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Birmingham to see Revival of Co-op Film Tradition

AS A child raised on Saturday morning club at my local fleapit, I have always had a love for cinema. A medium that, by just turning down the lights, can silence hundreds of children does it for me. 

As a co-operator it is heartening that there is a very long relationship between the movement and cinema. Back in 1914 in a rallying call the Co-operative News asked: “The cinema: should it be used for co-operative purposes?” 

Seeing that cinema had the means of “attracting the masses — young and old — in a way that would enable them to obtain knowledge, and at the same time be vastly entertained.”

Many societies across the country took up this gauntlet as the local Co-op Hall provided a convenient location for showing films. It was also popular with Co-op members who could get their divi on their tickets.

Many cinema pioneers had begun using co-op halls for cinema exhibition before the first world war, but it really blossomed between the wars with some societies opening purpose-built cinemas. 

Much to the annoyance of commercial cinema operators whose business model was threatened. There was genuine fear among the exhibitors that the Co-op was going to open a cinema circuit.

The Co-op had seen cinema as an advertising medium, using especially produced short films distributed to over a thousand cinemas each season to promote co-op products such as The Cup that Cheers, a celebration of Co-op tea, in 1930. 

It was not just in the showing and distribution of films that the Co-op became involved; they began commissioning and making them. 

The best examples of these films include Advance Democracy (1938), a remarkable short made during the People’s Front Movement of the late ’30s promoted by the four London Co-operative Societies. 

It shows how a housewife galvanises her husband through the co-operative movement and ends with them joining the May Day march of that year accompanied by rousing music by Benjamin Britten. 

The film’s director Ralph Bond, co-founder of the London Workers Film Society, believed in “putting the worker on the screen as a positive and vitally important aspect of life as a whole.” This uplifting short can still be caught free on the BFI website.

Probably the pinnacle of Co-op film in this period was The Men of Rochdale (1944), a remarkable film promoted by the Scottish CWS to mark the centenary of the formation of the first co-op shop in Rochdale. 

No expense was spared in its production, directed by Compton Bennet, script by Reg Groves and music by no less than the London Symphony Orchestra. There is a terrific role for John Lawrie as a businessman threatened by the new co-op. 

Post-war was of course a new world with rising consumerism and the arrival of television, but the movement never forgot its early foray into cinema.

For many years, the Co-operative Group was the sponsor of the of British Youth Film Academy. The BYFA was itself a co-operative of colleges and universities which gave young people hands-on experience of filmmaking. Many of the participants in their summer schools went onto careers in the industry. 

One of the films they produced was The Rochdale Pioneers, released in 2012 and inspired by the 1944 Men of Rochdale. Many of the cast and crew were recruited from the BYFA and worked alongside established actors like John Henshaw and John McArdle. It received its TV premier on Channel 4.  

This year for Co-operatives Fortnight that spirit of engagement between co-operation and cinema is being revived with the Just Film festival to be held between the June 18 and July 4. This online festival is being prompted by Birmingham Co-operative Film Society supported by Central England Co-op and the Co-op News. (justfilm.coop

The festival involves feature films, shorts and an exciting category of brand new five-minute films in three categories, telling co-op stories, social justice drama and social justice documentary. For several weeks submissions in this category have been coming in and I am looking forward to seeing the best of them.

The culmination of the festival will be an in-person awards ceremony on the afternoon of July 4 at the Warehouse Cafe in Digbeth, Birmingham. It is time to attract a new mass of film-lovers to educate and entertain. Check it out. I am already as excited as I was when I was that small child on my way to Saturday morning club.

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