Village Green Preservation Society: The Last Refuge Of London’s Indie Cinemas

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‘Semantic Satiation’ is the phenomenon of a word temporarily losing meaning when repeated by the listener. Like when you’re drunk and you find the word ‘spoon’ hilarious and no one else does. It’s apparently caused by a pathway in the brain becoming numb after being used with too great an intensity.

The word ‘community’ has fallen victim to this. It has come to mean almost nothing, just a trite phrase that’s been worn out by vacuous ‘big society’ rhetoric. It has so often been spewed as a thin veil for cuts that it has lost its weight as a word representing the trust between individuals borne out of their frequent proximity to one another. The ‘online community’ or ‘Twitter community’ isn’t exactly much better. It’s not that groups of people here with common interests don’t exist, it’s just that that is all there is – the reciprocal trust you get with a physical community relationship is absent; they are ‘community by association’ only.

Ken Loach Q&A at phoenix cinema

Ken Loach Q&A at the Phoenix, Feb 2015.

Early last year, during his promotional tour for Jimmy’s Hall, Ken Loach gave the word ‘community’ bristling clarity in the context of British cinema. Things of value to a society can be taken away from them, he said, because of apathy and reluctance to organise. If people don’t organise, pooling their collective strengths and actively taking part in society, then the sheen that makes it ‘your society’ will be lost.

This call to action related to politics more directly, but it is highly relevant to London’s independent cinemas, which are under increasing threat from rocketing property prices, falling ticket sales and the march of the high-end cinema chain. Some still thrive, but those in areas that are less central or soon to be occupied to another chain cinema will likely be under enormous pressure in the coming years.

But they have a secret and potentially deadly weapon; the not-so-deadly idea of ‘local community’. It is, after all, exclusive to them; the ability to engage properly with the local area and form a real, active common interest around your cinema. This is something that chains and corporations struggle to do because their management is, by its nature, distant and not nearly as accessible to the customer.

Each independent venue has its own way of engaging the local community, but there is no doubt that charitable status is a good route to ensuring that the vested interests of the cinema’s success are that it succeeds, and nothing else. Aside from the financial advantages, charitable status in some ways obligates the cinema to ingrain itself in the local community by having it run by unpaid trustees who are not financially but morally invested in its success.

The Phoenix Cinema today

The Phoenix Cinema today

But for the presence of a willing community and the salvation of the Greater London Council, the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley would have become office blocks in 1983. Instead, by 1985, the Phoenix Cinema Trust was formed, which took control of the cinema and does so to this day. The Cinema is now run by and for the community of East Finchley via its board of trustees, along with its various subcommittees discussing the direction of education, marketing and other general issues. They’re obviously pretty hands off and just a safe guiding force for the institution as a whole, but it’s damn reassuring to know that the cinema you love is in the hands of the people who love it too. (Full disclosure; I’ve worked with the Phoenix Cinema on its events in the past.)

The hugely popular Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise (along with its travelling pop-up cinema, The Nomad) presents an alternative of way of staying in touch with the people that matter. Founded in 2008 from the rubble of an Edwardian theatre destroyed by a freak tornado, the Lexi and Nomad are profit-seeking enterprises rather than registered charities, however, they maintain a strong bond with the community through a charity remit which sees all of their profits donated to good causes. It also helps that it’s a fantastic cinema, of course.

The schools near The Lexi have twinned with schools in Lynedoch Village in South Africa, and the cinema donates all its profits to the village, helping to support the creche, provide school meals and fund after school activities. “Twinning with South Africa’s first eco village seems a great link,” says founder Sally Wilton “We are the only Pop Up where people can do something good by just pitching up and watching a film…our profits change lives and give kids in South Africa a chance at a better life and reason to hope.”

The front of house staff the Lexi and Nomad are predominantly volunteers, which further anchors the place in its local surroundings. Over the counter conversations and plenty of different locals coming in to do short shifts at the cinema foster a genuine communal feeling. Some might question how a for profit business can have its foundations on unpaid work, but the number of volunteers, who are still coming thick and fast, to help run the ventures suggest this isn’t a concern. It would seem that people just want to be involved in some way, regardless of pay.

The Lexi succeeds because it’s transparent in its objectives. It clearly has a moral compass and wants to get people involved in what it does. It’s committed to being an open book, willing people to look inside.

Herne hill station outdoor cinema for free film festival

Herne Hill Free Film Festival, 2015

This true community ethos is not restricted to bricks-and-mortor cinemas in the reaches of west and north London. The Free Film Festivals group has promoted small, community focused cinema events around London, quite possibly representing the community ethos better than any other organisation. The festivals, which will take place this year in Herne Hill, Camberwell and Peckham amongst other areas, are completely free and completely volunteer organised. They are quite simply about local people coming together and screening a series of films. Not terribly complicated, just people in it for the right reasons who are willing to put in some leg work.

Speaking to Neil Johns (FFF Founder) earlier this year, he said: “It’s amazing who comes forward to help. We have venues saying we can use them for free, caterers offering help with food and drink, shops opening late so they can be cinemas.”

Ensuring that your cinema, pop-up or festival is structurally bound to the families, youth and locally established institutions of an area has proven to be a pretty effective method to ensure the survival of small, independent ventures. They rely on being a part of people’s lives within the area in order to survive. It’s simple and it’s genuine, and it might be a way out for some of London’s other independent cinemas in the future.

The next Free Film Festival takes place in Peckham and Nunhead in September.

The Nomad Cinema is travelling around the UK until the end of September.

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Part-time film writer and maker. Enjoys Mark Cousins’ voice, Mark Kermode’s hands and Lindsay Anderson’s If.

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