Experimental Film

Words by Nazanin Mondschein

THE BEGINNING OF EXPERIMENTAL FILM IN BRITAIN: 
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID CURTIS

The London Filmmakers’ Co-operative (LFMC) was the first studio workshop, distribution point and screening space for experimental film in Britain. David Curtis was involved with the LFMC since it’s formation on the 13th of October, 1966. He made films there, and was also in charge of the Arts Laboratories cinemas, which hosted the LFMC cinema’s programming until the 70s. As a result of his dedicated work with the LFMC, Curtis stands as a pioneer of experimental film in the country. He has since founded the British Artists Film and Video Study Collection—a comprehensive and invaluable research resource for artists’ films, videos, books, magazines, and posters.

I came to London around 1960, 1961, to study painting at the Slade School [of Fine Art]. Thorold Dickinson ran a film studies course there [the first university film professor in Britain]. He was a member of the Film Society in London in the 20s and 30s. He was ‘international’—he subtitled a lot of films for the Society.

Dickinson would show films everyday at 5pm. When the painting studio got dark, I’d go to the cinema. There, I saw Italian neo-realism, Russian revolutionary cinema, German propaganda films…

At the time, there were at least ten to twelve cinemas in the West End that regularly showed subtitled films: Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman. There was a real cinema culture [in the 60s]. Films were reviewed in the daily press. Everybody was going to the cinema.

The Co-op started in’66. Counterculture had a DIY sense at the time. The seed of the idea for the Co-op came from Better Books [a bookstore-cum-arts lab on Charing Cross Road run by a counterculture enthusiast Bob Cobbing], which was DIY. Screenings at Slade—you were just a passive audience. My experience at Slade was not one of DIY. But Bob Cobbing’s space was DIY. Cobbing was a film buff. He was a general film enthusiast, and his affiliation with the Beat poets and alternative writing at the time meant that he was also interested in resistance and subversive films, though not exclusively.

In the 60s, partly because we were youth, one just felt that you could do things on your own. The Co-op was initially based at Better Books and started as a film-viewing group until [Malcolm] Le Grice got involved. Then the group became more production-based.

We had no interest in what was happening at [places like] the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts] because it was for the older generation and institutionalized. Somehow it wasn’t part of the counterculture movement. Hercules Bellville, a wealthy man, was doing the programming at the ICA. His focus was on new Godard films, on ‘Academy’ films. The Co-op was more interested in Czech and Hungarian films, more international films than just Western European. To be a programmer [for the Co-op’s cinema] then was easier than now. You were given films, but also there was a finite amount of things to see and show. Softcore was shown for money. It was sure to get grubby Mackintosh [coat] men in, to make money. We had no subsidy.

Time Out already listed a lot of alternative listings, so it wasn’t strange for it to start including the Co-op. There was a sense of mutual support between all the creative people at the time. The feeling [at the Co-op] was that there were people around the world who would want to see this kind of thing, and the idea was to try and reach them. We knew it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but those who were interested in it, we wanted to reach those people. We would silk-screen posters. Maybe six to ten copies. We’d put one in the ICA, one at the NFT [National Film Theatre]… Not all over the street. We also had flyers in the cinema that people could take about upcoming events. People were interested in experimental film because there was so little of it, of the moving image full stop. Our audiences included visiting artists, lots of Americans that came to London for cultural reasons…

The Drury Lane location was close to the tube station and Covent Garden, although not as busy as it is now. The Dairy location [in Kentish Town] was organised by SPACE studios, which was started by a group of artists, including Bridget Riley, that set up as a charity that found spaces for artists to work in. The Robert Street Arts Lab, which had the most ambitious cinema programme, was located on the wrong side of Euston Road. That sort of mundane fact was terribly important, because it meant that people only went there because they already knew to be there. It was also true of all the Co-ops [locations]. So many sites are ‘pilgrimage’ sites. That is, people only go there with a sense of purpose. It’s not that we wanted it that way, but we were used to it. It was the product of cheap spaces.