Gilbey on Film: save our cinemas!

Unlike out-of-town multiplexes, the likes of Walthamstow's EMD bring communities together.

The campaign to save the EMD cinema in Walthamstow, east London, is nothing new (the NS reported on it back in 2004) but it is vital that anyone wishing to add their signatures to the petition does so by the end of this month.

The McGuffin Film and Television Society (so named in honour of Alfred Hitchcock, born in nearby Leytonstone) has done a hardy job of highlighting the social and cultural loss that will befall this corner of London if the cinema, which is Grade II listed, is converted into a church by its current owners UCKG (United Church of the Kingdom of God). UCKG bought the building in 2003, following their acquisition of the Rainbow Theatre, the legendary former music venue in Finsbury Park, north London. Since then, the EMD has stood dormant, and was recently occupied by squatters. Images taken by the local MP Stella Creasy have shown the interior to be in a state of significant disrepair, contrary to the claims of UCKG.

A video filmed by torchlight inside the cinema was as difficult for me to watch as any horror movie. I have a sentimental attachment to the place -- it was where I saw my first film, and countless subsequent ones. I was as happy there as a child as anywhere I have ever been, so it would not be overstating the case to say that seeing the dilapidated, water-damaged interior now is like witnessing the desecration of a childhood home.

The connection with the EMD, or the Granada as it was known when I used to go there, reach even further back in my family. My Italian grandmother, who still lives in nearby Chingford, used to visit the cinema most Monday evenings after she first arrived in London. She was in her early twenties and had left Italy to live in east London with her husband (my late grandfather) whom she had married when he was stationed in Grado during the Second World War. With only a few English phrases, and even fewer friends, these cinema visits served various purposes: they gave her a breather from looking after a young baby (my father), while the films helped improve her English vocabulary, and the social aspect brought her into contact with other Italian immigrants.

She looked after me a lot in the early years of my life, and it was in her company that I rode the few miles to Walthamstow on the upper deck of a Routemaster, and visited my first cinema. It couldn't have been the movie we saw that hooked me -- I was four years old, and it was a feature-length version of the ropey 1970s sitcom Man About the House, chosen simply because that was what happened to be on. More likely it was the Granada itself. The description on the McGuffin site brings the grandeur of the place back to me:

Flamboyant interior decorations by the world famous Russian director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky ... The cinema's lavish interior was inspired by a trip to the grand Alhambra Palace in Spain, resulting in the Granada's large foyer being designed in an elaborate 17th Century Baroque style with a marble floor and extravagant chandeliers while the main auditorium boasted colourful Moorish-inspired arches and grille-work. Sidney Bernstein [the cinema's proprietor] insisted that the beautiful interior should be decorated with fresh flowers each day.

Perhaps at the time I just thought that all cinemas were that swanky. Possibly the magnificence of the Granada didn't hit me fully until I visited another local cinema, the slightly less impressive Woodford Majestic, which couldn't boast chandeliers, or that expansive carpeted landing outside the Granada's Screen 1 on its first floor, so ridiculously vast that Gatsby could have comfortably hosted an intimate shindig there. The Majestic certainly didn't have fresh flowers in the lobby every day. Did anywhere?

The glory of the Granada was wrapped up for me in lots of other wonderful aspects of the cinemagoing experience -- the unspoken, delicious naughtiness of being in the cinema in the afternoon, the picnics that my grandmother would prepare for us to share in the stalls (Spam and Salad Cream sandwiches, crunchy red apples, Golden Wonder crisps, orange squash that she would decant into glasses in the dark). We saw a lot of the Disney releases of the day and a good deal of inferior things I expect, but whatever we chose must have been immeasurably improved by where we were seeing it.

That still held true for the movies I saw at the Granada as I got older. It felt just right seeing Scorsese's After Hours there on a grey Saturday afternoon, the building's faded glamour all around me, and only two or three other people in the cinema. And I'm sure Scream, the last film I saw at the Granada (in 1997), was that bit scarier because I wasn't sitting in one of the slick multiplexes which had begun springing up in the vicinity, but rather in a waning picture palace full of its own lingering ghosts.

My reason for turning on the faucet of nostalgia and giving it the full Alan Titchmarsh is not self-indulgence (well, not only self-indulgence) but rather to point out a truism with regard to the campaign to save the EMD: that cinemas situated in communities, unlike multiplexes out-of-town, are not merely buildings. They are focal points for those communities, repositories for our memories, bridges from the past into the future, monuments to the immediacy of film, and part of who we are as a society.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood