World cinema in Suffolk

Suffolk's community cinemas are about to take a big step onto the world stage as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out when he spoke to cinema advisor Dave Gregory about The Wider Picture Project.

Andrew Clarke

Suffolk's community cinemas are about to take a big step onto the world stage as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke found out when he spoke to cinema advisor Dave Gregory about The Wider Picture Project.

CANNES, Venice, Berlin, Toronto and … Sproughton? This Suffolk village along with seven other west Suffolk communities are joining the jet set by staging their very own international film festival. As Barry Norman would have said: “And why not?”

Leading talents from the international film industry - people like Penelope Cruz and Gael García Bernal - will be tempting Suffolk audiences to set aside the usual Hollywood blockbuster and to try something a little bit different - perhaps a little more rewarding.

Oscars winning movies like The Lives of Others and Pan's Labyrinth will be given a platform alongside Cannes winners such as Volver and The Motorcycle Diaries - not forgetting The Story of the Weeping Camel, Les Choristes and My Life As A Dog.

The event is being backed by Babergh council, Screen East, the regional arm of the UK Film Council, and is being hosted by the Suffolk Digital Cinema Network. It has been put together by Dave Gregory, manager of Aldeburgh Cinema and advisor to the Suffolk Digital Cinema Network.

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He said: “It was the brainchild of a guy called Malcolm Hill, the chair of the Sudbury and District branch of the United Nations Association and he was hoping to put on a festival to promote the ethos of the UN: “Nation shall speak unto nation” - understanding different cultures, how other people live, and in so doing foster better understanding.

“He approached people from the Suffolk Digital Screen Network to see if anyone would be interested. This then snowballed and then the idea was we would do an international film festival showcasing films that were non-English language because very few ever get shown in the Babergh area.

“All the groups got together, they were incredibly keen and it was seen as an ideal way to expand the programme of the Suffolk Digital Network and a way to promote Malcolm Hill's UN Festival.”

Dave said that he was brought on board as a co-ordinator/programme advisor and drew up a short-list of available films from which the various community groups could select their contribution to the festival.

He said that most of the groups in the network have been going for two years and now had a very good idea of their audience's tastes and were fairly shrewd when it came to programming.

“I am an ad hoc advisor. As and when I am needed, the individual groups ring me up and say: 'We want to play such and such a film, we can't find a copy, can you help us out.' And I do my best to try and track it down for them.

“For the festival I put out a list of about 30-40 different titles for people to consider - which also included kids titles as well because if there was one thing we really wanted to do was bring kids into this if at all possible because they are the next generation of film-goers.

“It was then up to the individual cinemas to choose what they wanted to show. We wanted the individual groups to do as much of the programming as possible because it's their cinema, their audience, their choice - they know what everyone will like.”

It is hoped that this festival will not only grow into a regular fixture in the Suffolk cultural calendar but it will also spread into other areas of the digital network and build on the network's regular film selection.

“Over the past four years they have built up a worthwhile service which plays an interesting programme but it is fairly mainstream. Until now the audience didn't have access to these films - although we have been trying to encourage them towards a more varied programme. This was seen as a way to help them break the ice with foreign language films. For example: if they needed 60 people at the screening to break even, but only 40 turned up then the funding from Babergh and Screen East will pick up the short-fall so it won't come out of the pockets of the committee members.”

He said that all groups have indicated that they would love for the Babergh International Film Festival - or The Wider Picture Project as it is also known - to become an annual event. There will be a review meeting after this year's season of films to examine how audiences responded and then try and build on this year's successes.

“We hope to bring in other areas of the Suffolk Digital Cinema Network but for this year we are just focussing on the eight venues within Babergh.”

Venues taking part in the festival are Flix In the Stix, Lavenham, Polstead Village Hall, Hartest Cinema, Hollywood At Hadleigh, The Quay Theatre, Sudbury, Screen At Sproughton, Peninsular Pix, Tattingstone and Glemsford Screen.

Each venue, which is run by local volunteers, will be screening films for adults and children - with some screenings accompanied by food from the film's country of origin.

Dave said that the Suffolk Digital Cinema Network was created four years ago at the behest of Screen East in the wake of a report that showed that Suffolk had the lowest number of cinema screens per head of population than of any other county in Great Britain.

“There are some places in Scotland that have less screens but by the same token there are far less people. This has come about because the smaller cinemas have closed down and the big multiplexes have headed to the large urban conurbations. For example you have a large five screen cinema in Bury St Edmunds but you have nothing in the small towns and villages for 15 miles all around.

“Public transport can also be a problem - particularly if you are older and don't want to travel far at night or in the evening. Even if you are younger and are working, if you haven't got private transport then getting to Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds can be a real pain.”

He said that a scheme was devised for grants to be obtained, that money would be put aside by local authorities to buy three sets of portable digital cinema equipment - including projector, screen, stereo sound system and groups would be trained to use this equipment and they would set up their own community cinemas.

Different groups are based in different venues. In Sudbury they use the Sudbury Quay Theatre while another group uses Sudbury Upper School. In Framlingham they use the bar of the British Legion hall, Hadleigh uses a community centre while in Halesworth they use the New Cut Arts Centre.

Each member of the network is self-sufficient and they book films and equipment online - ferrying equipment around in the back of an estate car. Each group stages screenings on average once every three weeks, with some putting children's matinees on during the day and movies for older audiences in the evening.

“Each group tailors their programme to the needs and the requirements of the local community - that's the beauty of the scheme - that it is a totally community driven project.

“We hope that as a result of this film festival it will encourage some groups to screen the odd foreign language film at some other time during the year. Films like Tell No One is a contemporary French thriller which has been adapted from an American novel. Not only is it a very gripping film but it is also very accessible to audiences. It is hoped that this festival will remove some of the fear factor that surrounds foreign language films.

“Films like The Motorcycle Diaries and Volver are quite well known and they have been programmed because they will appeal to teenagers and get them to these community screenings. All the groups have really entered this with great enthusiasm - even though it is different from the material that they usually show and I think that they deserve a lot of support.”

Jill Barton, Babergh's Arts and Community Development Officer, said: “This is a fantastic opportunity for film lovers in Babergh to view some very different films which will highlight the diverse cultures across the world and also aid promotion of the numerous digital cinema venues across the district.

“We've worked hard to bring in films that you might not necessarily encounter on a trip to one of the larger cinema chains and are delighted with how well this has been received. We hope the people who come along really enjoy themselves - and the films.”

BLOB: The Babergh International Film Festival opens tonight at Flix In The Styx in Lavenham village hall with the screening of Les Choristes (cert: 12A) the heart-warming true story of a music teacher, Clement Mathieu, who tames a group of wild boys in a reform school.

The next film will be the German Oscar winner The Lives of Others which will be screened at Hartest Cinema on April 11 - dealing with how the East German secret police consumed with paranoia tried to spy on all its citizens. On April 18 at Polstead village hall Penelope Cruz will be starring in the Pedro Almodovar comedy/drama Volver - about a woman who returns from the dead and a mother who has to bury her dead husband's body while running an increasingly popular restaurant.

A full programme brochure can be obtained from the venues.

Tickets cost £3 for adult shows and £1 for children's films. They can be bought from the local venue or through a central box-office at The Quay Theatre on (01787) 374745.

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