It’s Saturday morning at Flatpack and burbling chatter and a laden brunch table fill the festival headquarters. Lighting is provided by a cycle of overhead projector slides: a celebration of art projects from a coterie of Birmingham galleries, housed in the architectural remnants of the city’s receding industries. During the three years I’ve been attending Flatpack, the festival has brought a welcome escape from the humdrum: its setting among forgotten warehouses providing a unique backdrop; its nostalgia for early cinema bringing to life bygone times; and the personal touch of its programming creating a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. But while Flatpackers tucked into an early morning feast, back in London, a day of protests against government cuts was beginning. A few days later, the UK Arts Council released depressing details of their funding agenda and axed grants. With one of the gallery venues set to close post-Flatpack, it is to be hoped that the spending cuts do not impinge on such a rare bubble of otherworldly charm.
Still, there was a celebratory atmosphere at Flatpack – not only celebrating the Digbeth galleries that provide a home for the festival but plenty of celebrating in them too. Saturday night was Paper Party night with reams of origami, sticky note messages, paper hats and whatever else could be folded, ripped or crafted from brightly coloured sheets. Friday was a turntable-spinning, multi-screen extravaganza to commemorate the infamous cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra (he of Birmingham, Alabama, not Birmingham, West Midlands, fame).
As usual, music appeared high up on the agenda. Before the paper maché-up, a special screening hailed Birmingham as ‘Home of Metal’ – the metal of the factory line and the metal of the heavy musical variety. The television documentary In Bed with Chris Needham was chosen to celebrate die-hard fans of the genre. The result of a BBC experiment handing out video cameras to members of the public in the early 1990s, this insight into the mind of a Loughborough-living, heavy-metal-loving teenager could not have been better scripted if finely honed by Rob Reiner. Filmed by shaky adolescent hands, the documentary follows puny-limbed, hormone-filled Chris Needham as he tries to pull together his band, Manslaughter (later spelt with an ‘o’ to avoid being read as ‘Man’s Laughter’), in time for their first gig. Excruciatingly familiar, In Bed with Chris Needham is like your own teenage experience turned up to eleven. As writer Taylor Parkes puts it: ‘Unlike you or I, this 17-year-old was not a twat. He was a twat savant.’
Chris Needham’s face-to-camera candour suggests a time when people were not as savvy or self-conscious about exposing their lives to the nation. In turn, the BBC’s affectionate editing suggests a time when reality TV did not aim to exploit the public. In this sense, In Bed with Chris Needham appears to be something of a televisual time warp: evidence of a more innocent time. And then, live on stage after the screening, Flatpackers were greeted with real-life, middle-aged Chris Needham, in all his Metal Head glory. Spitting beer across the stage, declaring his undying passion (‘First track, first album by Black Sabbath – all the rest is just interpretation’), he was in equal parts hilarious and unnerving in his canny resemblance to the teenager on screen. It soon became clear that the age of the film makes no difference; in fact, perhaps age makes very little difference in life, full stop. It is Chris Needham himself – brilliant and slightly bonkers – who makes this video diary such a cringe-ridden joy.
Another television documentary, The Forgotten Irish, provided a further highlight of the weekend’s programming. Gently filmed and intensely sad in parts, the film told the plight of Irish male immigrants currently living in the Birmingham area. Leaving behind poverty and, in some cases, institutional abuse, the men had sought new homes in England during the 1950s and 1960s. Finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, they were often isolated, remaining unmarried and relying on alcohol for comfort; a situation worsened after the IRA bombing of Birmingham created further social isolation. The documentary showed current efforts by the Digbeth Irish Centre to protect and help the men, moving them into sheltered accommodation and offering financial assistance. The tattered orange, green and white bunting fluttering in nearby pub windows took on a sombre movement after the screening.
Flatpack’s continued focus on its home city was not only apparent in The Forgotten Irish or its ‘Home of Metal’ screening; it was also evident in its choice of patron saint, the Birmingham-born film writer Iris Barry, who provided the inspiration for several events, from a panel discussion on female film critics to a screening of She Done Him Wrong (1933), her controversial choice for MOMA’s sacrosanct film archive. There was a walking tour of old cinema sites and a wonderful archival screening, A Secret History of Birmingham, which presented festival-goers with a fascinating portrait of the city. The screening included two films, fished out of a skip by an ex-projectionist, providing utopian visions from the post-war period. A strange, jauntily shot promotional film for Cadbury’s, A Day and a Half, extolled the virtues of industrial production and the Bournville workers’ community. Whirring machines and shots of twisting hepcats unleashed from factory duties were used to inspire a young farm hand to leave behind his rural life for new employment. Miracles Take a Little Longer charted the progress of the ‘city of a thousand trades’ in the period following the Second World War. Interviews with Birmingham journalists, the city mayor and a local school teacher provide testimonials about the city and attempts to battle poverty (a combination of paternal social welfare and urban redevelopment), set against a backdrop of captivating archival footage.
Flatpack’s awareness of its surroundings is one of the festival’s greatest attributes. It provides more than just a programme of disparate films; it seeks to explore its city history and present it in many different ways. It celebrates Birmingham’s alumni, it rejoices in its culture, it investigates its problems and it finds new ways of seeing the urban landscape through inventive screening settings and site-specific events. When we attend film festivals, cities often merge into one. Films are repeated across countries, across continents, in characterless cinema venues. Here, the city provides a link, throwing up interesting questions and visual results. Flatpack is not a film festival that wants to exist in a bubble, despite its otherworldly atmosphere.