Here’s a film that I want to approach even more carefully than usual. The subject is the surviving membership of Bradford Movie Makers, previously ‘Bradford Cine Circle’, founded in 1932 and therefore now celebrating 90 years of filmmaking practice in their rented clubhouse off Little Horton Road just outside Bradford city centre. I arrived in Bradford just over 30 years ago and like the club members I’ve taken part in Bradford’s film culture for much of that time, albeit in different ways as a film teacher. I only discovered the history of the club a few years ago and I only know one of the current members, but I feel that I can’t apply my critical faculties to this film about the club in quite the same way as I usually do.
For those of you who don’t know Bradford very well, I want to point out a few salient features of the city’s history. The height of Bradford’s power was arguably in the 1890s when it was known as ‘Woolopolis’, the capital of the international trade in wool. It was said that the greatest concentration of millionaires in Europe at that time was in Bradford. There are still some buildings that are testament to the city’s importance but after 1918 a gradual decline was inevitable. However, Bradford was there at the beginning of cinema in the 1890s and the history has been well-documented by local historians such as Geoff Mellor. In more recent times, Bradford became the location of the then National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in 1983 (now re-named the National Museum of Science and Media and in my view losing on its original aims to the same extent) and in 2010 Bradford became the first UNESCO City of Film. Bradford is also a city with many unique locations for professional filmmakers from the 1890s architecture and Salt’s model village in Saltaire to the Haworth of the Brontes, Keighley’s preserved steam railway and more. Since 1974, the city of Bradford has become the centre of the larger Bradford Metropolitan District (or ‘Bradford Met’ to the locals) incorporating various small towns such as Keighley and Ilkley as well as rural areas. Bradford Met is also part of the Leeds City region, one of the major UK conurbations. It has one of the youngest populations in the UK and one of the most diverse, partly through economic migration but also as a ‘city of sanctuary’, accepting refugees from around the world. I mention all this just to place Bradford Movie Makers in context as part of the mix of Bradford communities.
The development of cine clubs in the 1930s was a feature of many other Northern towns and cities as well as Bradford and several are mentioned in the film including those in Leeds, Wakefield, Sheffield and Burnley. The Bradford club is one of the few survivors. The original motivation was seemingly to celebrate a love of the Hollywood glamour of the period and a desire to film popular stories and documentary records of life in the cities. These were not the ‘ciné clubs‘ of various European cities, interested in avant-garde art and political topics. But this doesn’t imply that members were unaware of other forms of cinema and the title of this film is ironic in that many of the club’s members are highly-skilled in film technology and techniques, even if acting skills are a little rudimentary on occasion. (The film opens with a quote from Susan Sontag.) The problem for the Bradford club is that membership had declined by the late 2010s when the story of this film began to take shape. The surviving members had got older together and recruiting younger members proved difficult. During the making of the film, the outbreak of the Covid pandemic threatened to end the club’s activities completely, but actually proved to offer a surprising boost to further survival (no SPOILERS!).
A Bunch of Amateurs was made by a small independent professional film company led by Kim Hopkins and Margaréta Szabó as writer-director and producer respectively. Their company, ‘Labor of Love Films’, is based in York and has a track record of productions for international broadcasters including BBC, PBS and Al Jazeerah. A Bunch of Amateurs is a very well-made conventional documentary following the club members as they attempt to keep the club going. It is scripted, photographed and edited to offer up the group’s interactions in as transparent a way as possible. (I’m intrigued to note that Kim Hopkins was involved in setting up the documentary department at the Cuban International Film School). There are no voiceovers or interviewers, just the club members themselves. There appear to be around 12-14 active members, of whom around half a dozen are the main ‘actors’ in the story.
One of the bones of contention in the group is that there is a tradition of several production projects being undertaken at the same time, with various group members sometimes working on more than one project at any one time. This can lead to projects never being properly completed. For the purposes of this documentary, the key project appears to be an attempt by one member to recreate the opening sequence from the Hollywood musical Oklahoma! (US 1955) in which Gordon MacRae rides up on a white horse and launches into ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (see the poster above). But Harry Nicholls is in his 80s, can’t ride a horse and, though he can sing, isn’t quite up to the task in hand. The club members are resourceful and experienced, so a body double, lip-synching, green screen and careful digital manipulations can work wonders. We learn that Oklahoma was the first film that Harry and his wife saw at the cinema. Now, he cares for his wife at home and the club has become his sole communal outlet. The same is true for Colin whose wife is in a care home. Colin is a past president of the club in the days when it had packed meetings and a waiting-list for new members. Now, he too, needs the club more than ever. Even Philip, one of the youngest members, is a full-time carer for his disabled brother. The fourth central figure is Joe, a ‘Disability Support Volunteer’ who will turn out to be very good at digital manipulation. The group is mainly men, some of whom have partners. However, Marie has just joined the group and she seems to have the energy to ‘get things done’. These five members are the ones who open up their lives outside the clubhouse.
In the end this film isn’t so much about about the group making films – though that is important for them and for several members it becomes a central part of convincing themselves that they are achieving something. They are astute enough to realise that without the club meetings, threatened by the lockdowns during the Covid, their mental health could be damaged. Overall the film is more about working together as a group and supporting each other. It has therefore gathered an appreciative audience who see it as a ‘feelgood’ story about small triumphs achieved in adversity. You’d have to be very hard-hearted or strangely indifferent not to be moved by the stories of the group members and their collective efforts to celebrate 90 years. After several packed cinema screenings including at Sheffield Docfest (where it won the Audience Award) and back home in Bradford at Pictureville Cinema in the Museum, the film has been screened on BBC4 in the Storyville documentary series. It is now on BBCiPlayer and will be available for a year. However, I urge you to see the film in a cinema if possible and it is still in distribution around the UK with dates booked well into 2023. Go to the Labor of Love website to find upcoming screening dates. It’s a film that should restore your faith in humanity – and the inspirational power of cinema.