With the amorphous Bullring, the scrubbed up church spires and another chromed apartment block rising in the space of a breath, Birmingham is the most sedimented of city centres. But beyond the high-street lies the hinterland of Digbeth – Brum’s oldest district, and an elephant’s graveyard of industrial machinery. It is here that Flatpack Film Festival has chosen to root.
The love-child of Pip McKnight and Ian Francis, largely funded by the Arts Council and the euthanised UK Film Council, five-year-old Flatpack Festival qualifies as a proper pop-up. Each temporary cinema screen, gallery, stage and bar is flanked by derelict warehouses, boarded-up pubs and hidden-away canals (apparently there are more than in Venice!) Taking place last weekend, festivities kicked off with Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) in the main hub. A three hour cine-essay of clips, the film is a plea for “the real Los Angeles” so bent out of shape by the film industry. An espousal of “literalist cinema” – of unheralded social-realists like Charles Burnett over genre-definers like James Cameron and Michael Mann – Andersen’s film seemed to echo the Birmingham that lies beyond the council-backed assertions of urban modernism. Next on the programme was Mind Bombs at The Electric, the UK’s oldest cinema, and a series of truly surreal animated music videos from director David Wilson, which began with a tie-dye recitation of the alphabet.
While much of the festival tries to define itself against the dourness of its surroundings, the programmers should be applauded for climaxing with something that seemed so typical of local culture – In Bed With Chris Needham (1992), screened on the Saturday night. A BBC-produced video diary of a mulleted, pseudo moustached Loughborough lad who rarely shuts up about conquering the world with that most Birmingham of things – heavy metal – it’s a brutally authentic and very funny depiction of ambition without privilege. “Now feel death…from my guitar,” he growls, before reaching for his Woolworth’s Strat replica. A Quietus review of the TV show read out before the screening stated: “We didn’t curate this cult because we like to snigger at awkward kids…we were all Chris Needham once. It nails the tragic comedy of adolescence like nothing else…Because unlike you or I, this 17-year-old was not a twat. He was a twat savant.” Needham is now 36, yet unnervingly similar to the 17-year-old in the film. On the strength of the Q&A that followed, he is undoubtably a twat. But when he defended his commitment to the founding principles of heavy metal, it was difficult to argue. Latest reports have him living single and working in a fishing tackle shop in Loughborough, his neck free of a tie and his conscience clean of compromise. For i-D Online, it was the high-point of the whole festival.
Flatpack is a celebration, at times even a fetishization, of community-sourced esoterica: Youtube projected onto walls, music dealing in hisses and pops and films scant in narrative. The screenings seemed to express the festival’s concerns: literate in the vogue notion of hyper-localism and determined to ‘mix things up’.