‘Something draws them here’: the enduring appeal of local film clubs in the age of Netflix

For some, it's God, for others world cinema – the members of two local film clubs explain why they choose to watch films together rather than from the comfort of their own homes

A night at Babel Film Club. Pic: Ufuk Uyanik

FIlms were originally made for the big screen, to be shared on first dates or with friends, as a special outing. They were created to be watched hiding under a blanket with someone in the scary parts and crying holding hands at the sad ones. Films were made to be watched with others.

No one knows this better than the members of film clubs, but they are increasingly in a minority. In the digital age, streaming films alone at home has largely eclipsed trips to the cinema. Britain’s cost of living crisis has worsened this, with even the most devoted cinephiles less willing to spend their hard-earned cash on overpriced snacks and Imax screen tickets.

The film club at Good Shepherd Mission in Bethnal Green takes place at 2.30pm every Tuesday. Founder member, Kaspars Parups, began the club during the Covid-19 pandemic, supported by the church. “People were very lonely, they were isolated. So, we started the cinema club as community projects were still allowed in small groups.”

Kaspars says that the club attracts a variety of people who wouldn’t usually socialise with one another. “People come every week, young and old. Some people don’t have a telly at home and older people are very lonely. There’s a retirement house opposite so they come out to meet people. Sometimes we do cooking classes afterwards, and cook and eat something together. So, people are socialising together, sharing and making friends. We have about eight people every week.”

Religion is an integral part of the club at Good Shepherd Mission, though they don’t confine themselves to films centred on this. “It’s a church-based project so we try not to watch too many movies with killing, violence or nudity. We choose very carefully what we watch, and we pray before we start. We watch a meaningful movie and after we discuss what we just saw and how it can relate to our lives and then we pray again.”

Though, Kaspars stresses that not all of the attendees are churchgoers: “Many of the people who attend aren’t Christian. Some are Muslim. We have refugees and asylum seekers. But, something draws them here.”

Club members enjoy film snacks at Good Shepherd Mission. Pic: Kaspars Parups

Club member Carol feels the importance, too. “It was so needed for a social aspect and even to lift your spirits. You might want a comedy, or a thriller, but it’s nicer to be with people and enjoy it rather than be stuck at home. A couple of hours out of your house can make a difference. It’s been a godsend.”

Carol also runs a Zumba class at the church and attends three times a week. “This building is blessed. There’s so much toxicity out there but in this space, you know there won’t be any negativity,” she says. “When you watch a film at home, you never discuss it and think, ‘what’s the moral of that story?’. But this has taught me to [do that] at home and it’s given me a better understanding. Then you can recommend [the film] to other people and say you watched it at film club.”

She believes there should definitely be more film clubs in East London. “A lot of things have closed down during Covid and not opened up and it makes me sad. The fact that this has still kept going means hopefully if people have issues going other places, they can hear about this and come. I’m so grateful.”

It’s a similar story at Babel film club in Stoke Newington. Described as ‘the hidden gem of Stokey’, the club is run from the basement of Babel Art House, a multicultural restaurant-bar. The club screens world cinema and never plays Western blockbusters. It is the mission of founder Ufuk Uyanik to showcase international films that film fans would not usually be able to access. “People are finding out about cinema culture that isn’t just on Netflix or Prime,” he says. “They are finding out about hidden movies that nobody knows.”

For Ufuk, the importance of the film club is evident in the people who attend. “For the community it’s a great thing. There was a woman who was coming from Leigh-on-Sea every Sunday by car. She met so many people. Then, during the pandemic, the people she met visited her in Leigh-on-Sea.”

“There were three ladies who were coming regularly, wining and dining upstairs then watching the film. Then, I noticed only two of them coming. So, I asked about the third person, about what happened to her and sadly, she had passed away. They said she spent her last happiest days in the film club. So, that’s why I believe I’m doing something right for the community.”

To Ufuk, the film club is about education and making friends and he always goes the extra mile: “I do special dates. Last night was Mother’s Day special so I gave chocolates to mothers… last year, I did an International Women’s Day special.” 

Both club founders are adamant that East London’s community should have more film clubs like theirs, with Ufuk recently having set up a new club in Newington Green. As it is, the effect the clubs have on member’s lives is clear to see. “People always tell me the importance” says Ufuk, “and I can see it in their faces anyway.”

Read the rest of our series, Lights, Camera, Action! here

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