Herne Hill flicks fest is here to stay

This year’s Herne Hill Free Film Festival saw film-goers camped out under blankets at some of the area’s most iconic locations. Our arts writer Kate Corry spoke to the organisers to find out how they put on the festival.

Photo by Pierre Chukwudi Alozi
Photo by Pierre Chukwudi Alozi

Unfazed by the chilly weather, hundreds of locals turned out for free outdoor film screenings last month. Now in its third year, the Herne Hill Festival offers the opportunity to watch classics such as The Grand Budapest Hotel and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with such backdrops as Herne Hill Station Square, Brockwell Lido, the Velodrome and Brockwell Park.

The Free Film Festival movement isn’t limited to Herne Hill. The initiative was started by Neil Johns, and there are festivals in areas including Peckham, Nunhead, Camberwell. South Norwood, and Thornton Heath.

Herne Hill organiser Charlotte Ashworth met Neil at a BFI event about pop up cinema, and decided to hold her own screening in September 2012.

A sunset screening at Brockwell Lido. Photo by HH Free Film Fest volunteers
A sunset screening at Brockwell Lido. Photo by HH Free Film Fest volunteers

“I’m not a film buff,” Charlotte explains. “I just do it for the community feel. Just watching something amazing in a location where people don’t normally go to watch films.”

The first screening Charlotte organised, separate from the Free Film Festival, attracted 700 people. She then pitched to Film London, securing a £3,000 grant to host a Festival in the area.

“That was the quickest 15 minutes of my life. We got the £3,000 and then thought, wow – we have to deliver it now!”

Planning the month-long festival takes five months. The venues are indoor as well as outdoor, and as you’d expect, running an outdoor screening involves significantly more logistics.

Festival volunteer Tim McInnes explains: “With indoor ones, you can just book the room and turn up with a DVD.  With, for example, Station Square, you have to shut off the road.

Setting up at Herne Hill Velodrome. Photo by HH Film Festival volunteers
Setting up at Herne Hill Velodrome. Photo by HH Film Festival volunteers

“Outdoor screenings require a lot more volunteers to be hands on deck. There are more issues around child protection and potential injuries or emergencies.”

The biggest challenges facing the Festival are weather and funding.

Tim says: “At Brockwell Park we use a jumbo inflatable screen, so you need a generator and a pump, and you need to tie the screen down. When the skeleton hasn’t got the screen in it, the wind will go straight through but with the screen attached it’s like a sail.

“We’ve been lucky with weather so far. We’ve had drizzle this year but people have a very British spirit; they’ll come anyway and sit with an umbrella.

“If it gets too rainy we would have to stop because the electrical equipment wold short, but that’s the projectionist’s decision.”

Photo by HH Film Festival volunteers
Photo by HH Film Festival volunteers

Volunteer Helena Mackenzie adds: “People come along with their duvets and sleeping bags, and really get into the spirit of it. People snuggle down together and get on with it.”

Funding is a constant challenge for a free community event. Tim explains: “If we had a year where two of the outdoor screenings got rained off and we didn’t get decent sponsorship, we’d be in trouble.

“People are generous, but if the money goes then we can’t go on.”

Herne Hill Free Festival is sponsored by local groups including the Lido Cafe, Pedder Estate Agents and the Herne Hill Forum.

With the Herne Hill Festival firmly established, Charlotte would love to see the festival launch both in Brixton and abroad.

Lido cafe screening. Photo by HH Film Festival volunteers
Lido cafe screening. Photo by HH Film Festival volunteers

“There would be so much support if a group in Brixton wanted to organise one,” she says. “We all meet regularly and everyone is so supportive. It started in Peckham and Nunhead, so they’ve got all of the equipment, and we just hire it off them. That means the different local areas can’t have festivals on at the same time.

“You need a core group of ten volunteers willing to commit for six months for a month-long Festival.”

The beauty of the Free Film Festival movement is the initiative’s quirkiness.

Tim says: “We’re not a commercial organisation. There are slight imperfections around the edges occasionally, but that makes it fun.”

Helena adds: “Anything that is a little bit irritating is completely overridden by the fact that it’s such a community spirit. Small children, adults, families, elderly people, everyone gets involved and it’s lovely to see that.”

The Herne Hill Festival also features a 48-hour Film Challenge, with prizes for under-16s, over-16s and families. This year’s winners can be viewed here.

It wouldn’t be a film feature without finding out what the volunteers’ favourite films are:

Charlotte: Withnail and I, or Gone With the Wind

Helena: Gone with the Wind

Tim: Singin’ in the Rain

It didn’t go unnoticed that there is a distinct weather theme to their choices..

To volunteer for the Herne Hill Film Festival 2016, or to find out how to set up a Festival in Brixton, contact Charlotte Ashworth on hernehill@freefilmfestivals.org. Find them on Twitter @HerneHillFilm or on Facebook.