I’d been looking forward to Flatpack ever since interviewing the organisers, Pip and Ian, way back in December. At that point the schedule was in its embryonic stages – with many films and speakers still to be confirmed – but, even then, it was clear that there was a rare thoughtfulness and passion behind the festival’s programming. And spending five days zig-zagging between Birmingham galleries, art-house cinemas and specially converted warehouses, I wasn’t disappointed.
A perfect combination of careful programming and a jumble-sale of treasure troves, Flatpack is a breath of fresh air among increasingly industry-focused UK festivals. Community is paramount to its identity – whether between visiting filmmakers or local cinema-goers – and there was clearly a great deal of reciprocal love between city and festival.
The opening night paid homage to Birmingham’s answer to Mitchell & Kenyon – the entrepreneurial Waller Jeffs – and Brum made recurring cameos throughout the programme, from a delightful selection of films made by a local boys’ group in the 1950s (my personal favourite was their attempt at sci-fi shot against a chalkboard solar system) to Peter Watkins’s magnificent Privilege (1967). A satirical look at the record industry, the film opens with Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones, an increasingly reluctant pop puppet in the government’s manipulation of youth, on a messianic pilgrimage through the city streets. With a hilariously wooden performance from Jean Shrimpton, psychedelic renditions of ‘Jerusalem’ and some wonderful 60s tailoring, the film is at once a trippy, hallucinogenic dream and an acute critique of the commercialisation of youth and protest.
As always, music films were very strong at Flatpack, from the hip-hop classic Style Wars (1983) to Kieran Evans’s lyrical and beautifully paced documentary Vashti Bunyan: From Here to Before (2008) – a fascinating look at the myths and memories involved in the folk singer’s now legendary 1960s’ horse-and-cart journey to the Outer Hebrides.
One of my personal highlights of the festival was ‘Unpacked’ – a day-long series of panels and discussions exploring the creative methods behind many of the works being screened at the festival. Animator David O’Reilly proved particularly popular as he gave a whistle-stop explanation of the theory behind his animation film, Please Say Something (winner of the Golden Bear for best short film at this year’s Berlinale). Several panel discussions explored the use of pre-cinema technologies – a strong element across many of the films and art installations displayed at the festival. With many of the guests coming from fine arts backgrounds, it was interesting to hear differing approaches to the filmmaking process. These talks are a new feature of Flatpack and make a very welcome addition to the programme – the audiences were really engaged and the warm atmosphere prompted some very fluent and insightful discussions.
Another nice new touch to this year’s programming was the children’s strand, which took in a wide range of material from the Moomins to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic, The Red Balloon. Paper Cinema was a particular gem among the children’s screenings as illustrator Nic Rawling moved paper cut-outs (think Quentin Blake crossed with Saint-Exupéry doodled onto old cereal packets) in front of a live video camera. Watching the film being created before their eyes, the audience was enthralled. It was great for children to be involved in the festival and exposed to imaginative works of art at such a young age. Just like Unpacked, Paper Cinema provided inspiration and an intimate, inclusive atmosphere, sadly lacking at older, more institutionalised affairs.
A young, fresh festival with a fantastic range of films, discussions and installations, long may Flatpack reign!