Forget about Star Wars – London’s film societies need your attention

Blockbusters like Star Wars are dominating Britain's movie scene, but do they overshadow local film

Blockbusters like Star Wars are dominating Britain's movie scene, but do they overshadow local film societies? Picture: David James/Lucasfilm 2015 - Credit: Archant

Louie Freeman-Bassett looks at how groups including West Hampstead Cinema Club and Highgate Film Society are trying to attract the 20something generation.

With the endless stream of marketing hype over recent months, it feels as if Star Wars: The Force Awakens is maybe just an afterthought to the promotional fireworks. You can probably assemble the film already from the amount of trailers that have been released. Not that this kind of thing is necessarily unusual; indeed, an obsession with box office success has long fuelled this deluge of PR activity ahead of a Hollywood super-film.

The film will no doubt be a hoot but it’s definitely a relief to know that in north and central London there exists a gaggle of film societies which are concerned less with Jar-Jar Binks memes and the numbers on the most recent franchise reboot, and more with Boris Karloff’s platforms and tributes to Lindsay Anderson.

“If I’m enjoying a film,” Dave Simpson of the Gothique Film Society tells me from the foyer of the Southend Odeon, “It’s the image on the screen that’s the main thing, that’s the important thing.’ The Gothique, which caters to fans of gothic, horror and fantasy film, is over 50-years-old and one of London’s most established societies. Also boasting a strong heritage is the London Socialist Film Co-Op (LSFC) which was formed some 26 years ago. “They thought it was an excellent idea to come and invite people to watch films and have a discussion afterwards as a kind of education,” says Monique Buchli, LSFC Organiser. “People can get ideas from it,” she continues. “It inspires people.”

This gets to the heart of what is important about film societies and why they exist at all. When The Film Society (one of the first) was established by the cinema intelligentsia in 1925, it was done so primarily in a progressive spirit of enquiry into film as an art form. They screened controversial films unavailable elsewhere, and hosted directors like Pudovkin and Eisenstein. They discussed and debated topics others didn’t touch on and consequently broke new ground and popularised new genres in cinema.

Today’s societies, however, could face a problem which others have not. While membership and admission numbers have stayed steady in recent years and been strong nationally, many societies in London seem unable to attract younger people in their 20s and 30s.

This may not come as a huge surprise considering the impression most have of film societies, but it could become a significant problem in the years to come. So far, most societies have relied on new recruits joining in their 40s and 50s; the generations following behind, however, have grown up on a significantly less-communal diet of film. This is a generation accustomed to watching films at home on a laptop or TV, and therefore one which is probably less drawn by the communal aspects of a film society which may have appealed to generations before. What’s more, this is an age group which probably has become used to accessing most films online already and so has less need of the resources of a society or club.

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Not that all this doom and foreboding is altogether necessary. Societies in north London are aware of the problem and acting on it with as much gusto and energy as their limited voluntary resources will allow. The West Hampstead Cinema Club, for example, recently hosted Will Self and his students from Brunel University for a screening of their short films from his psychogeography course. “There were a lot of very interesting people in their 20s,” says Ian Long who runs the club. “It would be nice to have more events like that, but it requires a certain amount of organisation and it’s difficult to do all of that on your own.” The Highgate Film Society are taking a similar tack in their plans for 2016 to encourage young people from the area to programme their own events.

While all have their plans about how to adapt in the future, Buchli of the LSFC feels that there will always remain a need for societies like theirs, because “people realise that it’s essential that we educate each other and we talk to each other. We don’t allow for our society to become completely individualised.”

Hopefully this combination of enthusiasm and positivity will help keep film societies in the area relevant in decades to come, keeping it clear from the box office hungry Star Destroyers hovering overhead.