Award winning artist and academic Sarah Turner talks Jo Blair (Senior Programmer & Arts Manager at Picturehouse) ahead of a Q&A Tour at select cinemas. After premiering at the London Film Festival, her film Public House was nominated for the prestigious Grierson Award in 2016.
What is the background to your new film Public House?
The film was made in response to the community take over of the Ivy House pub in Peckham, London, SE15. In April 2012, the owners of the Ivy House sold our cherished pub for conversion into flats. But the local community blocked the sale, listed the building, registered the pub as the first Asset of Community Value in the UK, then triumphantly bought it! In so doing they’ve challenged a horribly familiar cultural narrative – the needs of gentrification and capital privileged and the needs of a community sidelined – and, in a way, proposed the potential for an alternative social imaginary.
I have described the film as moving from a document or record to something more aligned with fantasy or desire – and suggested that this formal movement is an allegorical mirroring of the Ivy House takeover. What I mean by that is – the vision of this community – took a familiar story (the ongoing assetisation, & social cleansing of London) and imagined it differently.
In the film, we hear several of the pub’s regulars sharing their memories of the Ivy House. How does memory relate to what you speak of about imagining a situation differently?
The idea of proposing an alternative social imaginary came about here through a deeply felt investment in the pub. Not just as a public space that gives communal focus to our every day, but as a space that connects us with our past, our fictions and our present, and in so doing, allows us to think about our future. This is how the resonances of individual and cultural memory – suggests a potential to reinvent these spaces, and imagine a different social contract.
The soundtrack to the film features what you’ve described as ‘polyphonic voices’. What drew you to this soundscape?
I had to find a form for the film, which didn’t so much tell the story, as embody it. I thought of the soundscape as a way to move from the I, to the WE, which in many ways is what the Ivy House story represents. The soundscape is composed of the voices of many pub users – past and present. In key moments, the individual testaments build into harmonics, creating a choral refrain through the collective voice.
Poetry seems a key element within the film, both in the readings of original poems which take place at The Ivy House and in your reference to William Blake.
As the film is exploring the social function of pubs, the participatory processes had to involve pub cultural forms: namely storytelling, pub blahing, spoken word poetry, a really vibrant pub form – also, song and dance.
In a sense the poets are ethnographers of their own community and selves, performing in their own fiction: which involves a projected self as performer, and a real intimacy within the community, as their words are literally in the mouths of other people. But they’re not just speaking each other’s poems, they’re almost channelling – like mediums for each other – the feelings, desires and emotional content of each other’s experience.
The closing act of the film is a carnivalesque celebration where the mass community assembly ‘re-imagines’ William Blake’s first vision of angels on nearby Peckham Rye. It is an alternative vision of Blake’s angelic presence.
We are delighted to welcome Sarah Turner for post-screening Q&A at the following cinemas:
Further screening dates to follow in Edinburgh and at selected London cinemas.