Birmingham film scene moving in the right direction

Posted on 10 December 2012

Stories from Birmingham are beginning to hit the big screen. Roger Shannon looks at the city’s rising independent film industry.

Birmingham film goers can’t have failed to notice a recent phenomenon – B-Movies, an upsurge of documentaries and feature films, all screened in city cinemas, that have also stamped their mark on the national and international film landscape.

To rework an old movie term, B – Movies are independent films produced, directed and written by the city’s film makers, with B for Birmingham themes primarily at their core.

The 18 months has witnessed the following films on the city and nation’s screens – Turbulence; N F A; Tortoise in Love; Titanic Love; The Casebook of Eddie Brewer; Last Shop Standing; The Last Projectionist; and Made in Birmingham/Reggae Punk Bhangra.

These feature films display an audacity of award winning range, confident versatility in genres and cinematic influences galore.

For example, Michael Baig Clifford’s Turbulence riffs on the city’s independent music scene and B-Town status to give us a drama, in shades of The Commitments, about a failing music venue staffed by fools and looking set to close, while Steve Rainbow’s N F A, a success at the 2012 prestigious Edinburgh International Film Festival, takes a challenging look, in the vein of a Ken Loach, at homelessness via an original story of a successful man waking up in a homeless hostel.

Comedies Tortoise in Love and Titanic Love offer original twists on the romcom genre with dry wit and dramatic ingenuity.

Tortoise in Love had Birmingham producer Steffan Aquarone enjoy the services of an entire Oxfordshire village, whose residents, lovingly, helped create, fund and subsequently star in this nationally released film.

Titanic Love was filmed on the waterways of Birmingham 10 years after the idea had first formed, its director Mark Pressdee taking his ad-libbing cues from comic milestones such as John Landis’s 1980 epic, The Blues Brothers.

The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is a 2012 paranormal mystery thriller film, shot in Erdington and directed by Andrew Spencer, whose eponymous paranormal investigator is followed by a television documentary crew from the Culture Channel.

The B-Movie documentaries are bringing stories from the city onto the screen, and celebrating the vibrant popular culture found in Birmingham. Pip Piper’s Last Shop Standing, featuring musicians Johnny Marr and Richard Hawley and named as one of the top 10 DVDs of 2012 by Q magazine, is currently cutting a rug at numerous cinemas across the country.

The film charts the struggle of independent record shops and their unsung owners and was crowd funded via Indiegogo.

Electric Cinema owner Tom Lawes continues his innovative film career with the timely documentary about the decline of celluloid in cinemas, The Last Projectionist, which was described by BBC film critic Mark Kermode as “a beautiful, timely, and ever-so-slightly heartbreaking documentary about the changing face of cinema in the UK”.

Deborah Aston’s Made in Birmingham/Reggae Punk Bhangra started out as a small project, in which musicians discuss their distinctive musical styles, and subsequently has punched above its weight, harvesting two RTS nominations for Best Documentary and Best New Talent.

Mythologising the city’s popular culture in this way is a recently rectified oversight, and significantly these stories are having a ringing endorsement from appreciative audiences at home in the UK and abroad at international Film Festivals. Made in Birmingham/Reggae Punk Bhangra has screened at Greece’s Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival and NxNE in Toronto; Tortoise in Love has picked up international sales to Australia, New Zealand and USA.

Turbulence was internationally premiered at the Edmonton Film Festival in Canada; and The Casebook of Eddie Brewer has notched up a dozen invitations to film markets and festivals.

Mark Pressdee’s film Titanic Love won Best Screenplay Award at this year’s LA Comedy Festival in Hollywood. Pip Piper’s company, Blue Hippo, had previously released their first feature film in 2011, The Insatiable Moon, which was shot in New Zealand and has won several international Film Festival awards.

The emergence of B – Movies is a case of Birmingham playing catch up, compared to the film producing fortunes of other cities, as the city’s record of the indigenously developed film has rather a thin history.

This lineage of independent film takes in, over the past three decades, films such as BFVW’s Out Of Order (1985), directed by Jonnie Turpie, a comedy drama about an out of work young man who shocks his family and friends by joining the police force; I Bought a Vampire Motor Cycle, the 1990 film directed by Dirk Campbell, a low-budget horror spoof about a motorcycle possessed by an evil spirit; and Justin Edgar’s Large, from 2002, an ambitious gross-out comedy set in the city.

The decline of mainstream television production in the city has also had an influence on the emergence of these films. Into that gap stepped a number of leaner and more Birmingham-centric film makers.

As mainstream television production retreats in the city, the agile, independent and more versatile producer emerges into the film making fray, aided by the support and back up of the resourceful Film Birmingham office.

What connects up B – Movie films, and their film makers?

Natasha Carlish, the producer of Turbulence, says: “There is an atmosphere of camaraderie and creativity amongst local filmmakers and something of the “regional spirit” of endurance, perseverance an entrepreneurial endeavour that has lead local filmmakers to find new ways of making micro/ low budget films.”

The majority of producers echoed this viewpoint. Steffan Aquarone, the producer of Tortoise in Love, adds: “The big benefit to me as a producer is the support from industry colleagues – professional networks like the Producers Forum, events like The Departure Lounge – anything that allows a producer to build and develop their skills and experience without having to travel to London for every cup of coffee is a real win for the region.”

Many filmmakers singled out the Producers’ Forum as an invaluable source of support and expertise.

Deborah Aston adds: “The Producers Forum is an organization for filmmakers run by filmmakers; it has been a real strength in bonding us as a film community, striving to provide any gaps in our knowledge and providing networking opportunities.”

Natasha Carlish says: “The Producers’ Forum has been hugely important for local filmmakers. It has given us a voice, created a community, brought film expertise from London and inspired, informed and educated a whole generation of filmmaking talent.”

B – Movies is as strong an emerging group of documentary and feature films as you can find anywhere in the country – independent in spirit, experimental in storytelling, filmically fluent, financially versatile, and regionally centric. A film festival all on their own.

Roger Shannon is a Professor and Producer at Edge Hill University

Paul Weller appearing in documentary 'Last Shop Standing'