Do you remember receiving your all-time favourite compilation tape? It’s the middle of a never-ending suburban summer and you’ve just been presented with a freshly biroed track-list: an enticing roll-call of little-known B-sides and bootlegs; an exotic list of unfamiliar names and titles. Looking down at the carefully considered recommendations, you might not be able to sing along just yet but instinctively you know you’re going to love it. I’m reminded of this feeling when I meet Pip McKnight and Ian Francis, the organisers of Birmingham’s Flatpack film festival. Sitting in a café near New Street station, I’m looking through copies of their exquisitely designed festival programmes, all lovingly put together by their designer, Dave Gaskarth. They read like beautiful fanzines about rare internet shorts and breakthrough animations, about lost figures from cinema past and surreal vaudeville cabaret acts. The choices can be obscure but, like a finely crafted mixtape, there’s an inclusive and infectious enthusiasm: like friends itching to share their latest find with you.
Film graduate Ian and ex-community worker Pip first started out six years ago, putting on local film nights under the name of 7 Inch Cinema. The nights continue across Birmingham, filling pubs with eccentric bedroom animation, music video mash-ups and vintage newsreels. Building on the success of these screenings, they started to make guest appearances at festivals, showcasing their unique cinematic discoveries. Over the past 12 months, gigs have ranged from the esoteric, such as a weekend of knitting-related shorts at Warwickshire gallery Compton Verney, to mass shindigs at music festivals, including Supersonic and Green Man.
Having dipped their toes into the world of festivals (Ian also did a stint at the Birmingham Film Festival), setting up Flatpack seemed the next logical step. The somewhat unusual name came from a desire to show that ‘putting on a film show or making your own short film is not rocket science’ but, as Ian attests, organising a festival can also be bloody hard work: ‘If this festival were available to buy as a build-it-yourself cultural happening, it would come in the kind of kit that has instructions in Swedish and several vital components missing’. Working most of the year as a two-person-band from Birmingham’s cultural hub, The Custard Factory, Pip and Ian dedicate a huge amount of energy into making Flatpack a success. They certainly achieved their aim with the first two editions of the festival: a wonderfully eclectic blend of film shows and live acts, which attracted audience members from as far away as Israel. However, after the second festival in 2007, Pip and Ian grew fed up with ‘hand-to-mouth funding’ and made the ‘big decision’ to take a year out. Ian tells me that they concentrated their energies on finding some stability and creating a ‘three-year plan’ for the festival. Having secured UK Film Council funding during their break, 2009 sees the return of the festival and what Ian describes as a ‘step up in ambition’.
Although pleased to have safeguarded the festival, Pip and Ian are keen to keep it as ‘un-schmoozy’ as possible. They seem refreshingly adamant about not compromising their vision or falling into the trap of becoming too industry-focused. The tenacity of Flatpack is much needed at a time when so much festival and cinema programming is dictated by distributors. Ian and Pip want to move beyond the usual festival-going demographic and love the idea of people stumbling across the screenings by accident. They have planned installations in shops throughout the city – a paper trail of screen-based artworks – that aim to draw in unsuspecting shoppers, workers and tourists.
Given this dissident streak, Pip and Ian are particularly attracted to the eccentric entrepreneurs of early cinema. The patron saint of this year’s festival is Waller Jeffs: Birmingham’s answer to Mitchell & Kenyon. A cinematic impresario, Jeffs staged a series of film seasons (1901 – 1912) at the city’s Curzon Hall, with live sound effects and a menagerie of novelty acts (‘Unthan, the Armless Wonder’ and ‘Cyrus and Maud and their Educated Donkey’). Flatpack will kick off at Birmingham’s town hall with a selection of Jeffs’s films, accompanied by a 15-piece gypsy folk band, The Destroyers. Throughout our conversation, Pip and Ian speak excitedly about the ‘Wild West atmosphere’ of early 1900s cinema: a time when everything was new and anything was possible; a time when the audience had no boundaries and would openly react to screenings, rather than sitting in reverential silence.
This sense of drama and interaction crops up throughout the selection for Flatpack 2009, particularly in the children’s programme. Inspired by the surrealist Exquisite Corpse (‘cadavre exquis’) game, there will be a chance for groups of children to make and pass on short segments of film for others to complete. Pip and Ian themselves are particularly looking forward to Paper Cinema, a live-action treat that sees illustrator Nic Rawling moving paper cut-outs in front of a camera, making fairy tale films before the viewers’ very eyes. After Flatpack, the children’s programme will be touring Midlands schools in an attempt to move beyond the limited pool of children attending art-house cinemas.
Setting is a vital component of the Flatpack experience and Pip and Ian have devoted a lot of energy to finding exciting new venues for this year’s festival. Bringing in local set design students, they are currently decking out a dilapidated warehouse and hoping to commission murals to complement their street art film strand. This includes the award-winning Megunica, which follows Italian artist Blu; In A Dream, a portrait of legendary Philadelphian mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar; and Who is Bozo Texino?, a film about railroad graffiti that was an impressive 16 years in the making.
Pip and Ian evidently have big plans for the festival, hoping not only to raise the cultural profile of Birmingham, which, they say, needs to be better at ‘shouting about its achievements’, but also by creating a gathering point for people to experience film in a new and exciting way. And yet, when I ask them to sum up Flatpack, it’s not easy to get a direct answer. As Ian says: ‘We’ve had a job explaining what this festival is, even to ourselves at times’. It cannot be neatly encapsulated in a ‘marketing speak’ sentence. The programme is radically eclectic and, simultaneously, pleasingly cohesive. Like the perfect mixtape, the choices jump from era to era and genre to genre, yet perfectly segue into one another. You’re not quite sure how or why the selection works, but that is what makes it precisely so magical.