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An Evening At Portobello Film Festival

While London has been the muse behind many feature films, West London doesn't typically get a look-in. Alex Mullane attends the Portobello Film Festival in the hopes of finding the vibrancy of the area on screen, and the next big voices in English cinema.

WORDS – Alex Mullane

West London isn’t always the best represented part of the capital when it comes to film. Lacking the global landmarks that are the required shorthand for Hollywood even in British film, the stories rarely stray West. Pete Travis’ recent London-noir, City of Tiny Lights, may have been a lacklustre crime drama, but at least it managed to present a London on screen that felt real to actual Londoners. However, with the Grenfell tragedy and the recent Notting Hill Carnival that took place in its wake, the nation’s eyes have fallen increasingly on West London. Perhaps reflecting this, Portobello Film Festival and the West London Film Network presented a night of Movies From West London, which in many ways – both on screen and off – captured the vibrancy, diversity and character of the area.

Taking place at the Westbank Art and Music centre in Ladbroke Grove, the pop-up cinema was actually something of a ramshackle affair. With no divide between the lit bar area and the darkened cinema, noise and light pollution were an issue, while variable sound quality and a lack of seating might have led to further grousing, but it’s telling that not one single complaint was raised. Seats were instinctively vacated for those that needed them most; films were respected with as much silence as possible. The community spirit of the event was unmistakable.

As for the films themselves, there was much to captivate. Ashley by Shabazz St Leonce played like a (much) more aggressive, London-tinged Moonlight, while Kundara/Shoes by Silvia El Helo and Tika Peucelle took a classic sixth-form film project idea – pointing the camera down and filming your steps over the course of a day – and turned it into a hypnotic and thought-provoking film about the immigrant experience. The night also took us from the bubble-gum pop of charity music video Skoobie Dootle by Funkasm, to an anguished tale of loneliness in the face of Irish immigration in The Long Line, an accomplished and lyrically evocative film that marks creator Alan Bradley out as a proto-Steve McQueen talent to keep an eye on.


Skoobie Dootle

Inevitably, not every film hit the mark. A short documentary about the unveiling of a plaque honouring Joe Strummer drags on interminably, and is devoid of any spark. Church Street Traders by Myrna Shoa and Timichin Dindler starts well, offering a delightful insight into the men and women that run stalls on Church Street market, but soon gets repetitive. When asked about their dreams, almost everyone at the market answers that they’d simply like to continue running their stall and serving the community. Shots of Tesco in the market’s backdrop are telling.

The entire event, though, came to be dominated by one film; the centrepiece of the programme, and with good reason. Jermaine and Elsie by Leon Lopez is a superb 20-minute film about an irascible, racist old white woman and her black, sexually ambiguous carer, and the surprising bond that develops between them. Set in Ladbroke Grove itself, Jermaine and Elsie is a fabulously funny and wonderfully affecting film, boasting tremendous performances and a perfectly judged script. This was the film that grabbed the audience – much of which was bolstered by the cast and crew and their friends and family – and the 20-minute run time takes you through a surprising range of emotions; there were more than a few tears shed amid the belly-laughs. 

Portobello Film Festival  Jermaine and ElsieA scene from Jermaine and Elsie.

“It felt amazing for the film to get the reaction it got on the night,” said the film’s writer, producer and star Ashley Campbell when I spoke to him afterwards. “To be honest I have become so close to the film I was starting to doubt whether it was any good! Jermaine and Elsie is set in Ladbroke Grove so it meant so much to me to have the film debut at the Portobello Film Festival. Elsie mentions very specific things that only a person from Ladbroke Grove or West Kensington would be familiar with. Elsie tells Jermaine that she got some 'beautiful fruit from Lenny Cain in Portobello!' Lenny Cain is a legendary fruit and veg man from Portobello! I wanted the film to be as real as possible.”

After Jermaine and Elsie the night had clearly climaxed and, thankfully, the savvy programming had saved the more abstract, arthouse and dialogue-free films for the second half, so that while people were flocking to praise Jermaine and Elsie's cast and crew, it didn’t mar the remaining films too much. One impressive later entry – I’m Hurting – saw Billy Childish present an arresting acapella monologue about alcoholism, juxtaposing the masculinity of its presentation with the vulnerability of its words.

While many of the films from the night were set in West London, it was Jermaine and Elsie that best married filmmaking artistry with the West London experience, and the crew behind it should be incredibly proud. Many in the audience commented on the realness of the depiction of the care system, nodding knowingly along as the film explored the ineffective way our elderly are looked after. The unmistakable setting only enhanced the reality and relatability of the piece.

“West London is my home,” says Campbell. “I've lived in lots of different places but I feel centred and calm in this beautiful, diverse, fascinating area. As a baby, my mother and I lived in Grenfell towers. I am so proud of Ladbroke Grove and the way we came together in the wake of such tragedy. The supermarket was rammed with people of all colours and creeds buying supplies for the victims. Jermaine and Elsie represents my experience of Ladbroke Grove. Doesn't matter where you are from or what colour you are, we just get on with it. I am blessed to live in this area.”

West London Film Network Presents was a night that demonstrated the breadth of diversity and community spirit, both in the selection of films it showed, and in the audience that came together on the night. In the wake of Grenfell, West London has suffered, but this was a night that demonstrated that it remains unbroken. And in Jermaine and Elsie, Lopez and Campbell’s picture gave the audience an unforgettable experience, and a film that deserves to be seen – not just in all corners of the capital – but far beyond.

Homepage photo: Jermaine and Elsie.

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