AAmateur filmmaking in Bradford was once a glamorous pastime. At the height of the Bradford Movie Makers’ powers, there was a seven-year waiting list for membership, hundreds of people attended the organization’s annual film festival and each year buses full of impeccably dressed members were descending on the seaside town of Bridlington for their summer trip.
Fast forward to 2019 and former club chairman Colin Egglestone, now 89, was out in the middle of winter in total darkness, determinedly painting the graffiti on the club’s gates- house. It would barely last the evening before a new set of squiggles appeared. Bradford Movie Makers – established in 1932 as Bradford Cine Circle – was struggling. His aging limbs barely hit double digits, with no new blood inflow. The organization was five years behind on rent, its premises a constant target for vandalism, burglary and fly tipping, and its backyard a convenient dumping ground. soil for everything from refrigerators to condoms to used needles. The end seemed imminent.
Now, with the help of a Covid Small Business Grant and a truly dedicated subscription, things look healthier. The grant paid for the erection of a wall to keep vandals out, as well as the renovation of the clubhouse, and soon new members began to join. The band and their story are now the subject of a documentary, A Bunch of Amateurs, which has just premiered at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. It quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation, receiving standing ovations and winning the People’s Choice Award. It’s a deeply moving and funny film that acts as an extraordinary document of the power of community and art.
The film portrays a disparate group of characters bound not only by a love of cinema but also by a deep friendship. “I was very touched because people were asking which friends we would be bringing to the 90th party, and Phil said, ‘I have all my friends here at the club,'” Harry Nicholls, 86, said before Phil Wainman , one of the youngest members at 49, snaps back: “What I meant was that I don’t have any other friends outside of the club.”
Nicholls’ history with the club goes back decades. If you were walking the streets of Bradford in 1979, you might have come across him on camera dressed as Captain Marvel in his wife’s pink tights. While the club mainly makes original films, short and long, from comedy to drama, Nicholls has a taste for remakes that extends to recently playing Superman, superimposed soaring above the twinkling lights of Bradford at night. He also recreated the opening scene from Oklahoma! , riding a white stallion and singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, with a Stetson hat and scarf. When he offered to redo the scene, however, he overlooked one issue: “How is he going to ride? He’s around 80,” someone points out in the documentary, before a suggestion comes up. “We could have a Shetland pony, I suppose?” The end result was weeks of working from home for Joe Ogden, who had the task of CGI-ing Nicholls’ head onto the body of a woman riding a white horse around a field in Nicholls’ outfit. .
It’s a storyline that captures the essence of the band: something that may seem comical is also underpinned by talent, creative problem solving and a collaborative approach to filmmaking that has seen the club produce hundreds of films. over the years. These vary from Wainman’s artier experimental shorts, such as Halloween horror The Haunted Turnip, to local history documentary Bradford in the Frame. Ogden alone is currently working on around 16 films of varying duration and genre. “The club is very prolific,” said Nicholls. “A lot of us have really studied the art of filmmaking, the proper language of film.” They all participate too. “I would do anything for someone else’s movie,” Wainman says.
The club proved to be personally important to many of its members. “I try to occupy my nights because I lost my dear wife,” says Nicholls. “Then I lost my younger brother and what really shook me was that I lost my daughter. So I try to keep myself creatively busy, making movies and hanging out with my friends. You are used to having a family and are on your own. The next door neighbors are having a barbecue and they’re all laughing and joking and the people on the other side have kids playing and I’m all alone. Being able to go to the club is a social outlet.
Likewise for Wainman, who cares for his disabled brother, the club means a lot. “It’s leaving real-world issues behind,” he says. “We enter and lock ourselves in our own little world. My father passed away and my care responsibilities have become more difficult, so I have become more isolated and finding it harder to cope. I live for my cinema. I want to be a professional filmmaker. I know all the rest of life, but this creative thing of wanting to write screenplays, work with actors, edit films… it’s there. And if I lost that, there would be nothing there.
After following the organization at the club and at home, including during some of the most trying and isolated times of their lives during the lockdown, A Bunch of Amateurs manager Kim Hopkins has seen how important the club is important up close. “Where social services have let people down, I think the club has stepped in and maintained that community,” she says. “Thousands of people have climbed those rickety stairs and had a lot of fun coming out of this place. It’s really valuable. During the pandemic, we’ve all had a taste of what it could be like to feel isolated. What I witnessed was that the club really helped them – it saved them.
But there is also pride in work. The film’s title refers to a split within the club a few years ago, when it was put to a vote to move from their run-down clubhouse to a conservative club. “I wouldn’t be seen dead at a conservative club,” Wainman says. “But some older members wanted it to be like a gentleman’s private film club, where they just show old movies and talk about the good old days.” The majority voted to stay put, forcing several members to leave and one to proclaim as they stormed out, “You’re a bunch of amateurs. But, in the title of the documentary, it’s a badge of honor, not an insult. “Professional films have to make money, but as amateur filmmakers we can actually tell stories,” says Ogden. “Our stories are just as important as any great Marvel movie or anything else around it.”
Current group chairman Marie McCahery is optimistic about the club’s future ahead of its major milestone. “It’s rejuvenated,” she said. “With Covid money, documentaries and Bradford becoming a city of culture in 2025, I am confident in our future.” Many film clubs have closed in recent years, including one in Leeds, but there are still many around the country, from Burnley to Newcastle upon Tyne. “I hope the film will encourage the rejuvenation of other clubs,” says McCahery. “We don’t want to be the only ones left standing.” One of the goals of the 90th party is to “make Colin proud,” she says, of the member who is only a year younger than the club itself. On the day of his wife’s death, he went to the club anyway out of commitment, as well as to seek solace. “I will continue until I am in my coffin,” he said.
A Bunch of Amateurs will be released later this year.