Popcorn politics

A group of hobbyist filmmakers from Bradford experienced the uncomfortable reality of being on the other side of the lens for a new documentary

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Tucked away down a cobbled back street in Bradford, ten minutes’ walk from the city centre, is one of the UK’s oldest amateur film-making clubs. It’s not an easy place to find, but the keen eyed will spot a small sign on the corner of a former hayloft that has been home to the Bradford Movie Makers for much of the group’s 90-year history.

Established in 1932 as the Bradford Cine Club, it’s now the focal point of a new documentary, A Bunch of Amateurs, which follows the lives of several members as they grapple with the club’s future, their creative ambitions and their own personal problems. It’s a moving and very funny film that got a standing ovation at the Sheffield Doc Fest when it premiered earlier this year.

The film is directed and co-produced by Kim Hopkins, a 63-year-old film maker who lives in York. Hopkins was looking to do a film about some kind of a club in the UK, and it was, she says, “pure chance” that “the algorithms of Facebook put me in touch with one of the movie makers”.

She quickly realised there was a story to be told.

“As a film maker you’re always looking for two things,” she says. “First of all, characters who the audience are going to fall in love with. Second, what’s at stake here. These amateur film-making clubs are disappearing hand over fist. When I met them, Bradford Movie Makers hardly had any money in their account and had given themselves two years before it looked like they were going to fold.”

People in the club, she realised, had strong emotional connections to it and it played a vital role in their social lives.

“If it mattered so much to them, I felt it would matter to the audience whether it would survive or not.”

Having met the movie makers at one of their regular Monday night meetings, Hopkins attended an AGM where there was a discussion about taking part in the film.

From the start, club regular Phil Wainman was in favour, saying: “We don’t have a reputation to ruin, so why not let a film maker in?”

“Just the publicity alone would let people know that we exist,” says Wainman. “People know we’re human. We might say something stupid, or do something that goes wrong or lose our temper… but I think the positives outweighed any potential negatives.

“I was aware that some in the club wouldn’t want to be involved and would have reservations about it. On the whole though, most members were receptive to it. We’re all film makers and so the idea of another film maker filming us wasn’t horrific.”

Getting some members of the group on board wasn’t as easy though.

“I made a film before this one called Voices of the Sea, filmed in Cuba at the end of the Castro regime,” says Hopkins. “I found getting access to communist Cuba slightly easier than accessing the Bradford Movie Makers of West Yorkshire,” she only-half jokes. “It took time to embed myself into the group and time is the only thing that will do it – spending time with them, going to the pub, going to meetings, just being there.”

She was aware of the sensitive nature of her subject. This wasn’t just going to be a film about film makers, but about the lives of mainly working-class people who had their own struggles. This included 86-year-old Harry Nicholls who, at the start of filming, was caring for his ailing wife Mary, who has since died.

“He was naturally very protective of her, and it took a lot of care and time to get Harry to agree for me to film him at home,” says Hopkins.

It was also a long process. “I did warn them at the beginning, saying this will take years and it did,” says Hopkins. “We started filming in March 2018 and finished in August 2020.”

Some of those who had been initially up for taking part in the film did begin to lose patience as the filming went on, worried that they weren’t seeing any footage that was being shot.

“But the reality is amateur film makers often show each other films that are half-finished rough cuts and even do trailers for films we haven’t completed,” says Wainman.  “We are very free and loose with the way we work. But professionals like Kim don’t show people rough cuts because if those people don’t like themselves, they’ll change their behaviour.”

And it’s the raw honesty and unfiltered nature of the film that makes it such compulsive viewing.

“We are a bunch of characters and there are some eccentrics in the group,” says Wainman. “I’m not sure if that includes me or not but we’re a family. And we’re a family trying to achieve things sometimes against the odds. The people you see on screen are who we are – a group of people struggling with life, struggling with their art, struggling financially and with the building. And the audience get to know a little bit about us and see our arguments and see the support that we give to one another and the things that we go through. It’s the very honest, human side to the film that makes it a success.”

It’s also a very funny film. One of the comedy highlights includes an attempt to recreate the opening of Oklahoma! – the scene in which Gordon MacRae rides a white stallion across a sunlit meadow while singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. Here, it’s Nicholls who takes the role of MacRae, despite the fact he can’t ride a horse. Hopkins is careful never to poke fun at the film makers, but picks up on the fact that they are quite ready to laugh at themselves.

“Humour was always something I wanted to imbue the film with,” she says. “In the documentary world there’s a lot of heavy material.

“I seriously think Northerners have some of the finest humour. We have a gallows humour. We make a joke to ward off the devil. That’s what we do and we do it really well. The movie makers are very self-aware. It’s all done very tongue in cheek.”

One not so funny thing that occurred during the filming, however, was the pandemic. When that happened Hopkins’ first reaction was “Oh my gosh! How am I going to carry on making this film?” Some of the participants were very vulnerable or had vulnerable relatives and she felt a responsibility towards their health, but the fact that they were all film makers themselves helped and the participants were able to keep video diaries during the first lockdown, which makes for a particularly personal and insightful part of the documentary.

The pandemic also brought an unexpected twist to the tale, which ensured the survival the club, at least in the medium term, via a small business grant it received. This allowed the Bradford Movie Makers to, among other things, make essential repairs to the building, renew the 60-seat cinema and pay the five years’ worth of outstanding rent it owed. “It was a happy surprise that no one expected,” says Hopkins. “Often truth is stranger than fiction.”

A Bunch of Amateurs has met with critical acclaim, and there’s been international interest in the club. Indeed, there was so much interest that its website recently crashed because of all the extra traffic to it. Those who took part are happy with the finished movie.

“The first time I saw the film was at Sheffield Doc fest,” says Marie McCahery. “I went into trauma every time there was a close-up of my face.”

Having been one of those who became impatient as the filming went on, she’d feared that Hopkins would “make me out to be the Wicked Witch of the West because of the arguments we had had”. But in fact McCahery comes across as a level-headed member of the group, determined to find ways to help it survive.

Despite the grant, McCahery is still worried about the financial future of the group. She’s aware it needs sustainable funding and is keen to find further grants. Along with other members of the group, she’s eager to capitalise on the success of the documentary and hopes to draw some new members in.

“The group is a good motivation for people,” says McCarey. “It helps people get their projects finished.”

All are welcome regardless of their level of skill. Some members aren’t even film makers but actors, writers or just lovers of film – which is what ultimately drove Hopkins to make A Bunch of Amateurs.

“I believe cinema is a collective experience like sitting in front of a campfire telling stories to each other,” she says, noting how the physical gathering together of people away from the online world is important. She recalls an encounter at the club when one young man showed a film to the group and received rapturous applause.

“Afterwards he said: ‘I’ve only ever had a thumbs-up on YouTube and this is so different.’”

Nicholls is a prolific filmmaker himself and, in archive footage shown in A Bunch of Amateurs, we see him dressed up as Captain Marvel for a short he made when he was in his twenties.

“I had Mary’s pink tights on and I put my bathing trunks on,” he laughs. “I thought I’d film in the early morning so no one could see me, but when I went to do it I looked and saw all the neighbours had come out to watch.”

At the end of A Bunch of Amateurs, we see him return to the world of superheroes, dressed as Superman and flying across the Bradford city skyline. It’s a scene that Hopkins encouraged him to do.

“Bradford Movie Makers really taught me about escapism,” she says. “As a documentary film maker I don’t look for escapism, I look at reality head on. But they taught me that escapism is really important. If Harry can be Superman for a few days in his life, that’s fantastic.”

A Bunch of Amateurs is on BBC player now. For more information about the group visit bradfordmoviemakers.co.uk

Meet the Movie Makers

Phil Wainman, 49

Wainman started off as an artist but then began acting in student films. “I didn’t realise it was possible for normal everyday people to make films,” he says. Inspired, he bought his first camera over 22 years ago and has been making movies ever since.

Fellow student film actor Joe Ogden introduced Wainman to the Bradford Movie Makers. “I loved the group from the first time I went,” he says. “I realised it was just what I needed: people around me who have the same drive and ambition as me.”

As well as harbouring hopes to one day make films professionally, Wainman is keen to pass on the skills and knowledge gained from over two decades of filmmaking to other people who join the group, especially those who would like to try film making for the first time.

And the group is an important part of Wainman’s life. He currently lives with his 82-year-old mother and is a carer for his younger brother, who has cerebral palsy. “I can’t be away from home for long,” he says. “So the group is my reason for leaving the house.”

Marie McCahery, 65

McCahery got into the vintage scene, going to 1940s and 1950s -themed festivals and parties, after all her children grew up and she was divorced. She started filming the events she attended, keen to promote them, but wasn’t doing anything with the footage. She also joined Bradford Movie Makers via Joe Ogden, a fellow presenter at the local community radio station that McCahery broadcasts on.

Ogden encouraged McCahery to join the group around the time that Hopkins approached it about the documentary. She found the group welcoming and was interested in the idea of being involved in the movie and watching a professional film maker at work.

She was used to having a camera pointed at her because of her attendance at the vintage events, but admits with a laugh that she “started getting quite uncooperative and argumentative,” as the filming went on.

But McCahery is happy with the finished film. “I was shocked at the standing ovation that we got at the Sheffield Doc Fest,” she says. “You just get a range of emotions going through the film and everyone identifies with different characters.”

Harry Nicholls, 86

Pianist, painter, magician, film maker and actor Harry Nicholls worked as an estate agent for 37 years and did professional magic shows on the side for weddings and corporate events. Having seen magicians perform on film, he was inspired to buy his first camera and start film making himself. Now “the tail wags the dog”, says Nicholls. “I like film making almost as much as I like my magic.”

Nicholls was a member of Leeds Movie Makers club, but “that folded because we didn’t have enough members and couldn’t carry on”, so then he joined Bradford club around 15 years ago.

For him the club is an outlet and an alternative family. Nicholls lost his wife Mary during the filming of the documentary and also suffered a series of other recent bereavements, including his younger brother and his 52-year-old daughter.

“I’m in my own company all through the day,” he says and is glad of the weekly routine of attending the club.

Watching A Bunch of Amateurs for the first time and “to see my Mary looking so ill” was upsetting for Nicholls. “But there again, having lost her, I like to be able to see her on the film.” He says it reminds him of the time he had with her.

Nicholls is currently inspired by the artwork of Chesley Bonestell, an artist who specialised in paintings of space and science fiction and whose work features in backdrops from films such as the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. He was given the book The Conquest of Space, which features Bonestell’s art, as a child. Now he hopes to paint his own backdrops for his own science fiction film.

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