'A misguided piece of official hysteria'
Police are going to unusual lengths to stop you seeing an obscure, low-budget documentary about an arms manufacturer in Brighton. Steven Morris on the bizarre saga of On the Verge
- The Guardian,
- Thursday March 27 2008
The screening was delayed as organisers waited for stragglers to arrive at the Friends Meeting House in Bath. Then there was a tense pause while a technical glitch was ironed out, and you could not help wondering if the police were about to burst in and halt the film. Finally, the titles rolled and an audience of 30 or so, mainly peace activists and anti-war campaigners, breathed a sigh of relief and settled back to watch a 90-minute film called On the Verge.
Over the past 10 days, the film has become notorious, not so much because of the material it contains but because of the reaction of police forces and local authorities to it. Made for less than £500, the film tells how a small but committed group of activists, smashEDO, are taking on the Brighton base of an international arms manufacturer and, in the process, their local constabulary.
The police, who are not shown in a good light in the film, intervened to stop the movie's premiere at a cinema in Brighton, and since then police officers and council officials have been paying calls to venues across the country where On the Verge (so called because the smashEDO protesters were confined for a while to a narrow grass verge opposite the factory they were targeting) is due to be shown, suggesting that it is not a good idea to show the film. Members of smashEDO and the underground film-maker SchMovies, which produced the documentary, claim they are the victims of a conspiracy and that police forces and licensing authorities around the country have been told to look out for and, if possible, suppress the film. But the case has implications beyond the showing of this film alone. The premiere was halted because the film had not been classified, and independent film-makers and small venues fear that it sets a precedent that will make it more harder for small-budget films, political or not, to be made and shown.
The saga began on March 17. The film's premiere was due to take place at the much loved Duke of York's Picturehouse in Brighton at 6.30pm. At around 4pm, a police officer contacted the city council's licensing department and told them the film was not classified. Strictly speaking, cinemas are obliged to ensure films have classifications either from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) or from the local authority. In practice, independent cinemas often do show community or foreign films without having them classified.
On this occasion, the council suggested the venue take legal advice before going ahead with the screening. The cinema felt it had no choice but to cancel. Being practical people, smashEDO found a local pub that
was prepared to show it and, in two sittings, the premiere went ahead, anti-war protesters and their friends mingling with St Patrick's Day revellers.
Embarrassment followed for the police. Initially they said they had nothing to do with the cancellation. But the city council revealed that its intervention had been prompted by the force, and Sussex police then admitted that a "junior officer" had alerted the city council to the showing. SmashEDO and SchMovies, who worked together extremely closely on the film, believed this was a little local difficulty: the film criticises and mocks the force's attempts to control their protests.
But as they began to tour the country with On the Verge, they discovered that the local authorities appeared to be waiting for them. On the day the film was due to be screened at the tiny Art House community cafe in Southampton, for instance, a police officer turned up and asked questions about the venue's entertainment licence. It does not have one - it is a vegetarian restaurant that occasionally puts on a little music or the odd community film. Jani Franck, one of the directors of the cafe, says she felt threatened by the sudden interest. "It was frightening. The police officer asked me if I knew anything about the smashEDO people. He said they were leftwing anarchists. I grew up in South Africa and this felt like the sort of thing the police there would do. It felt like political policing." But she felt she could not risk showing the film in the cafe and it was shown in a private room in a pub instead.
In Bath the film was also due to be shown in a pub, the Bell, on Tuesday night. But a council licensing officer, Alan Bartlett, pointed out that the pub only had a licence to show films on Sundays. Local peace activist John Bampfylde, who had arranged the screening, says: "I think it's because this film shows how people doing direct action can take on the establishment. The authorities don't want people to know that." How did Bartlett get to hear about the film being shown? He told the Guardian that someone - he could not recall who - had sent him an email drawing his attention to it. The screening was switched to the Friends Meeting House.
Last night (Wednesday), the film was due to be shown at the Three Barrels pub in Hereford. Licensee Peter Amor says that he received a visit from a police licensing officer.
Amor says the officer told him he had been asked by "someone from above" to have a word about the film, though he did not suggest the screening be cancelled. "But you get a bit worried when that happens," says Amor. Rumours had reached the pub that the film claims that Sussex police were involved in someone's death - it does no such thing. When the Guardian spoke to Amor at lunchtime yesterday he was "90% sure" he would show it. "I believe in free speech - Voltaire and all that." But then came a hand-delivered letter from the council saying he did not have a licence to show it and he felt forced to call it off.
Members of smashEDO are sure someone is co-ordinating a campaign against the film.
Andrew Trivett says: "At first we thought it was just Sussex police being spiteful. But it has become clear that there is an organised effort to stop people seeing it." Sussex police deny involvement in a campaign. A spokesman says: "To confirm, we haven't sent a circular to other police forces."
Some good has come of the controversy as far as smashEDO is concerned. The main reason for taking the film on tour was to raise awareness of the campaign, and the row will certainly do this. Several arthouse cinemas have told smashEDO that they want to screen the film, and offers to show it have come in from as far afield as Australia and the US.
However, the saga has deeper implications for the independent film industry. Cinemas like the Duke of York's will have to start submitting all films like On the Verge to the local authority for its approval. The taxpayer will foot the bill. Another concern is that it could be harder for independent film-makers to get their work shown. Obtaining certification from the BBFC is too costly for many small-scale film-makers and if venues do not want the bother of seeking approval from the local authority, some movies may just vanish.
Jerry Morgan, of the Groovy Movie Picture House, a solar-powered cinema, says: "This seems to be an utterly misguided piece of hysteria. If every film has to be classified, what is going to happen to independent films that are made for a few hundred pounds? What's going to happen to film students' work? " Venues are already being affected. The Art House community cafe in Southampton, for one, feels it must get an entertainment licence, which will cost several hundred pounds.
Meanwhile, On the Verge will continue to tour the country, playing to audiences keen to find out what all the fuss is about.