A Bunch of Amateurs recently premiered at Sheffield Doc Fest, where it won the audience award.
In a run-down clubhouse, the paint peels from the walls, the roof leaks when it rains, and unscrupulous locals dump their rubbish in the club driveway. Welcome to Bradford Movie Makers. Here in the decaying building, they call home, a group of friends keep the flame of amateur filmmaking alive, despite the slow disappearance of similar groups since the 1990s. In this dysfunctional family of ageing cinephiles, Harry wants to do a shot-for-shot remake of the opening sequence to classic musical Oklahoma, a film that meant so much to him and the wife he now cares for at home.
Meanwhile, Colin, the club projectionist and carpenter, is desperate to keep the building alive, despite the graffiti and rubbish adorning its entranceway. At the same time, Phil and Joe, two of the club’s younger members, are concerned about the number of filming projects the group takes on and the need to finish what they have started. Finally, Marie, the newest member, is determined to inject new life into the slowly dying club.
Each member knows the value of the cinema club they attend and understands its long and prestigious history since 1932. Still, times are changing, and just like in Hollywood, the golden age of cinema feels like a distant memory. However, what keeps the Bradford Movie Makers alive despite its dwindling finances and crumbling clubhouse is a passion for film, a sense of family and a love of the celluloid dream.
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Filmed over three years, Kim Hopkins’ documentary A Bunch of Amateurs received its world premiere at Sheffield Doc Fest, where it won the Audience Award. Hopkins’ fly-on-the-wall film is a delight, a story of friendship, humanity, community, creativity and hope that had the Sheffield audience entranced.
A Bunch of Amateurs is a documentary designed to be watched on the big screen in the company of others; a love letter to a group of cinephiles who defiantly strive to keep their club alive against all the odds. It is one of the most heartfelt, humorous and engaging documentaries I have seen in a long time, and one that I have no doubt will find a place in the heart of every audience member it touches. I recently met with director Kim Hopkins, producer Margaréta Szabó and club members Joe Ogden, Jeanette Wilson, Phil Wainman and Marie McCahery to discuss A Bunch of Amateurs.
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Neil: Thank you so much for giving up your evening to talk to me about A Bunch of Amateurs, and congratulations on the audience award at Sheffield Doc Fest. I loved this documentary and its tender, sweet discussions on community, friendship and film.
Phil: Thank you. It’s great that we are liked. We weren’t sure we were gonna be! [Laughs]
Neil: At its heart, A Bunch of Amateurs is about a passion for film and filmmaking. So can I start by asking whether there is a memory or moment in your past that sparked your love for film? Kim, can we start with you?
Kim: It was probably my introduction to documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman one Christmas on BBC Two when they showed his acclaimed film, Central Park. If I remember rightly, my whole family was at my grandmother’s house watching the usual Christmas telly while I was in another room watching Fred Wiseman’s documentary. I think that was the moment my love of documentary filmmaking was born.
Neil: What about you, Phil?
Phil: When I was a teenager, I got into horror and sci-fi films, you know, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Company of Wolves and 2001, before then progressing to the films of Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman. I loved movies that created a different reality and made you see the world another way, leading me to become a visual artist and painter. But the moment my love of art and film combined was around the late nineties in a series of student films at Bradford College. A friend of mine was making films, and an actor hadn’t turned up. I had never done acting, but he asked me to step in at the last minute. He had this camera on his shoulder, and I was like, I think that I could do that.
Phil: I thought only the BBC and Hollywood had the equipment to make films, but I quickly realised anyone could do it with new camcorders. So, I was like, I’m gonna do that, and my friend said, “Oh, you should go study filmmaking at college; if you’re not a student, you’ll never do it”. Well, I never became a student, and I still did it!
Neil: Joe, what about you?
Joe: I was doing some acting work when Phil came along in the late nineties and said, “would I like to be in a film”. Phil and I met up just as we were both starting to explore our love of filmmaking, and my love of acting also morphed into a love of camera work. I can’t really think of one film that inspired me. But yeah, I really enjoy making films.
Neil: And finally, Marie, what about you?
Marie: Well, I was a radio presenter with Joe at BCB, and I got into it by accident. Joe persuaded me to come along to Bradford Movie Makers; I was interested due to my love of the fifties vintage scene and steampunk.
Neil: [Marie] So, were you interested in the archive Bradford Movie Makers held?
Marie: Oh yeah. I love the vintage films Bradford Movie Makers hold in their archives.
Neil: So, coming back to you, Kim, what drew you to the story of Bradford Movie Makers?
Kim: I have been interested in making a film about a club for years. In fact, I used to be a member of the Harley Davidson Riders Club; that’s not the Harley Davidson Owners Club; there’s a distinct difference between the two – one is all about fancy, shiny Harley Davidson bikes, and the other is about people repairing them. There were amazing people in that club who would ride their restored Harley Davidson bikes around the country with a name like ‘Bad Mike’ when they were a farmer in their other life. So, I went to their AGM and tried to get access, but they ultimately said no.
So, I searched for a club for some time and stumbled over Joe on Facebook. At that time, Joe hadn’t met Jeanette and was on his lonesome. He had written this beautiful lament about not having somebody in his life. I thought it was so emotionally honest for a Northern bloke as they usually keep everything held within. I then stumbled on a little film he had made with Phil on the rainy streets of Bradford, which appealed to my sensibilities. So, I thought, who are these guys?
Phil [Kim]: I remember you messaging me about a potential documentary film. And I thought that sounded really interesting.
Kim: Being from North Yorkshire, I knew what the northerners could be like, and I knew that they would likely look at me with suspicion. I’d made a film in Cuba before this one under Castro’s regime, and I have to say, I found it easier to access Cuba than Bradford Movie Makers!
When I eventually got invited to the club, I did my spiel about how I wanted to make a film about the club and its members, explaining that I would hang around with them for a long time. I’m not sure how much of this sank in then! But after they considered my proposal, the AGM voted in favour of letting me in.
Phil [Kim]: I had been trying to sell the idea to the club after your presentation. We were running out of money and trying to get new members. No one had heard of us, and I was like, we’ve got nothing to lose. You can’t destroy a reputation, you haven’t got! So, I thought it could be good for us.
Neil [Phil]: Can you expand on that a bit more, Phil? What were the apprehensions around letting Kim and her team in?
Phil [Neil]: A few group members thought the documentary might make us all look like complete eejits. They felt we would have no control once we let Kim in and signed the release statement. But I went to see Voices of the Sea when it premiered at York Picturehouse…
Kim [Phil] That’s the Cuban film.
Phil: Yeah. So I was like, these guys are professional; they aren’t doing trashy reality TV. These are professional documentary makers. I just thought I’d be shocked if they played us; you seemed genuine and passionate about what you were doing. Of course, some people never quite let go of that paranoia.
Kim [Phil]: I think that’s normal. That happens all the time.
Phil [Kim] But me and Harry were practically dancing in front of the cameras. We loved it!
A BUNCH OF AMATEURS – BRADFORD MOVIE MAKERS
Margaréta: Of course, there’s always a risk with documentaries that people modify their behaviour on camera.
Kim: Absolutely. I mean, that was something that was learned in the seventies. I don’t know if people are old enough to remember a long-running series from Paul Watson called ‘The Family.’ The fly-on-the-wall films went out weekly on the BBC, but as the family read about themselves in the papers, they adjusted their behaviour and became self-aware. I was with Bradford Movie Makers for nearly three years, building and maintaining trust. I started off filming solely in the club, and then slowly, people would allow me into their homes. Eventually, genuine friendships are formed, and you are invited back for a glass of wine because you’ve become friends, and it’s no different in filmmaking. Isn’t that true, Jeanette?
Jeanette: Yeah. [laughs]
Kim: There is that fantastic scene of you with a huge glass of rosé.
Phil [Jeanette] That scene always gets a laugh.
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Neil [Kim] So you have already stated that this was a three-year process, Kim, but nobody could have foreseen the arrival of COVID 19 mid-way through. How did the pandemic change your vision of where you were going with the film?
Kim: COVID was a double-edged sword; I think, on the one hand, it hugely enhanced the film, but it also gave us a massive headache. If we cast our minds back to March 2020, we were cleaning every shopping bag, and I was aware people were scared. I knew I was working with some of the most vulnerable people; people who were elderly and had long-term illnesses. I thought, oh gosh, this is a big problem, so I decided to try and get us all on Zoom. That took some time because we had some elderly members who didn’t have the technology. I wanted to see if I could keep the film alive while ensuring the club survived online. I asked them if they could do video diaries during the lockdown, keeping the storyline and the themes present.
Neil: Phil, Joe, Marie and Jeanette. How did you feel when COVID 19 came along, you must have worried about the club’s survival?
Joe: Yeah. Well, there’s always that fear, isn’t there. But the main thing was making sure people were safe and healthy.
Jeanette [Joe]: We shielded, didn’t we? We had to shield.
Joe: I’ve got a condition, and Jeanette’s got severe asthma.
Marie: I was filming the protest marches that I was going on.
Kim: Marie had a different take on things, and I found some of that very interesting; you know, she recognised the difficulties of isolation.
Phil: Marie and I just argued all through the lockdown. [laughs]
Marie: I think lockdown has caused many problems in the town.
Kim: I think the club represented the country’s diverse opinions on COVID 19 and lockdown in many ways.
Phil: My worry was my elderly mother and my brother, who has a disability. My fear wasn’t catching it; it was passing it on to my family members. So I kept away from the club for nearly two years; I had to put my family’s health first.
Neil [Kim] In many ways, the documentary feels like a bridge between generations and a reflection on endings and beginnings?
Kim: I was keen on having a slightly allegorical sense to the film where these clubs sprouted up during the golden age of Hollywood. But, as Hollywood has slowly declined, amateur filmmaking clubs have done the same. They are a mirror of what’s been going on in the industry.
Neil: Bradford Movie Makers is 90 years old this year; what are the plans for its 90th anniversary?
Marie: Oh, we’re having a big birthday party next month.
Joe: It’s gonna be an open day with lots of things going on throughout the day with cakes and buns.
Neil: A Bunch of Amateurs premiered at Sheffield Doc Fest, where it had a brilliant reception, so where to next?
Kim [Neil] I am not sure we can officially say yet. But we have got more festivals lined up. We are planning a theatrical release before hopefully bringing it back to community cinemas and clubs. It was so gratifying to see the audience in Sheffield really get it. And the standing ovation it received was just amazing.
Phil [Kim] Amazing.
Joe [Kim] I had never seen a standing ovation like that before.
Kim: Yeah. I mean, that ovation went on and on and on. At specific points, the audience would break out in spontaneous rounds of applause; they were rooting for these guys, which was fantastic to see. We’ve all been locked up for a couple of years, and I think we need films like this now. Just because it’s full of humour, it doesn’t preclude it from being about serious issues, from community cohesion to mortality and ageing.
Neil: My final question is to Kim. Documentary films are sadly missing from most cinemas in the UK, with every screen dedicated to big-budget blockbusters. It often feels like the feature-length documentary is being pushed more and more towards television and streaming. What do we need to do to bring the documentary back to our cinema screens?
Kim: Many big-budget films are about the same thing, sport, murder and celebrity. But there is so much drama next door. I wish we looked after documentaries better in the industry because we’re good at it. In fact, we are brilliant at it in this country. We need to look after it.
Marie: Can I just add that there are many amateur filmmaking clubs in the country. So if there’s one in your town, please look it up and support them.
Joe: We need new members.
Kim: A young lad came into the cinema once. He was probably a student at Bradford, putting his film up on the big screen for the first time and getting a massive round of applause. He came out with a beaming smile and said that that was so different from a thumbs up on YouTube.
Phil: I think there’s a tendency for towns and cities like Bradford to talk about culture but not support the amateur filmmakers living in their town. If you say, “I’m an amateur, I just make films as a hobby,” they’re not interested. I think there needs to be a recognition that culture is what people write, sing and film; it’s what everyday people do all the time.