Curating a Focus UK in 2017 without mentioning Brexit is impossible. But while the news is filled with snap election talks, security concerns and bitter statements from all parties involved, the future will remain unknown for the years to come. Some are mourning the consequences of the decision, others see it as progress. But no matter how the situation is interpreted, the relationship between the United Kingdom and its European neighbours is questioned and reflected upon on both sides.

The diverse meanings of cultural heritage, the power of nostalgia and historical traditions need to be revised. Discussions about national identities in a globalised world and the conflicts between isolationism and communal living form a backdrop to any thinking about the UK from a European perspective.

But within all these debates, there is always the question how references to all these themes are used to tell a story, to make sense and to create a narration – might it be as a slogan on a bus, in a public debate or as an experimental film on the cinema screen. Rather than trying to answer to the political questions, the five programmes in this year’s special focus look into the different artistic expressions and traditions found in British short films. For decades, the British film industry has produced some of the most exciting, innovative and cherished shorts. Spanning the last 50 years, the films offer examples of a film culture that has impacted on and shaped our understanding of short films as an artistic form.

John Smith is without a doubt one of these influential British film makers. His film ›The Girl Chewing Gum‹ (1976) is being shown not just at art schools as an introduction to experimental cinema. But his films are not made for the elites, he insists during our skype interview in April 2017. »The audience doesn’t need previous knowledge of artist films to understand what they are looking at. My work is accessible to most people, anybody with an open mind, really.« It is this constant awareness of the spectators’ expectations of what is unfolding on the screen that distinguishes Smith’s work. He is moving across the boundaries of documentary, fictional narratives and conceptual art, while always using playful elements, and often humour to make audiences understand that they are looking at, as he puts it, »this rather strange thing on a flat surface«.

When he started film making in the 1970s, the British film scene was a different world. »The only major opportunity to see experimental cinema or artist films was the London Filmmakers’ Co-op, which was founded in 1966. They offered workshops, hosted regular screenings and founded a distribution network. I printed my first 16 mm film there«, he remembers. But it was the debate about structural film at that time that was completely formative for him. »It was looking at film through its material construction, not to do with illusion, to do with making you aware that you were looking at a film. This idea still affects me today and all my work in one way or another draws attention to construction and to artifice.«

Being based in East London, most of his films are concerned with time and place – not just in a cinematic sense, but also regarding the themes of his work which often use personal stories or his immediate surroundings as a focal point. »A lot of my work has to do with change. I think it is in part because up until I was over 40, I have always lived in insecure places«, he recalls the consequences of not getting a regular full-time job. »Actually as you see in ›Blight‹ (1996), one of the houses that gets demolished is my own. My interest in the changing environment, particularly how buildings disappear, comes from the fact that I knew my house was going to do that.« It is this interplay between what can be seen and what we assume to be seeing, that characterises Smith’s approach to film making. By using voice-over texts and the possibilities of sound design, he is questioning the relationship between images, sounds and narration, and makes the audiences aware not just of the artificial construction of his films and cinema in general, but also creates a different perspective on the everyday world around us.

Throughout the years, John Smith has been a regular guest in Hamburg, although he jokingly admits »I didn’t start going to film festivals until I was probably to old to start going to them.« For the Focus UK we had asked him to put two programmes together, which he will present at the festival: one consisting of films which have made an impression on him and were influential for his own work and the second a programme of recent films that are important to him and reflect points of interest in contemporary film making.

»So for the first programme it was very easy to find films« he smiles. »In fact the problem was that I found too many films. Because I saw most of them when I was very young and started making films myself, these films had made a big impression on me. I tried to choose the programme so that each one has a different kind of element to it, which represented something new to me. So one of the films was the first time I realised how powerful voice-over could be. Watching another one I saw how you can create something really strong through very simple means.«

Selecting recent films was more difficult »because I don’t see as many films now – contemporary films – as I should« he admits and says it is a programme of personal choice of films that he really likes. »When I compared films from the 70s to recent films, what I noticed is that a lot of them are really beautifully edited and what I appreciate very often in more recent films is how they are constructed. But one thing that immediately comes to mind when thinking about current trends is that there is so much more work which is documentary based and which explores the boundaries between documentary and fiction and looks at the fictional aspects of documentary.« A bit like your own work, I remark. He laughs that he got more company now and quickly adds: »I’m feeling a bit of an egotist for programming my own films as well, but I was looking at what went together and there weren’t any recent very short films and I thought if I put in a few of my short pieces, it will work fine.«

One of these newer films is ›Who Are We?‹ (2016), where he re-works footage from a BBC debate leading up to the Brexit referendum to highlight how normalised extreme ideas have become. Like many others of the other 48%, he describes the days after the election as wake-like and that he feels like part of his identity has been taken away. While he says that not a lot has visibly changed in the streets since then, he can’t hide his frustration with »the right-wing people who hate everything not to do with fish and chips.«

The complex interconnectedness between territory and identity is also the theme of the programme ›This Is My Land‹. The notion of home might be geographical, social or imaginary, but it is the repetition of actions and thoughts that establishes a sense of belonging and ownership. Like the father, who has to defend his ideal of a peaceful suburbia against bullying teens, one’s own land is under constant threat. Some find their personal freedom in the privacy of their own living-rooms, others in a self-reliant recluse in the Scottish forest. But it is also social construction that creates a feeling of community, might it be through the destructive resignation of the residents in a run-down social housing project or the collective ecstasy of the young dancers throughout the history of British club culture.

The balance between the individual and the society, one’s self and the others, is in constant negotiation, no more so than in the UK’s capital. The programme ›London Stories‹ compiles films about a city in a constant state of change, where millions of people with different backgrounds and agendas are navigating their daily lives and where urban planning and history collide at every street corner.

Last but not least, one of the UK’s most notorious musical export is the topic of ›Punk vs. Knights‹, An early TV inquiry about this new phenomenon, a fictional war time documentary and an alternative history of the kebab offer an inside in the destructive desires and the joyful dilettantism of the era. Not to mention the artfully coloured hair and quality of the soundtracks.

Text Lili Hartwig

Lili Hartwig is a media and cultural studies scholar and served in the selection committee for the International Competition of the Hamburg International ShortFilmFestival for many years. She works as a project manager, independent curator and moderator and lives in Hamburg.

Film selection John Smith (Pr. 1&2), Lili Hartwig (Pr. 3&4), Sven Schwarz (Pr. 5)

Punks vs. Knights
The fictional rise and fall of a British subculture in four acts.

1976: The ›London Weekend Show‹ journalists visit a Sex Pistols concert at Leicester Square where they try to make members of the audience explain to them just why this ›new‹ youth culture is so popular.

1977: A group of punks with a sheep invent the Kebab (much to the sheep’s chagrin), but the recipe gets stolen. This leads to the inevitable decline of the punks. The Pogues singer Shane MacGowan as the chap with the sheep.

1979: Barely disguised as a promo for the new UK Subs single, Julien Temple shoots a mockumentary about England in a punk crisis of identity. In order to add some respectability, the voice over commentary is spoken by a venerable BBC journalist.

1980: Great Yarmouth, UK: A group of young women is harassed by four punks. The saviours appear in the form of the Knights Electric, symbolising the approach of New Wave, Punk’s greatest rival. An absurd fictional film in gaudy cinemascope and an insane sound track. The punks will lose.

Film selection Sven Schwarz

Über John Smith

About John Smith

John Smith was born in Walthamstow, London in 1952 and studied film at the Royal College of Art, during which time he became involved in the activities of the London Filmmakers Co-op. Inspired in his formative years by conceptual art and structural film, but also fascinated by the immersive power of narrative and the spoken word, he has developed an extensive body of work that subverts the perceived boundaries between documentary and fiction, representation and abstraction. Since 1972 Smith has made over 50 film, video and installation works that have been shown in independent cinemas, art galleries and on television around the world and awarded major prizes at many international film festivals. 

Filmography (selection):

Who Are We ? (2016), Dad’s Stick (2012), The Man Phoning Mum (2011), unusual Red cardigan (2011), Flag Mountain (2010), Hotel Diaries (series, 2001-2007), Blight (1996), The Black Tower (1987), Om (1986), The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), (Leading Light 1975)

Solo exhibitions (selection):

Alma Zevi, Venice (2017)
Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin (2017, 2015, 2013, 2012, 2010)

Kate MacGarry, London (2016)
Wolverhampton Art Gallery (2016)

Museum of Contemporary Art, Leipzig (2015)
Centre d’Art Contemporain de Noisy-le-Sec, Paris (2014)

The Gallery, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne (2014)
Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover (2012)

Turner Contemporary, Margate (2012)
Weserburg Museum for Modern Art, Bremen (2012)

Uppsala Art Museum (2011)
Royal College of Art Galleries, London (2010)

Group Shows (selection):

FOMU Museum, Antwerp; Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; Foundling Museum, London; MAC Belfast; Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Berardo Museum, Lisbon; Tate Liverpool; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Tate Britain; Berlin Biennial; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; MoMA New York; Venice Biennale; Whitechapel Gallery, London

Awards (selection):

Jarman Award, Film London; Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists; Hamburg International ShortFilmFestival; Ann Arbor  Film Festival; Bangkok Experimental Film Festival; Biennial of Moving Images, Geneva; Chicago International Film Festival; Cork International Film Festival; DOKLeipzig; International Biennale of Film and Architecture, Graz; International Festival of New Film, Split; International Short Film Festival Oberhausen; Lucca Film Festival; One World International Human Rights Film Festival, Prague; Stuttgarter Filmwinter; Uppsala International Short Film Festival