For the past three years, Flatpack Festival has acted as my annual spring clean; a blast of inspiration that blows mental cobwebs away. It’s an idiosyncratic festival – part straightforward cinema, part walking tour, part historical society, part workshop, part performance art, part club night, part young, part old, part serious, part play. And, despite my worries about how government cuts might affect the festival, my Saturday spent pounding the streets of Birmingham revealed one of the liveliest editions of the festival yet.
I decided to forgo features and dedicate my day to special one-off events, an area in which Flatpack excels. I started out at the city’s iconic Custard Factory, in the industrial setting of Digbeth, for a special magic lantern show hosted by Mike and Therese Simkin. I’d seen Mike and Therese back in 2010 and was pleased to see their show return to the festival. The slides provided a different perspective on early cinema, tracing the influence of vaudeville, magic and Japanese shadow plays, as well as a snapshot of social history in the form of painted advertisements shown before features at Birmingham’s early picture houses. A demonstration of different types of slide culminated in an ascent of Mont Blanc through the panoramic images of Victorian journalist and unlikely explorer Albert Smith. The slides were acquired after two months of cajoling an antiques dealer in Liverpool, and they were worth the effort. Therese pulled the long, intricately painted panes of glass through the lantern, emulating impossibly long panning shots of glowing snowy landscapes punctuated by a caravan of plucky climbers. The story of Smith, a bon viveur who took no less than 90 bottles of wine on the expedition, was humorously brought to life by Mike’s commentary, as he emulated the showmanship of a 19th-century lanternist.
The link between stage and screen was an important element of the next event on my list, located a hop, skip and jump away from Digbeth at a late Victorian pub, The Bartons Arms. A trip up the wide, ornate staircase took me to an original ‘Palace of Varieties’ (these days slightly more ‘function room’ than ‘palace’), where the assembled guests awaited a talk and screening celebrating Laurel and Hardy in Birmingham. The comic duo visited the city on a number of occasions to perform at the Hippodrome (they even stayed at The Bartons Arms itself) and the third wheel in their cinematic double act – Charlie Hall – was a local boy and Flatpack patron saint. Each year, the festival chooses an unsung, Birmingham-born hero and Hall was 2012’s choice. A rather reluctant son of Brum, he was desperate to leave the Midlands (especially during an enforced return after suspension from the Hal Roach studios in the 1930s) for the glamour of Hollywood. The audience learnt the ups and downs of his career from Charlie Hall expert John Ullah, an informative and lively host. It’s always refreshing when festivals reach beyond the usual filmmaker Q&As and industry panels to find an enthusiast whose depth of knowledge has been acquired through years of passionate obsession. I was reminded of a similar event organised by the London International Animation Festival in 2010 where Felix the Cat fanatic Colin Cowes brought together reels of rare and lost films. The films chosen by Ullah nicely demonstrated the physical theatricality of early cinema from a humongous, unruly custard pie fight to a farcical feud as the beleaguered pair tried to sell a Christmas tree to an extremely resistant potential customer.
My return to the Custard Factory took me to The Icebook, perhaps the most magical events I’ve ever seen at Flatpack. A group of 10 was ushered into a small, blacked-out room, on to chairs and stools huddled around a large handmade book, placed on top of a table. Behind the table, a long box led towards the back wall of the space. The event began as a lone performer slowly opened the book, fixing its open page in position. Projected light from inside the box transformed the page into a screen and revealed an intricate pop-up structure representing a miniature house. The page-turner, seated to our right, flipped switches to illuminate each of the house’s windows as a film played showing a Borrowers-sized figure wandering from room to room, snow swirling outside the building. It was mesmerizing. The next 30 minutes of page-turning revealed more finely crafted screens and clever tricks of lighting, magnets and green screens. The narrative built slowly, images lingering like a half-remembered dream. Influenced by Russian fairy tales, the story traced the hero’s journey to find an Ice Maiden, with the ethereal aesthetics of Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen and an ending reminiscent of childhood tearjerker The Snowman. As well as an enchanting fairy tale, The Icebook provided an interesting exploration of contrasts between the immediacy of cinema versus the more contemplative practice of reading; and the inclusive atmosphere of live performance versus the removed distance of pre-recorded film.
Floating out of The Icebook, I made my way to my final event of the day: a screening of recent animation shorts presenting alternate ‘Through the Looking Glass’ worlds. It was the most straightforward event in my chosen line-up but it still managed to represent the weird and wonderful wonderfully well. There were some very nice choices – like Juan Pablo Zaramella’s Luminaris, Julia Pott’s Belly and Masaki Okuda’s Uncapturable Ideas – and, although I had seen several of the shorts at other festivals, it was an enjoyable few hours. The cinema was lively, jolly and fit to burst. En route to the screening, I realised I had a little time to kill and, taking the long walk into town, found myself alongside the murky waters of Birmingham canal. I decided to join an ensemble of festival-goers crowded around a brightly coloured narrow boat, and after stepping aboard we took our seats on chairs lined up on each side of the boat, with a trio of musicians – E. L. Heath and friends – taking up their positions behind us. As the lilting of guitars and voices began, a series of archival films started to play on the screen ahead, each chosen and edited by members of the Ikon Gallery’s Youth Programme. They were wonderful evocations of time and place – personal, everyday moments captured in the collective history of the canal – from a bride arriving at her wedding by barge to little girls making their way along the towpath with hair ribbons bobbing on long plaits. The industry of the area was captured with historical footage of workers loading and transporting goods along the water. A particularly striking moment showed men’s feet on a tunnel roof as they lay on their backs, pushing the boat along with the force of their soles.
The Slow Boat screening was a lovely example of the inventive, thoughtful events put on by Flatpack. Each year when I write about the festival, I talk in terms of the personal, perhaps because it’s a festival that focuses so much on place and viewer. There is a great deal of interactivity and, while it’s possible to attend conventional screenings of features and documentaries, the settings themselves feel infused with history, providing a more individual experience. As my train meandered home, my mind was full of strange and magical images and felt beautifully refreshed.