Following up on the happier news that we are more determined than ever to revolutionise cinema, and that we will be running a second event in May 2018, some serious business. We are beginning another crowd-funding campaign, and I would like to explain why. What follows is an account of what I have been doing as festival director since the events of August – it explains our responsibilities beyond showing films, and why we continue to ask for support.
It’s hard out there for an independent film festival. Even harder for a radical one. Borderline impossible for those factors to exist in Norwich. The city was recently named “the second most desirable city for living in the UK” by another of those arbitrary and unquantifiable “polls” that appear on a slow news day – but let’s be honest, just days after Theresa May triggered Article 50, being the second finest city in Britain is to be damned with fake praise. Norwich needed a kick up the arse, having rested on the laurels of a cultural reputation founded hundreds of years ago, long since monopolised by money-grubbing East of England elitists.
Once I and the team had gotten the NRFF up and running, it was a kick we were more than happy to supply – we brought independent, innovative filmmakers together from across the globe, and brought a community to engage with cinema in a new way never seen before in East Anglia. We helped kids with learning disabilities learn new ways to communicate their life experiences, we brought Timothy Bottoms from LA to tell us how it was to work with Dalton Trumbo after he beat the Hollywood blacklist, we showed films nobody else would dare and we put new ideas into the public sphere through humour, subtlety and art. But goodness, did it come at a price!
Having been told in the run up to August 2016 by every funding body going that either they did not consider film to be “art” or “fine art”, we eventually scraped enough money together to self-fund – something several of us are continuing to pay for into 2017. That is why it was particularly galling that we have been left twisting in the wind by the legal system for the 6 months since, after what one of our venues did to us. Within a week of the festival back in August, said venue pulled out without so much as a by your leave. They did so on the basis they had decided, despite signing contracts and taking deposits months in advance, that they couldn’t be bothered to staff the event. And believe me, it was that they couldn’t be bothered – to the extent I literally volunteered to vault the bar and pull pints at my own festival. They remained unmoved, and despite having literally presented them with hundreds of pounds of free advertising, we were forced to find an alternative venue to Take 5 Bar.
In the months following, we took the bar to Small Claims Court – a process they completely ignored, and subsequently lost. After the court found in our favour, they didn’t even bother to lodge an appeal – literally the easiest piece of legitimate filibustering available to them in the process. The court found in our favour that we were owed £550. A trifling amount, you would think, to a bar situated in a prime location on Tombland, which has since been through the windfalls of Christmas, New Year and St Patrick’s Day. They were sent papers requiring their payment – which predictably they ignored.
In order to “enforce” our verdict, however, as unsurprisingly the bar continued their steadfast ignorance of the case, the court required us to pay a further £110. Let that sink in. In England, the claimant is required to pay money to see the defendant brought to justice. But the fun did not stop there. Having paid the fee, I was told the case had been sent to “bailiffs” somewhere in Southend (as inexplicably there are no courts nor bailiffs capable of handling this in Norfolk) – and that these bailiffs “sent a letter” to Take 5 asking them how they would like to pay. Up until that point, every piece of court-issued correspondence has been completely ignored – and we had every reason to suspect this would be too. We had warned the bailiffs as much in the mire of paperwork we filled out to get to this stage – as well as opting not to receive payment in full, rather than instalments. So the court and bailiffs literally ignored us – and undoubtedly were counting on us not to have the energy to follow up, at this stage of a process that had pushed us to our limits. After an endless barrage of correspondence from ourselves though, we got the reply we wanted – a cheque has been received by the court, which will eventually make its way to us and go toward some of our remaining bills. Lucky us.
Which brings us, for now, to the end of this sad story. I am currently recovering from an endless stream of “5 business day” processes that snake back to the Autumn, but the fact remains why this might almost be thought of as a win, we were completely disempowered throughout the entire process – beholden to the whims of a bureaucratic machine, never to be put in direct contact with anyone responsible for enforcing any aspect of our case. This centralised and unaccountable environment that is 21st century Britain left us dangling above oblivion, with the Money Claims Court and Take 5 both having portions of our money that we needed to continue our own operations.
Presumably the justification for being completely unable to do any of this on a local level, meanwhile, is to make the process more “cost effective” (read: inaccessible to the poor – after all, equality is more expensive to implement than privilege). It’s just a coincidence that those people being priced out of the game just so happen to be the only ones interested in changing the rules. The thing is, this isn’t even the only company to have treated us this way in the “2nd most desirable place to live” in the UK – in fact an infamously bad hotel, which you could definitely identify but we won’t name, did the same thing, refusing to refund a room our volunteers immediately vacated, after they found insects and vomit in it. We just don’t have enough money to sue the whole of Norwich’s petit-bourgeois establishment – we can’t afford justice beyond this tiny victory.
Last year, I found out the hard way why people on the ‘Left’ are always so enthusiastic to talk about building cultural projects – and yet so wearily non-committal when it comes to actually walking the walk. Norwich is a closed shop – as England has become/will become more so thanks to Brexit. Everything is farmed out to a small elite of business owners who can monopolise the public space. That’s what’s happened to us with our experiences with the legal system here. This doesn’t mean you will obtain consumer rights though, it doesn’t mean you will have to be treated with respect to maintain your custom – because there will be nowhere else for you to go. One of the things we are, as a radical institution, is the antithesis and the antidote to a society where everything can be run so laughably badly for profit without any right of response for the public. That is part of our responsibility as a festival that pledges to show the failures of the status quo for what they are, and to highlight the everyday lives and struggles of the ignored and marginalised.
Why am I writing this then? Don’t get me wrong, I understand that in the grand scheme of things in Theresa May’s Britain, I have not had the worst of it. I’m not one of the disabled or unemployed citizens her policies have literally attempted to kill off. Certainly, I won’t deny our case is not that level of catastrophe. It isn’t I, Daniel Blake. BUT it does tells us something about the way that our legal system functions, along with public services in general, and about how it is degenerating under a third generation of Thatcherism. It is our responsibility to flag that up, to let other people know that they are not alone, and to encourage them to try to fight for change too, rather than resting on the laurels of a “fine” city. Fine; not hell on earth, but sure as hell not great. If we don’t fight, not only to change those institutions mentioned, or the system through which we interact with them, but to shake the apathetic from their slow trudge through Norwich’s drizzly identikit high-street without so much as imagining improving this place, then we’re just another festival treading water to make ends meet – and rather than a fine home, Norwich is just another place to die someday.
Now more than ever, we need to work together to change that.
We won’t sit down, we won’t be quiet, we’re not going away – help us keep doing what we’re doing by donating to our Crowdfunder here and spreading the word: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/norwich-radical-film-festival-2018