Your Local Arena

'Looking Back' by Anthony Wall (producer/director)

It all started here at home, in Brixton, south London. Brixton based, as I am, Sharmilla Beezmohun and Speaking Volumes organised a screening of Arena: Upon Westminster Bridge in June 2015at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) on Windrush Square in the heart of Brixton. This was the germ of the Your Local Arena concept.

I’d made that film way back in 1982 about the great dub poet Michael Smith. A Jamaican, he was on a visit to the UK under the auspices of The Race Today Collective, which was of course located in Brixton. The year before, Linton Kwesi Johnson and I were making a film for Arena about Carifesta in Barbados and he introduced me to Michael there. Michael had a mercurial genius, his poetry was brilliantly original and he was electrifying when he performed it. He had little time for anything that smacked of the old colonial Britain, including its literary canon, until he was confronted by the grand historical wisdom of CLR James. CLR lived in a flat above the Race Today offices on Railton Road. Various scenes in the film show him reasoning with Michael and LKJ.

CLR loved the great works of English literature and he persuades a very sceptical Mikey Smith that the sentiments expressed by the revolutionary dub poets, notwithstanding the obvious difference in style and language, were the same as those expressed by the great revolutionary Romantics, Shelley and Keats. So a decision was taken to make a film with that poetic dialectic at its heart and to make it not in Jamaica, but here in London, and mainly in Brixton.

So years later, there in the film at the screening at the BCA, a stone’s throw away, was Lambeth Town Hall, with Michael on stage; just down the High Street was Brixton market where Michael performed one of his best poems in the arcades and nearby streets; a bit further on and Michael hangs out on the front line on Railton Road; and a little further still, Race Today and CLR James and LKJ. And in 1982, in the aftermath of the Brixton riots which had broken out just a year or so before, the cries against injustice in Michael’s poetry rang all the more fiercely. At the Black Cultural Archives, the film felt almost like a home movie.

Arena had a commitment to Caribbean culture after that Carifesta film, which was entitled Brixton to Barbados. Its title was a clue to the next stage in the genesis of Your Local Arena, which also revolved around the Caribbean; this was a case of bringing it all back home. Sharmilla knew that there were many Caribbean-themed Arena films and she and independent producer Lucy Hannah had the idea of taking some of them to the prestigious Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad in the spring of 2019.

At the festival in Port of Spain, watching VS Naipaul on screen in Trinidad and CLR James choosing his all-time top cricket XI was a different and enriching experience. The laughter from the local audience, the occasional knowing sardonic grunt, the sighs, revealed nuances and meanings that would not be apparent in a screening anywhere else.

Stage three, Sharmilla and Lucy formulated these threads into an idea — Your Local Arena, with a view to rolling it out it here in the UK and Ireland. They had a daunting litany of

literary festivals — Durham, Exeter, Manchester, Ilkley, Charleston, Bradford. An Arena film had to be found that related precisely to each place and that would also chime with each festival’s theme.

I thought it was a tall order, to say the least. I suggested Keith Waterhouse for Bradford, they weren’t having it; he was from Leeds. Stoke Newington turned down Joe Orton, presumably on the grounds that he lived in Islington, a good half a mile away across north London. But this demand for precision brought the rewards that precision always does. The Bradford Lit Fest brought together three short films on Bradford artists Andrea Dunbar, working-class teenage playwright; rock ’n’ roll portrait painter David Oxtoby; and David Hockney. These films were made completely independently of each other but, put together, there was a natural unity to them, a Bradfordness that wasn’t anything like so strong and apparent in the films seen individually.

Apply this to the whole project, and Lucy and Sharmilla have deployed the films to make a kind of mosaic, in which all the films and their places seem to comment on each other. It’s a kind of six degrees of separation, that everything is ultimately connected to everything else. The films are half the story; the other half is the inspired idea of inviting three or four interested people, of different ages and backgrounds, to comment to camera on each film, along with the magic of the equally inspired idea to commission young writers to watch the films and compose a poem in response.

These responses test the films against the present. The films might have been made twenty, thirty, forty years ago, but the perceptive and acute comments bring them right up to date. This quality of ‘then’ and ‘now’ seems to me to be at the centre of the project. Making a film necessarily requires emphasis on a particular perspective to persuade the audience to focus on a particular point of view or receive a story in a particular way. Films are driven by their own morality and technique in their methods and devices.

In effect, this involves the suppression or the avoidance of meanings that might interfere with a desired response from the audience. However, those other meanings, albeit hidden, will almost certainly be there and they invariably surface with the passage of time. It’s been gratifying to see how positively the films have been received within the Your Local Arena format, but also fascinating to see how the viewers assessed the relevance and values the films have today.

Underlying the whole project is the year of the pandemic. If it weren’t for the virus, all of the festivals would have been conducted in the traditional manner, with a screening and a panel and a question and answer session in a physical space. Sharmilla and Lucy have responded by making something new, they’ve turned a negative into a positive and developed a form that could only exist on the internet. The result is a form that doesn’t yet have a name that’s as exciting as it gets.

Anthony Wall

25 January 2021