While journeying down for a short trip away to the secluded vistas of the Norfolk broads, little was I aware that the weekend away was to allow for a lecture and a personal chat with one of this writer’s heroes. The brilliant thing about north Norfolk in general is that, in just about every field whether it be art, film or even food, it has little desire to emulate what happens elsewhere. Instead it carves its own, very unique methods of creation, often giving its products and events a personal feel rarely felt when exploring the cities of modern day Britain.
While driving through, initially on the way to the cottage where we were staying, an increasing amount of signs were appearing along the road for something called the “Wells-Next-The-Sea Film Festival”. Having been to Wells many a time on my trips to Norfolk (most recently to see the house used in the filming of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M.R James’ A Warning To The Curious (1972)), it was initially hard to picture the typical festival imagery being transmuted onto the sleepy sea-side town, yet this was to be a more welcoming event than any of the red-carpet obsessed nonsense that often spring to mind when the words film and festival are joined together in a withering mass of flash bulbs and egos.
Instead, the Wells Film Festival was a small affair over three days with a handful of screenings and guest talks, all in the aid of bringing film to the community. It seems odd to point this factor out and yet, with the encroaching juggernaut of multi-plex mania wiping out whole continents of independent thinking in film and replacing it with a desire for loud spectacle over all else, the festival of films felt like a warming, gentle rebellion though of course hatched in the most serendipic of manners.
The theme for this year’s festival was “Best of British” screening mainly recent films such as Paddy Considine’s brutal but compelling Tyrannosaur (2011), Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) and Ken Loach’s Angels’ Share (2012) to name but a handful. The festival also screened Tony Britten’s new docu-drama Peace & Conflict (2013) about the music and pacifism of Benjamin Britten which was followed by a Q&A. This was however sadly missed, especially saddening considering this writer’s recent immersion in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem (1989).
However, the highlight of the festival was a lecture on the traditions of British documentary by festival patron and historian/preservationist Kevin Brownlow. This was the previously mentioned hero in question. When booking tickets, I was surprised that there were any left, yet it seems Brownlow is the well kept secret of film academia and preservation circles. To go away for a weekend of contentment and to end up meeting a personal hero was something that initially induced a Powell and Pressburger like questioning of whether this all was really a dream. In the context of British film, Brownlow is responsible for perhaps the greatest piece of cinema ever created on British soil in the form of Winstanley (1976) (and this is up against the likes of Reed, Lean, Hitchcock, Asquith, Powell and many others). He is also a proud preserver of silent film, receiving an Oscar for his efforts and this is even before looking into his vast array of written work (and was recently quoted by Mark Cousins in the latest issue of Sight & Sound as being one of a number of cinematic writers to seek out).
The lecture was of course magnificent, charting the rise of the British documentary, informing and entertaining at the same time while simultaneously adding dozens of films to this writer’s “to see” list. The usual suspects where there, from Grierson’s Drifters (1929) to Brownlow’s own cinema documentaries. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Brownlow, discussing the upcoming screening of the new restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) and sharing our dismay at some of the absurd methods of scoring the BFI currently feel is necessary for silent film releases (something recently touched upon in my review of the Potemkin/Drifters release and the early colour stencil Fairy Tales release).
So, to sum up, the Wells Film Festival is a gem in the crown of Anglia as M.R James would have no doubt put it. It’s small scale, community aimed events like this that not only keep cinema going but also make more obscure screenings possible; something that many of the inner city cinemas could learn a thing or two from.
For more information on Screen-Next-The-Sea visit their site.
Kevin Brownlow now runs Photoplay, a company involved in the restoration, distribution and archiving of silent film.