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Cinematic Innovation

Amelia Abraham uncovers the secret side of London’s cinema, photos by Mike Massaro

Written by . Published on August 15th 2011.


Cinematic Innovation

AS I live in Shoreditch, naturally I thrive on alterity. Of course you won’t find me in an Odeon. Perhaps a pretentious art house cinema, and even that’s at a push. If my idea of a night out is a pop-up club in a Hackney laundrette, then obviously I want the same thing if I’m going to see a movie. For Christ’s sake, all I want is a trendy disjunction between the activity I’m doing and where I’m bloody doing it. Is that too much to ask?

Here’s how it works. You buy a ticket. You don’t know what you’re buying a ticket for. Secret Cinema text you costume instructions a few days before the film. You trawl through your wardrobe in desperation. Then, they text you the venue.

Apparently not. London, you have prevailed once again. I have had a positively cracking year of ‘alternative cinematic experiences’. In April, I was lucky enough to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with a live orchestra at The Royal Festival Hall. Now, as a film writer, it comes as quite the inconvenience that I have a tendency to fall asleep during films, (I have fought long and hard not to dribble on the likes of Peter Bradshaw’s shoulder). The beauty of my 2001 experience was that, just when my eyelids began to slowly lower to the sound of HAL 9000’s monotonous robotic voice, the Philharmonia Orchestra would launch into another mind-blowing rendition of Strauss and I’d sit up like a shot.

The whole event was a cinema geek’s wet dream, as was Kar Wei Wong’s In the Mood for Love as part of the Somerset House Summer Series. So romantic I didn’t know whether to cry or be sick. Could this be the most beautiful film ever made? Screened in the most beautiful building in London? Or just champagne-induced enthusiasm? Either way it was a turning point, and I refuse to ever watch a film in an actual cinema again. And to think, I hadn’t even been to Secret Cinema yet…

If you haven’t been, you’ve probably read about it in the Guardian. And you’re a fool. But it’s not too late (as I discovered). Here’s how it works. You buy a ticket. You don’t know what you’re buying a ticket for. Secret Cinema text you costume instructions a few days before the film. You trawl through your wardrobe in desperation. Then, they text you the venue. You ride the tube in your ’40s regalia, marginally embarrassed that the other passengers think you are one of those people who think it is cool to dress like a walking anachronism. You arrive. The fun begins.

The Battle of Algiers

It was about half past six when I rocked up at Leak Street behind Waterloo Station and joined the crowd I found there, chatter and excitement reverberating off the interior of the railway arch we were congregating in. I didn’t feel like a prick any more, everybody was wearing late ’40s to early ’50s costume and actually, if anything, I could have tried harder. French and English dialects intermingled amongst the crowd (“It’s a French New Wave. Definitely a French New Wave.”) and, when costumed officials soon approached us, they addressed us solely in French. Luckily, my date was fluent. Apparently they were demanding ‘papers’; I was completely bemused as to what was going on. Who is a guest and who is an actor? Can I trust no one?

Once inside the venue I immediately understood what all the fuss was about.

Within the gloomily atmospheric tunnels behind Waterloo, Secret Cinema had recreated their very own slice of North Africa. There were houses, food stalls, tea sellers, the faux streets jostling with people. As I explored each room, venturing further into the madness, my confusion heightened. I had stumbled upon a creepily quiet area, a prison (“It’s definitely Midnight Express. What else can it be?”) But before I had a chance to investigate behind the barbed wire, I was ushered away by more military brutes. The enigma continues, as does the adventure. 

When my friend had recounted her Secret Cinema experience of Blade Runnerto to me previously, I had failed to comprehend how they could feasibly recreate such a difficult setting, but now I was beginning to understand; essentially, it was just like being on the film’s set, in the film’s set. And as with cinema, a constructed setting alone is not sufficiently engrossing; a lot relies here on convincing sound effects, authentic costumes and props, and perhaps most crucially, good acting. Secret Cinema ticks all the boxes, specifically the latter. As I peruse the premises, I encounter belly dancers begging for money, aged fortune-tellers, grubby, young boys kicking a ball around. All speak French, all engage with me, all challenge me. Film has effectively become theatre, and it’s a veritable feast for the eyes. I think I’ll have some tagine and calm down.

The Battle of AlgiersThe Battle of Algiers

Swoon – you really know the way to my heart Secret Cinema, with your delicious food and free White Russian (“It’s definitely the Big Lebowski! Okay no, now I’m just confused…”) And, as I’m casually sipping it and attempting to flirt – “Good God!” – in run the French army… and they’ve got guns that look very real! A woman in a burka is frantically ushering me into her fictional home where I must hide at once! Secret cinema, you have effectively scared the shit out of me; I am actually convinced that I am in some kind of North African nightmare. Which, after then clambering through a small passageway about a foot high (not a good look for me on a date), into an eerie makeshift cinema, is finally unveiled to be… The Battle of Algiers! (“Of course! I knew it all along!”) And okay, so the film’s not exactly up my street, but by this point I’m so immersed in the experience I couldn’t care less. And there it is, the secret to Secret Cinema.

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