In Conversation With: Ciné-Real's Liam Saint-Pierre
Filmmaker Liam Saint-Pierre has been screening 16mm prints of inimitable classics under the, not-for-profit, CINÈ-REAL banner for around five-years now. Jaws, Scarface, Enter The Dragon, Breakfast At Tiffanys and countless others all in analogue format. The whirr of the projector adding a real sense of theatre to what is the now often mundane experience of heading to the cinema.
Locations have a been invariably out of the ordinary too. Small galleries, gorgeous music halls and a military members club have all played host.
While television has become somewhat of a standard bearer of visual storytelling in recent years, CINÈ-REAL is also a place for cinephiles new and old to extol the virtues of not only the format of film but the medium itself. Each screening is proceeded by a short introduction by Liam and a walk through the history of the print by renowned projectionist and co-founder Umit Mesut.
Before that, we spoke with Liam about the analogue vs digital debate, alternative cinematic experiences and Cinè-Real's greatest hits.
Is there a particular experience that ignited your passion for film / cinema?
I remember being five years old and going to the cinema in Blackburn. There was a 20-minute film on before the main feature called ‘The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle’. A Hopi Native American boy is banished from his village after he defies tribal law and frees a sacred, sacrificial eagle. After surviving in the wilderness he returns to his village where he is again rejected. Fleeing, the boy climbs a cliff and jumps off but before he reaches the ground turns into an eagle. At that time I too was feeling lonely, my parents were in the middle of a divorce and as I sat in the dark I felt my struggle echoed by the young boy’s journey on the screen. Since then film, watching and making, has been a way I’ve been able to feel understood and connect to the wider world.
Tell us a little bit about how you set up Cine-Real.
About 5 years ago on a cold October night, I was waling back to my flat in Hackney when I came across an old super 8 projector lying in a bin. Seeing this as a sign from the cinematic gods I wiped off the used teabags and banana peel and carried it home. The projector looked in good condition, but I couldn’t get it to work. I remembered there was a shop in Hackney called Umit & Son that specialised in super 8 and 16mm film projection. The shop was run by Umit Mesut, a passionate, friendly, life long film fanatic. As Umit worked on the projector (free of charge) they talked about the beauty of celluloid and bemoaned the lack of places to watch film as film.
I confidently asked Umit to be the projectionist, only to be politely declined. Undeterred I bought a 16mm projector and managed to get hold of a 16mm print of Jaws.
The first screening in a small gallery attended by friends did not go to plan. I had problems changing the reels, dealing with jumping splices and warbling sound, and though the audience were accommodating (entertaining each other with games of charades whilst I battled on), it was not a great success. The next day I returned to the shop and after a bit of persuading Umit agreed to come to the next screening as a kind of projectionist’s mentor.
Despite his initial resistance, Umit loved the night. It still gave him a buzz to lace up the old projector and watch the warm glow of celluloid fill the big screen. He was excited by how many people were still interested in film and shared his passion. Since then Umit has been the regular projectionist at CINÉ-REAL where we have shown a 16mm film once a month for the past five years.
What has been your favourite screening so far and why?
There have been quite a lot that I’ve loved, however one that stands out was the screening of Sunset Boulevard to 250 people at the Wilton’s Music Hall in Tower Hamlets. If you’ve not been it’s a grand 19th Century building with a balcony, ornate pillars and deep red curtains. Watching Umit work the projector with the crowd below felt like we were in our very own cinema Paridiso. That said, the Moth Club has been a perfect match for CINÉ-REAL, when we showed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there to a packed room of 90 people, Umit couldn’t stop smiling.
What was it that drew you to the 16mm format to begin with and why do you think it’s important to keep analogue format going?
There is something about the feel of analog that you just don’t get with digital. It’s like the difference between sitting in front of an open fire compared to a radiator. We chose 16mm over 35mm as it was easier to get the prints. There are also lots on super 8mm, but they’re often abridged and come on 8 reels!
UMIT HAS QUITE A REPUTATION IN THE INDUSTRY. WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING WITH SOMEONE WITH SUCH EXPERTISE?
It’s been great fun, and wonderful to see Umit come to life in front of a crowd. When we first started I would introduce the film, as Umit was too shy. However, after a year or so I managed to convince him to get up and talk about the print, where it was from, what stock they used and so on. He quickly got hang of it and loves to share his passion and insights with the audience, it never ceases to make me smile. As we’ve got to know each other over the years it feels like we’ve become an odd double act.
HOW DO YOU THINK THE CINEMA-GOING EXPERIENCE WILL DEVELOP OVER THE NEXT FEW YEARS? WILL WE SEE A RISE IN THE TYPE OF ALTERNATIVE EXPERIENCE YOU OFFER?
I think there are already lots of alternative screenings and cinema’s, well especially in London, where there’s a desire for a more unique screening experience. However, I’m not sure if they’ll be many that project film. With 16mm it’s getting harder to find the prints (this often what determines which films we can show) and as they age some of them begin to lose colour, which sometimes means we can’t screen certain prints. Though you never know, if a demand builds, like we saw with vinyl, then things may change.
Visually, the projector is an impressive piece of kit. What’s been the general reaction from audiences? Are people generally familiar with it or not?
There’s something about the physicality and simplicity of an analog machine that you just don’t get with modern projectors. People always love to have a look at the projector and see how it works. Also, the calming sounds the projector makes as the reels whirl around are another crowd favourite.
Can you tell us about any other projects you’re working on outside of Cine-Real?
I’ve got quite a lot. I’m working on a few documentaries; One about a strong woman who escaped an abusive relationship and after 12 months of training made it to the Europe’s Strongest Women championship. Another is about an Indian Luger from the Himalayas who is trying to get to the Olympics with an the help of an American coach who won gold in the 70’s. The other doco looks at the stories from abandoned Spaces in Blackburn (an old ballroom, a Church and a Cotton Mill) paired with their modern equivalents (A night club, a paint factory and a shopping Centre), the film weaves the stories of those places to reflect the spirit of the town. It’s called ‘ Work, Leisure and what we do on Sundays’. I’m also working on a couple of narrative pieces, as well as a longer form documentary. In between that I run a monthly workshop for writers, actors and directors called the DAW workshop.