+ Q&A with director Kim Hopkins, producer Margareta Szabo and special guests from the Bradford Movie Makers
A Bunch of Amateurs is set in Bradford in the north of England, in an area where outsiders are treated with eyebrow raising suspicion, and those wielding a camera are outright cold shouldered. I was raised here, so I understand the local codes, working-class sensibilities and the tough history. The ghosts of a prosperous industrial past are everywhere, but Bradford is now one of the poorest cities in Europe. These working-class folks are the collateral damage of an ideologically split society that at best ignores them, at worst somehow holds them responsible. Here, comedy has a very serious function – to ward off the devil, be that devil sadness, loneliness or the Grim Reaper himself. Laughter is a sort of survival mechanism to get you through the bad times. They are good, honest people, the so called ‘salt of the earth’. It is these sentiments that I wanted at the heart of A Bunch of Amateurs.
I had to immerse myself wholly into the world of these characters. I decided on an old-school character-driven verité approach with a handheld cinema camera fluidly following subjects so that an intimate portrait and storylines would emerge without need of commentary or other story devices. Some scenes would be filmed by the characters themselves. Footage from the Club’s archive, dating back to the 1930s, along with excerpts of subjects’ own movies provide a varied texture and historical sweep.
A whimsical tongue-in-cheek tone and playful editing are intended to hook the audience on a slightly absurdist journey where we ponder more and more on why anyone makes a film in the first place. Why ordinary Joe aspires to be an artist in an anti-art culture?
The story of A Bunch of Amateurs centres not only on the love and magic of the cinema, but on the ritual of gathering to watch movies together under one roof. As Walter Murch writes: ‘Humans have been assembling in the dark, listening to stories, since the invention of language. It is indelibly part of who we are and how we bond with each other. The theatrical experience is a recreation of this primeval gathering, the flames of the campfire replaced by shifting images that are telling the story itself.’ And in a moment when we have all tasted what it feels like to be isolated, marginalised, vulnerable, and also impoverished, A Bunch of Amateurs is a zeitgeist film about our overriding need for contact and connection, regardless of actual age.
While talking about the isolation of our elders felt somewhat abstract and altruistic pre pandemic, these days isolation feels like something we all immediately understand and want to abate. A Bunch of Amateurs shows ageing warriors against isolation actively generating contagious collective activity and union, delighting in ingenuity and self-expression while building a glorious sense of belonging, never more pertinent than now.
Kim Hopkins, 2022
In her 1996 New York Times essay ‘The Decay of Cinema’, Susan Sontag wrote, ‘If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too.’ Director Kim Hopkins opens A Bunch of Amateurs with this quote, and her film is an affectionate portrait of the Bradford Movie Makers, a dozen lifelong cinephiles resolutely keeping the flame alive. Ominous signs are evident – from the creaking bodies of the club’s more senior members to the clubhouse that is crumbling around them – but when it comes to the serious business of realising their DIY short films, the BMMs’ infectious enthusiasm remains undimmed.
Hopkins has some fun with the filmmakers’ attempts to emulate Hollywood spectacle on a shoestring budget, which leads to thorny questions such as how to recreate the opening scene of Oklahoma! (1955) when your lead actor is an 80-year-old Yorkshireman who’s never been on a horse. But beyond the comedy value inherent in this concept, there’s a note of poignancy when Harry, the octogenarian in question, reveals that his homage is for his now ailing wife Mary, as Oklahoma! was the first film they saw together. While A Bunch of Amateurs initially appears to fit neatly into the tradition of amusing studies of English eccentrics, it deepens into a touching reflection on the importance of cinema and community for an ageing population whose lives are too often isolated and lacking in purpose. The weekly meetings of the Bradford Movie Makers offer the club’s members a human connection and respite from caring for the loved ones who are currently bedridden or struggling with dementia; one member tells us that being part of the group has helped him cope with bouts of depression. Sontag writes about cinephilia keeping cinema alive, but it’s clear from A Bunch of Amateurs that cinema can also serve to sustain the cinephiles themselves.
The film can feel a little directionless as it shifts interest from one member to another, but Hopkins creates a narrative thread by focusing on the looming threat of extinction that the group faces. Similar collectives in Leeds and Wakefield have already folded, and the region’s once-thriving amateur film community is dwindling into an ever smaller niche. With attempts to enlist younger members falling flat, there’s a very real possibility that this club will die with its ageing membership. The Bradford Movie Makers celebrate their 90th anniversary this year, but how many years do they have left? We only know one thing for sure: they will make the most of every moment.
Philip Concannon, Sight and Sound, December 2022
A BUNCH OF AMATEURS
Director: Kim Hopkins
©: Labor of Love Films Ltd
a Labor of Love Films production
With support from: Gotham
Production Company: BFI Doc Society Creative Edit Lab
Fiscal sponsorship provided by: The International Documentary Association
Made with the support of the: Yorkshire Content Fund, BFI Doc Society Fund
Presented by: BFI Doc Society Fund
in association with: Screen Yorkshire
International Sales: Met Film Sales
Executive Producers: Lisa-Marie Russo, Caroline Cooper Charles, Simon Beaufoy, Capella Fahoome, Megan Gelstein
Produced by: Margareta Szabo, Kim Hopkins
Writer: Kim Hopkins
Cinematography: Kim Hopkins
Editor: Leah Marino
Graphic Design: Graphicon Industries
Colourist: Daniel Stuyck
Composer: Terence Dunn
Sound Recordist: Margareta Szabo
Re-recording Mixer: Tom Hammond
Courtesy of Republic Distribution
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From Fri 4 Nov (Preview on Thu 20 Oct 20:20; extended intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer at Large on Fri 4 Nov 17:50; intro by Kieron Webb, Head of Conservation, BFI Archive on Mon 7 Nov 18:00)
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From Fri 11 Nov (+ intro by Kieron Webb, Head of Conservation, BFI National Archive on Fri 11 Nov 17:50)
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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