Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is showing at BFI London Film Festival on Tuesday 13th October
Many of us will have had one or two pubs or bars in our life that became a centre of community belonging and friendship. The doors a gateway to familiar faces, political debates, tears and drunken laughter; the bar staff celebrating the creation of an alcohol-fuelled family. For me, that place was the Rainbow and Dove in Leicester. A gay local that became a second home to me for many years while living in the city. Every face offering a familiar smile; every conversation laced with humour and every bar stool occupied by the same regular punter’s. The bar staff full of optimism, care and love for each person who walked through the door.
It all sounds perfect, right? Well in many ways it was. But, there was also a darker side to the joy and belonging. With many regular drinkers sitting from the mid-morning too late evening; alcohol their escape and demon as their personality slowly changed throughout the day under the influence. The pub a mere refuge, home and safety net, unconditionally taking money for the escapism offered.
Over the year’s many films and TV shows have attempted to reflect this unique environment. However, few have embraced both the darkness and light the bar creates at the heart of community life. But, with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directors Bill and Turner Ross capture a rare honesty in reflecting the ecosystem of the bar. In a smart, engaging and thoroughly addictive constructed reality film.
Shot as a documentary, and in turn, fooling many people into thinking it was. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is something far more complex and fascinating as a film. A constructed reality movie that while set in Las Vegas, was filmed in New Orleans. The final night of a cosy, yet shabby community bar on the fringes of the city, a mix of fiction and reality wrapped in humour and emotion. The punter’s all hand-picked non-professional locals who were brought together in creating the final night of a the ‘Roaring 20s’ bar. However, the result is nothing short of a stunning, constructed reality gem. The interactions, conversations and arguments rooted in a rarely captured realism. Now at this point, you may be wondering if this stunning film is nothing more than a trick, or glorious deception.
In part, you would be right, with the resulting film, not the reality it pretends to be, but let’s be honest the pub or bar environment is the same. Drinking venues are themselves a constructed reality. From the design of the environment to the alcohol-fuelled friendships that often end at the door. Pubs and bars are a form of theatre, and it’s clear the Ross Brothers understand this. Their small, but perfectly formed film creating the same illusion as the venues it reflects—the customers a dysfunctional yet loving orchestra; the bar staff conductors of the unruly ensemble.
However, dig even deeper and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets offers a frank exploration of the slow gentrification of drinking venues. As the independent pub and bar is slowly erased from existence. Replaced by chain venues, and gastro-pubs removed from the community they serve. The dysfunctional family of drinkers replaced by two-for-one meals, cocktails and burgers. The theatre of the pub and its orchestra of diverse voices drowned out by a need to be family-friendly. Of course, for many bars and pubs, this transition has been made out of a necessity to survive. But, in the process, community space has been lost in favour of profit. The victims, more often than not, the lost and lonely who relied on the escapism and belonging the bar offered.
But alongside the deeper social conversations raised, the Ross Brothers create an environment where beautiful moments of human connection appear out of nowhere. The walls of the small, neon-lit bar a theatre of debate, music, dance and poetry. A safe, booze laden haven of human connection, where even the lost and lonely find peace and belonging.
of course, there are moral questions raised relating to constructed reality in filmmaking. Especially for films that lull an audience into a sense of traditional documentary-like realism. And in this sense Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets skirts the edges of a wider moral dilemma in filmmaking; the need to reflect life, while equally retaining control over the final story. A debate that will undoubtedly continue to rage, between those who view the documentary as a reflection of reality and those who believe constructed reality can also reflect real-life with a theatrical twist.
Equally, some may find the exploration of the fulltime drunk and their place at the heart of the bar a challenge. However, when bars cease to offer a space to those who live their lives at the end of a bottle, the individuals drinking doesn’t just stop. With the home becoming a closed and lonely den of secretive booze. Their vulnerability often only increasing without the safety and security of the pub or bar. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets never seeks to answer these questions but does reflect the need for belonging and safety, even when surrounded by the demon of addiction.
For me, constructed reality or not, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is one of the most authentic, engaging and real depictions of bar life ever committed to film. Its themes of belonging, acceptance and family wrapped in a wider conversation on the slow erosion of our community pubs and bars. While at the same time taking the viewer on an unforgettable night out, among characters who jump from the screen and into your heart.
Read more from BFI London Film Festival 2020 here