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A past to inspire the future

Cinema Action was the paragon of recording on film of working-class lives and struggles for a quarter of a century. Its legacy will be shown at a film festival beginning this weekend at the Marx Memorial Library. TOMMY HODGSON has the story

This year sees Marx Memorial Library hosting its first film festival in collaboration with Platform Films. The films, documenting struggles of the sixties and seventies, were produced by London-based collective Cinema Action.

The group also used the title Working Class Films. These recordings were designed to provide an analysis of the struggles of working people and to encourage future action, which is why the MML is showcasing them in this special series of events.

Cinema Action has an interesting history that makes it worthy of wider recognition, especially within progressive groups.

The collective started in 1968 by showing a French film about the recent clashes in Paris between riot police and student demonstrators. This screening inspired people such as Ann Guedes, Gustav Lamche and Eduardo Guedes to produce their own short films on political conflicts in Britain.

Their aim was to make the medium of film a core part of political activism. Over the next couple of decades, the membership of Cinema Action was fluid and many political filmmakers got involved, either in production, or just by attending various discussions and screenings.

By the 1970s, Cinema Action had more support from trade unionists, which allowed it to produce higher quality films to greater recognition, prompting even more public funding from the Greater London Arts Association (GLAA) and the BFI, for example.

The establishment of Channel 4 also provided an important platform moving into the 1980s, where documentaries began to be made consciously for a wider audience.

There was also the first production of fictional pieces, such as Rocinante featuring John Hurt, partially in response to political setbacks.

The original Cinema Action project was reliant on wider involvement and activism of radical trade unionists, but the political climate of the late ’70s stifled this momentum, and the ’80s further discouraged the wider left in Britain.

Cinema Action survived for a while on creative changes, but ceased to exist by 1993.

However, its legacy is preserved in the variety of films that it did make and in the valuable experiences of members and associates alike.

The films to be shown at MML will be of particular interest to anyone who wants to learn more about working-class history, or view in-depth accounts of well-known popular struggles.

The films are also notable for their rare and intimate archival footage of the lives and protests of working people, giving a first-hand account of this politically volatile period. 

Cinema Action produced, distributed and exhibited its own political films, notably using the effective technique of letting those involved speak for themselves without commentary. This secured its aim of making real films about working-class life, co-operating closely with the participants and allowing them shared control over the content.

Tomorrow, at 3pm, two films will be shown at MML regarding the Tory government’s attempt to liquidate the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and the subsequent “work-in” organised by union leaders as a response to this, between 1971 and 1972.

The first film The UCS Struggle is a short piece that details the fight for shipyard workers to keep their job, through the unique tactic of occupying and working in the yards, instead of the conventional industrial action of a strike.

This film was actually screened during the occupation at a time when meetings were attended by 25,000 workers overall. It includes footage of a speech by trade union activist Jimmy Reid, who was one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde work-in itself.

Further to this, Class Struggle — Films from the Clyde will be shown, which is a full-length documentary that goes into more depth on the occupation. It includes footage from the “inside” of the work-in such as internal discussions, negotiations and the relationship between the shop stewards and union officials.

It also notably deals with the way that activists and workers both dealt with the press during the event. The film truly portrays the solidarity of the occupation, but also the complexities of the organisational effort behind such a monumental action.

Other topics for this film series at MML include the industrial action of miners in the winter of 1973-4. The Miners’ Film is an award-winning piece exploring this significant event, which managed to alter the political landscape by helping to bring down Edward Heath’s Conservative government.

It will be shown on Saturday, March 26 at 3pm and similarly followed by a discussion.

Beyond this, films about student unions, squatters, the Irish struggle and the Portuguese Revolution will also be shown and discussed over the coming months, as part of this festival.

Each session costs just £5. Proceeds help to fund recently purchased audiovisual set-up in the Library’s main hall.

For details of these film screenings and other events, please check our website: www.marxlibrary.org.uk/education/upcoming-events

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