As the story goes, in 1896 the Lumière brothers first screened “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station”) and the cinema audience were so overwhelmed by the realism that they ran to the back of the auditorium in fear that the train would hit them.
As I sat in a darkened room, the back of the Lord Napier pub, a jazz venue in Thornton Heath, it dawned on me that nowadays it takes a very special combination of filmic elements to produce such a grand effect.
It was a Wednesday evening and people gathered in this room, closed off to the rest of the pub. Once the doors closed, the lowered sounds of people merrily drinking and the window-less room, transported me to an underground secret society for film – that’s how I liked to think of it.
The South Norwood and Thornton Heath Free Film Festival (SNATH), now in its second year, formed as one of the several community Free Film Festivals around London since 2010 to promote free film in neighbourhood venues.
Volunteer and Treasurer, Jessica Roberts tells me that she moved to the area last summer and was on the lookout for cultural events, which seemed to be thin on the ground: “I moved to the area from Balham where I had lived for ten years,” she says, “it felt like it was lacking cultural activity and I thought that I can’t blame anyone but myself if I don’t try and encourage that.”
The short film night was only one of many events in the festival’s programme, which took my fancy as it was to screen the work of local film-makers, as well as international award winners.
One audience member Jennifer Treen, 25 from South Norwood, says: “I found out about it through the South Norwood Group on Twitter and every local business here has posters up in their windows; everything’s purple.”
“I moved here because it’s close to work, not because I necessarily wanted to come to the area, but it’s really lovely and inviting. Everyone’s meeting each other and realising “oh my God, you’re my neighbour!”” she laughs.
Not aware of the growing cultural activity in South Norwood, I was pleasantly surprised at the community vibe, which is both welcoming and exciting and something I have yet to experience, as Coordinator and Film Producer, Tiernan Hanby told me: “There is a very strong community sense here, more than anywhere else I’ve ever lived in London.”
It was not just the communal feel that was surprising. Among the imaginative shorts that were screened, several stood out. “The Seventh Zombie” filmed by Molly Brown, an experienced short film director, opened the night, a witty parody of the 1957 Swedish drama-fantasy “The Seventh Seal” by Ingmar Bergman.
“The dialogue consists of vaguely Swedish-sounding gibberish sprinkled with product names chosen at random from the IKEA catalogue,” Molly laughs. The production was shot entirely in Molly’s living room in front of a green screen and therefore the film is a true representation of the creativity and ingenuity that SNATH entices.
The laughs continued to flow throughout the evening, with other highlights including “Summit” by director Sami Abusamra and “Cremories” by Andrew Bone.
Heavier issues were also explored during the night’s versatile film programme. Directed by Oscar Sharp, “The Karman Line” is a phenomenal account of loss. When a mother is struck by a bizarre illness that causes her to levitate upwards, her daughter and husband have to come to terms with her loss. The film’s subject matter is eloquently played out, with an astounding performance by Olivia Colman. As one member of the audience put it: “It was truly one of the the most moving films I have ever seen.”
The festival is entirely not for profit and run by volunteers, as the website explains: “It’s about increasing the ‘feel good’ factor of people in the community by providing free and enjoyable events in popular public spaces, including outdoor screenings.”
It also offers a platform for filmmakers completely starting out, as with spoken word artist Christopher Lemba, also known as Lanathiaan. His first film, “Believe” depicts such issues as gun-crime, body image and domestic violence: “The film highlights the issues affecting today’s society,” says Lemba.
This festival and particularly the film night suggest that there is a growing desire for the local people to join together, as Hanby puts it: “There’s an awful lot of people trying to change the area and there seems to be a big push at the moment in trying to make South Norwood a destination to visit.”
Although people were not running to the back of the Lord Napier pub overcome with emotion, the festival achieves that which is often missing in our London lives, that of feeling a little community spirit, connecting us to the hidden yet humble creativity around us.
By Emma Townsend