diversity of interests. I’m involved in Cinema Rediscovered, and one of the reasons we decided to set that up, or had the confidence to do so, was the fact that Bristol has all these different film-related pockets and groups who all share the same passion for cinema.
If you just look at the Scalarama Bristol programme, you can see how diverse the line-up of films is. If you have our silent screenings on one end of the scale then you have Bristol Bad Film Club perhaps on the other, with 20th Century Flicks and their video rental shop acting as kind of a hub. In many ways everyone else’s activity kind of spurs us on.
That’s the reason why Bristol could be seen to stand out from other cities, is that we do have people who are passionately interested in all those different areas of Cinema.
Do you have any advice for people looking to put on their own screenings?
Don’t worry if no one turns up, at least not to begin with anyway. The entire point is that if you’re enjoying it and it’s personally what you want to see being screened, then keep at it. Our numbers fluctuate, but it always works. We’re doing this for the love of it, and that’s why our screenings are free as well.
I think uniqueness is extremely important – either in what you show or how you show it. Also actually venue – our monthly club screenings have now taken part in three different locations. Fortunately, we’re now very settled at The Lansdown in Clifton and it’s perfect for us, at our previous two venues we always had sound problems, but these places were working bars that had to make money so we couldn’t exactly tell them to shut up!