The price of beans: today in Britain, some working families are so stretched that parents are going without the basics so that they can feed their children. Photo: FELICITY MCCABE
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Why are so many people using food banks?

Last year, almost a million free food parcels were handed out. At the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, Sophie McBain meets the people only a pay cheque from crisis.

Parsons Green is a quiet, affluent neighbourhood of west London. The streets surrounding the green are lined with smart delis, boutiques and champagne bars, and the well-off regulars at the White Horse pub on the corner have earned it the nickname the “Sloaney Pony”. The red-brick terraces of the nearby Peterborough estate sell for £3m or more. Tucked between two of these multimillion-pound homes is ChristChurch Fulham, an Anglican church that since 2010 has housed the local food bank.

Between April 2014 and January this year, Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank handed out more than 3,000 free food parcels. Most of its clients have travelled in from more deprived corners of west London or further afield, but once or twice residents of the Peterborough estate have been forced, by an unexpected job loss and huge debts, to come here for help, too.

“Most people are only a pay cheque away from a crisis,” said Daphine Aikens, the food bank’s founder. We spoke last summer in the short lulls between new arrivals. Every now and then she jumped up from her chair to clear away plastic tea and coffee cups and cake plates, or to make sure the leaflets from local charities were arranged just so on each table. It was an unexpectedly quiet morning, she said, but still a steady stream of people turned up. A mother-of-three who had fled an abusive relationship; an old man; a young couple; a skinny teenager in an oversized hoodie; a single mother with learning difficulties and her ten-year-old son, who translated for her; an Eritrean asylum-seeker whose claim had been rejected, and who wasn’t eligible for a parcel but had nowhere else to go. “I really can’t help you again,” the volunteer said, searching the woman’s face for a sign of understanding.

Aikens used to focus on giving to international NGOs, until she discovered how many people were going hungry closer to home. When she brought up the subject at church a member of the congregation directed her to the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs the UK’s largest network of food banks. Aikens says her work is inspired by her Christianity. “Part of our faith is that we want to serve and to love, and believe people are of value,” she explained. “Lots of people haven’t ever been told they’re of value. Here we can tell people they’re of value, that they deserve the food.”

The Trussell Trust operates as a “social franchise”, which means that each food bank is run as an independent charity but the central organisation provides training, guidelines and logistical support. The details vary from town to town but the overall set-up is the same. Doctors, social workers, the police and various charities hand out vouchers to people in crisis. With this voucher, they can then collect three days’ worth of food from their local food bank. Food banks were designed as an emergency stopgap: the aim is that people should collect no more than three parcels, by which point they should, in theory, have found a more sustainable solution.

The trust was founded in 1997 by two former UN workers, Paddy and Carol Henderson, and was originally conceived to support street children in Bulgaria. Then, in 2000, Paddy received a call from a mother in Salisbury whose children were going hungry. Her story inspired him to open his first food bank in the city, which he ran from home. In 2004, he decided to expand the model. “The simple phrase that stuck with us was that ‘if Salisbury needs a food bank, every town should have one’,” says Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust, who has worked with the organisation since 2003.

In recent years both the number of food banks and the numbers of people who use them have risen exponentially. Between April 2008 and March 2009 Trussell Trust food banks handed out 25,899 parcels. In the corresponding period in 2010-11, covering the time of the last general election, it gave out 128,697. By last financial year (2013-14), that figure had grown nearly eightfold to almost a million parcels. This year the figure is likely to be higher still: 492,741 parcels were given out between April and September 2014, an increase of 38 per cent over the same period in 2013.

This is not the full picture. The Trussell Trust’s 430 or so food banks are believed to account for roughly half the country’s network, but there is no complete database of the charities giving out emergency food aid. The lack of data is partly due to the government’s apparent lack of curiosity about how many people are falling through its welfare net. “The government does not monitor the use of food banks and has no plans to do so,” the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information request in December 2013. In March, the department confirmed that this remains its position.

When a series of reports drew links between government welfare policies and increased food bank usage, the DWP repeatedly insisted there was insufficient evidence for these claims. “Figures used in the media about food banks have been self-reported by food bank providers and their users, and the statistics have not been independently checked or verified,” the DWP said in 2013. Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me he “would push back very strongly on criticism of the data”, and emphasised that the trust complies with Office for National Statistics guidelines as best it can.

The government also does not collect data on people living with food insecurity in the UK, although in December 2013 a group of six experts, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, described food poverty as having “all the signs of a public health emergency”. In August last year John Middleton, vice-president at the Faculty of Public Health, the standard-setting body for public health specialists in the UK, told the Observer that GPs had reported a rise in Victorian-era diseases caused by malnutrition, such as rickets and gout, as Britons on low incomes struggle to feed their families healthily. So, even without comprehensive data, the very existence of food banks poses a troubling question: why, in one of the world’s richest societies – and in a country that prides itself in having welfare provision designed to care for its citizens from cradle to grave – are so many Britons at risk of going hungry?

***

Sam and Joe (their names have been changed at their request, as have others in this article) have been together for just over two years. They met at work, at a supermarket in Hertfordshire. It’s just as well they have each other, they told me, because they don’t have much else. Most days they eat once. They wait until as late as they can possibly manage, then they have a meal of rice or potatoes or (“if we can afford it”) bread – “anything filling”, Sam said. I met them on their second visit to Tower Hamlets Foodbank, in a church surrounded by council blocks. This east London borough has the highest rate of child poverty in the city; the average income is £11,400. I arrived ten minutes before the food bank opened and already a queue had formed outside the door.

Not long after the couple met, Joe, who is 27, left his job to move in with his grandmother and care for her while she was dying of cancer. Then Sam’s mental health grew worse and she found she could no longer work. She thinks she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome – she was abused as a child and left home at 15, and before she met Joe she had been in a string of violent relationships – but she has been waiting for months to see a psychiatrist. When Joe’s grandmother died, they were not allowed to keep on her tenancy. They thought they would end up homeless, but just in time they found somewhere to stay. The problem was that for two months their housing benefit didn’t come through. “We’re just sort of stuck at the moment,” Sam said.

The report Emergency Use Only, published last November jointly by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust, found that Joe and Sam’s experience is not uncommon. Many people arriving at food banks have experienced a number of personal shocks in succession – bereavement, the loss of a job, illness – but between half and two-thirds of users end up at food banks because of problems with benefits. This includes delayed payments, changes to benefits such as the reduction in Disability Living Allowance and financial penalties known as sanctions. As a condition of receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), claimants are required to demonstrate that they are actively looking for work, usually by applying for a set number of jobs a month, and to participate in various training schemes. If they fail to meet their targets they can be sanctioned, meaning that their benefits are cut. Equally, people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a disability or a long-term health condition can be sanctioned for failing to attend a mandatory interview or training programme. In the year to September 2014, 895,000 sanctions were placed on ESA and JSA claimants, up from 564,000 in the final 12 months of the last Labour government.

Emergency Use Only estimates that between 20 and 30 per cent of food bank users have recently faced a sanction. In January this year a former jobcentre official told a parliamentary inquiry that staff were put under pressure by their bosses to meet targets for sanctioning clients. This might explain some of the more unfair examples unearthed by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, which included a man who was sanctioned for writing on the wrong line of his form, and another fined because the job application forms he was required to fill didn’t arrive until after the deadline for applying.

A standard sanction under JSA is loss of benefits for four weeks, or 13 weeks in the case of a second “offence”. For a single person solely reliant on JSA, this can lead to a complete loss of income for up to three months. Under the DWP’s policy, if the suspension of support is going to cause “hardship” you can apply for a payment of 60 per cent of JSA, or £43.40 a week, after two weeks. Its guidelines make clear that it expects that an individual’s health will suffer under sanctions: “it would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without . .  . sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks”. Pregnant women, families with children or people with long-term health problems may be exempt if it is deemed they would “suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult”.

Under a pilot “Foodbank Plus” model run by Tower Hamlets, all visitors to the food bank also speak to an adviser. Martin Williams of the Child Poverty Action Group, who is one of the co-authors of Emergency Use Only, helps visitors with their benefits claims: how to appeal decisions, speed up delayed payments, access advances. The people he sees seem increasingly desperate, he says. For instance, it’s not uncommon for someone with severe mental health problems to be rejected for Employment and Support Allowance and placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance instead. They are then immediately sanctioned because they are too unwell to meet the job application and training requirements for JSA claimants. “Before, you’d see people who have been without help for a couple of weeks, but now it’s not uncommon for people to go without comfort for months,” Williams said.

On the afternoon I visited, he helped Joe and Sam apply for a short-term benefit advance to cover their immediate shortfall and said he would chase up their unpaid housing benefit. How did they feel about the future? I asked. Sam was already gathering up their plastic bags of tinned goods and Joe was still slumped in his chair, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. “I’ve given up on optimism or pessimism,” he said.

The trestle tables at the Cadge Road Community Centre in Norwich were laid out with animal place mats and plastic cups of squash. Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It” was playing at high volume, but the 50 or so children, from toddlers to early teens, lined up patiently for a plate of chicken curry. One boy whose head barely reached above the counter requested a cheese sandwich with no crusts and no butter instead, and the volunteer chef cheerfully obliged. Later there would be Angel Delight and biscuits, and then the children would learn to take fingerprints, detective-style.

When the Trussell Trust learned from local teachers and parent support advisers that many families were struggling to feed their children in the school holidays, they wanted to make sure the FISH lunch clubs they helped set up in response were fun, says Grant Habershon, Norwich Foodbank’s manager. When he retired in 2010 he started working for the Citizens Advice Bureau, but he realised that when people were in need of food he had few places to which he could direct them. When he started the food bank, he estimated he would be supplying food to 2,000 people in the city, but now it’s almost 10,000. “There have always been people who’ve struggled, there’s always been a gap [between someone falling into need and the state stepping in] . . . but it’s just too big at the moment,” he said.

The FISH clubs, which started in 2013 and offer lunches to children during the school holidays, hint at the second major driver of food bank use: low income. According to Trussell Trust figures, 22 per cent of food bank users between April and September 2014 were referred for this reason. “The determinants of food poverty and food insecurity are big, structural issues, including – and very importantly – income. That is one of the most important things: people need more money,” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford, a faculty research fellow at the University of Sheffield specialising in food poverty and insecurity in Britain.

Every year since 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published its minimum income standard report. Members of the public are asked what goods and services they believe they need to ensure an adequate standard of living, and then JRF calculates how much you need to earn to reach this benchmark. As the cost of living has increased, the minimum income standard has risen but national income levels have not kept up. Today a single person on benefits earns less than 40 per cent of the minimum income standard, and families with children earn less than 60 per cent. It isn’t only the unemployed or those on benefits struggling to make ends meet: up to a quarter of food bank users are in work. Despite a prevailing political rhetoric promising to support “hard-working families” or “alarm-clock Britain”, 700,000 people in Britain are on zero-hours contracts with no guaranteed work hours, according to the latest ONS figures; and the JRF income standard – set at £16,300 a year for a single adult with no children in 2014 – is higher than the minimum wage and almost £5,000 higher than the average salary in, say, Tower Hamlets.

Kate had been bringing her three boys, aged three, five and seven, to FISH clubs since the 2013 Easter holidays. Unlike her sons, she hadn’t had lunch that day – though she picked at their leftovers. “It’s all right. If you don’t eat in the morning or the afternoon, you’re not hungry anyway,” she said quietly. That night they’d eat hot cross buns for dinner, and then they’d be out of food for two days. Until 2012, Kate worked in the customer service department at a large international insurance company. She never imagined she’d start to rely on benefits, let alone food aid, but then her partner left her.

“I dreaded handing my notice in, but I just couldn’t afford the childcare. It’s a benefits trap, because there’s no way out of it,” she said. Things were OK for the first two years, but when prices kept on rising she struggled to make ends meet and now her debts rise a little higher every month. “To live like that for two years – there’s nothing brighter, there’s nothing coming . . . I’ve gone from shopping at Sainsbury’s to Tesco’s, to Asda, to Aldi, and now I don’t even do a weekly shop.” She paused for a moment. “If I was telling you this story two years ago I’d be in tears, but not now.”

I wondered what she would do in the next two days, with three children and an empty fridge. She said she might visit her mum, who had no idea how much Kate was struggling but usually cooks lunch. She didn’t want to visit a food bank. “There are people out there more desperate than me. I’ve got a sofa to sell before I’ll go to the food bank,” she replied. “It’s a pride thing. You don’t want people to know you’re on benefits.”

***

On 19 December 2014, the NG7 Food Bank in Nottingham closed. In the 30 months before its closure it had fed over 5,500 people but it decided its position was untenable. In a media statement in November it objected to the local council using food banks, it said, as an alternative to state welfare provision, writing that “despite our best ongoing efforts, we have recognised that we are not being used as a temporary service of last resort, but rather being seen as a part of the long-term strategy of replacement for statutory services, [which] have a duty and the resources to address a large part of the need. We recognise that other approaches are now required to attempt to change the current situation for many in our communities.”

Of central concern to NG7 was the council’s provision of emergency funds, such as crisis loans or benefit advances. These used to be administered by the government’s Social Fund, but in April 2013 the fund was abolished and responsibility for emergency hardship payments was devolved to local authorities on a discretionary basis. Nottingham City Council’s hardship fund is designed to support a range of people in short-term need, including those fleeing domestic violence, care leavers, and those waiting for a decision on a benefit claim or who have recently experienced a disaster. NG7 objected to the council’s policy that “the expectation would be that they [applicants] seek help from friends or family and the food banks”. In other words, the council is using food banks as an excuse to give out fewer emergency payments.

“In my research, very often volunteers at food banks will say, ‘We wish we didn’t exist; our ultimate aim is to do ourselves out of business,’” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford of the University of Sheffield. This reflects not only a belief that people shouldn’t be going hungry in the UK, but also that the provision of crisis care should be the state’s responsibility. “We believe every citizen has a right to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, which include the ability to clothe yourself, house yourself and feed yourself, and we think it’s government’s responsibility to ensure that,” Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me. “We designed ourselves to avoid being drawn into the world where a food bank is seen as part of the ongoing and enduring provision for people facing poverty . . . because you end up creating something which is an alternative to the state.”

In this way, food banks have become central to a much broader debate on welfare reform and the limits of state responsibility in modern Britain, a discussion that has become more urgent as the state has cut back spending. The Trussell Trust’s advocacy work has elicited a range of government responses, from dismissal to hostility. In July 2013 the Conservative minister for welfare reform Lord (David) Freud, a former investment banker, said that demand for food bank use was being driven by supply, telling peers: “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” Similarly, in December 2014, Matthew Hancock, the business minister, said that he believed the use of food banks was driven by the publicity surrounding them. Ten months earlier, a Defra-funded report had concluded that there was no evidence that food bank use was fuelled by increasing provision. This report was delivered in June 2013 but it was not published for another seven months.

At other times the government has been more directly confrontational. In April last year the Daily Mail published quotations from “a senior Whitehall source”, accusing Chris Mould of “fairly misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity seeking”. Mould says he has been “put under pressure” by government officials after the Trussell Trust started pointing out that austerity cuts were affecting low-income and single-parent families disproportionately, and drawing attention to the effects of  benefit changes. “There was no communication, or dialogue, or engagement,” he says of attempts to talk to the DWP about the trust’s concerns.

Mould says that in 2013, when the Trussell and other charities criticised the decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent a year, regardless of inflation, a senior official (Mould didn’t want to give his name) warned that the government could close the trust down. (“Just so we’re clear . . . the comment that ‘the government might try to close you down’ was made in anger, and I didn’t take it seriously,” he later told me.)

At the end of last year the tone of the debate shifted. The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger published its findings in a report – Feeding Britain – and reinforced the messages of earlier third-sector studies by noting the extent to which low wages and benefit changes have fuelled demand for food banks. It made 77 recommendations, almost half of which were directed at the DWP and dealt with how benefits and crisis loans are organised and administered.

“There’s a growing consensus that what we were saying early on is true. It’s just sad that it’s taken so long for the weight of the evidence to be such that the government has had to do something,” Mould says. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said he would look “very carefully” at the report, and announced a publicity campaign to ensure that people are aware that benefit advances are available.

“A couple of years ago, we saw head-in-the-sand denial. Today, I think we’ve got little more than window dressing so far,” Mould said when we spoke in February. He sees “little evidence” that the government is acting on Feeding Britain’s recommendations. “We haven’t won hearts or minds: [the report] hasn’t made that much of a difference, because I don’t think it’s been taken on board by the people who have the power and responsibility to make things better.”

However, the food bank movement does have many supporters. According to the most recent report by Church Urban Fund, about three-quarters of all churches in the UK now house food banks and the Church of England is adopting an increasingly active role in the welfare debate. Just before Christmas the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the Mail on Sunday he found the plight of food bank users “more shocking” than poverty he had witnessed in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mould said he is heartened by the numbers who donate food to the Trussell Trust and the degree of public support it has – donations shot up last April after the Daily Mail published an “undercover investigation” into “scroungers” abusing the food bank system. “One of the things is that poverty is very prevalent,” he said. “Lots of people have experienced it, so they have friends who have been there, they have had parents who have been there, children who have suffered, they have struggled themselves . . . In that sense, the public are much more aware than they used to be that people are at times going hungry in the UK.”

***

A month after I interviewed Joe and Sam in Tower Hamlets, Sam agreed to meet me for coffee. When she didn’t show up or answer her phone I wondered if she’d changed her mind. Then two weeks later I saw her at the food bank. She smiled and waved me over. She looks different, I thought, and she said things had changed. Joe had found a job at another supermarket. She was due to have her first counselling session the next week, then a job interview. She wasn’t sure if she was well enough but she wanted to work. “I need my own money and my independence because I feel trapped. And he does, too. Trapped,” she said. So why, I wondered, was she at the food bank again? Joe’s benefits had stopped and until his first pay cheque he couldn’t afford the bus to work, so the Trussell Trust was advising them on how to find a short-term loan. They were both ready to move on with life; they just needed the bus fare.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Can celluloid lovers like Christopher Nolan stop a digital-only future for film?

Despite proponents like the Dunkirk director, physical film is finding it tough in the modern age. 

“Chris Nolan is one of the few producing and directing films right now who could open that film. He is one of the all-time great filmmakers.”

No prizes for guessing which new release Vue CEO Tim Richards is talking about. Aside from its box office success, aside from its filmmaking craft, aside even from its early reception as an Oscar favourite, Dunkirk sees Nolan doing what Nolan does best: he has used his latest film to reopen the debate about celluloid.

Until relatively recently all film was projected from that old, classic medium of the film reel - a spool of celluloid run in front of a projector bulb throwing images on to a screen. It comes mainly in two forms: 35mm (standard theatrical presentations) or 70mm (larger, more detailed presentations most popular in the 60s and 70s). Fans say it provides a “warmer” colour palette, with more depth and saturation than modern digital formats.

But now it’s hard to even see movies on film to make the comparison. After George Lucas, godfather of the Star Wars franchise, shot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones entirely in digital rather than on physical film, the rollout of digital progressed with clinical efficacy. Within ten years, film was almost wiped out, deemed to be impractical and irrelevant. Modern cinema, it was argued, could be stored in a hard drive.

Christopher Nolan set out to change all that. He championed film as a medium against the industry trend, producing (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) in super-detailed, super-sized IMAX 70mm. With Dunkirk, Nolan has taken that further by screening the film in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX 70mm.

Nolan is not the medium's only poster boy – it is symbolic that the new Star Wars trilogy, 15 years on from Attack’s groundbreaking digital filming, is now being shot on film once more. This summer, Dunkirk may well be seeing the biggest rollout of a 70mm presentation in cinemas for 25 years, but in 2015 Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight saw chains and independent cinemas having to retrofit 21st Century cinemas for a 20th Century presentation style. It was a difficult process, with only a handful of screens able to show the film as Tarantino intended – but it was a start.

Today, celluloid is, ostensibly, looking healthier. A recent deal struck between Hollywood big wigs and Kodak has helped. Kodak will now supply celluloid to Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. It’s a deal which is not only helping keep Kodak afloat, but also film alive.

Kodak has also gone a step further, launching an app to help audiences find 35mm screenings in local cinemas. Called ‘Reel Film’, it endeavours to back Nolan and co in ensuring that celluloid is still a viable method of film projection in the 21st century.

Even so, whether Nolan’s film fightback has actually had any impact is unclear. Independent cinemas still screen in film, and certainly Vue and Odeon both have film projectors in some of their flagship screens, but digital dominates. Meanwhile, key creatives are pushing hard for a digital future: Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the creative teams at Marvel are all pioneering in digital fields. Whether or not film can survive after over a decade of effacement is a difficult – and surpisingly emotionally charged – question.

****

Paul Vickery, Head of Programming at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, is the kind of person you might expect to talk all about how physical film is a beautiful medium, key for preserving the history of cinema. History, he tells me, is important to the Prince Charles, but it's a surprise when he saysfilm is actually more practical for their operation. Because not every film they screen has been digitised, access to old reels is essential for their business.

“If you completely remove film as an option for presentation as a cinema that shows older films,” he says, “you effectively cut 75 per cent of the films that you could possibly show out of your options, and you can only focus on those that have been digitised.”

Vickery says the debate around film and digital often neglects the practicality of film. “It's always focusing on the idea of the romance of seeing films on film, but as much as it is that, it's also to have more options, to present more films. You need to be able to show them from all formats.”

That’s a key part of what makes the Prince Charles Cinema special. Sitting in London's movie-premier hub Leicester Square, the Prince Charles is renowned for its celluloid presentations of older films and has made a successful business out of its 35mm and 70mm screenings of both classics and niche films.

“If there is the option to show film and digital, we tend to take film as the option because it's also something you can't replicate at home,” he explains. “It's also just the nature of how film is seen on screen: its image clarity, its colour palette, the sound is just something that's very different to digital, and I think that's something that's very worth saving.

“Not many people have 35mm projectors at home. If you have it on Blu-Ray or DVD, to see it on film is a way of dragging someone out from their house to come and see it at the cinema.”

Currently screening is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. It’s an incredible presentation of what Vickery says is a seven or eight year-old print struck from the film’s original negatives: the colour of the picture is far richer, while the fine detail in some close-up shots is on par with modern movies. Even more impressive, though, is that the screening is packed. “Fifteen years ago, there would be cinemas where that would be almost on a circuit,” laments Vickery. “We've just stayed the course, and that's something that's just fallen away and we're one of the last, along with the BFI, to show films from film.

“There’s still a bit kicking around, but as we do more and more of it, we seem to be pulling out those people who are looking for that and they seem to be coming back again and again. The repertory side of our programme is more popular than ever.”

That popularity is seemingly reflected in its audiences’ passion for celluloid. Vickery tells me that the PCC’s suggestions board and social media are always filled with requests for film screenings, with specific questions about the way it’s being projected.

For Vickery, it’s a mark of pride. “It sounds like inflated ego almost,” he begins, as if providing a disclaimer, “but it's why I think the work we do and the BFI do and any cinema that shows films from film is about history. By us continuing to show film on film, studios will continue to make their film print available and keep them going out. If people stop showing films on film, they'd just get rid of them.

“Once they're all gone, they only way we're ever gonna be able to see them is if they're taking these films and digitising them, which as you imagine, is always going to be the classic set of films, and then there'll be very select ones will get picked, but it's not gonna be every film.

“You have to keep showing films from film to keep the history of cinema alive in cinemas.”

****

History is something that the BFI is committed to preserving. 40 per cent of their annual programming is projected on celluloid, and they loan around 200 prints to venues each year. Their new “BFI 2022” initiative will produce 100 new film prints in the next five years.

Most recently they have focussed on safeguarding their archive, the BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart tells me when we meet her in her office in the BFI’s artsy offices just off Tottenham Court Road.

“We got money from the government to renew our storage which was a big deal because the national collection really wasn't safe,” she says  “There was work at risk because it was warm and humid and we have bought a fantastic, sub-zero state of the art storage facility in Warwickshire in our big site there and our negatives are there. So our master materials are all in there safe - all the nitrate negatives and all that. In 200 years, people will be able to come back and make materials from those, whether digitising or analogue.”

Stewart tells me that it’s important to do both: “Do we at the BFI think that audiences need to see films in the way the filmmaker intended? Yes. That's not going away - that's what we're here for. Do we want as many audiences as possible to see the film? Yes. So of course we're interested in digital.”

The restoration and printing project is attracting lots of “international interest” according to Stewart: just one example is that the BFI are looking into partnering with Warner Bros in their labs in Burbank, California.

“We're becoming the only place left that actually loans film prints around the world so that you can see the films the way they were intended,” she says. “So if you don't have any kind of renewal programme, you'll eventually just have blanked out, scratchy old prints and you can't see them."

They're getting financial support too, she says: “There are people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood whose 2012 film The Master was shot and screened in 70mm], a lot of people who are very committed to film, and so there's conversations going on elsewhere and with the film foundation about bringing other investments in so we can really go for it and have a fantastic collection of great great 35mm prints for audiences to look at.”

As a fan of the film reel, Stewart is passionate about this. I put to her the common suggestion that lay audiences can’t tell the difference between screening on film, and digital. “I don't agree with that", she says. "If you sit with people and look at it, they feel something that you might not be able to articulate.

“It's the realism the film gives you - that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It's a different sensation. Which isn't to say that digital is 'lesser than', but it's a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There's that pleasure of film, of course but I don't want to be too geeky about it.”

Yet not every film print available is in good condition. “There's a live discussion,” says Stewart. “Is it better to show a scratched 35mm print of some great film, or a really excellent digital transfer?”

There’s no neat answer.

But Stewart is certainly driven by the idea of presenting films as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ true vision. “If you're interested in the artwork,” she explains, “that's what the artwork has to look like, and digital will be an approximation of that. If you spend a lot of money, and I mean really a lot of money, it can be an excellent approximation of that. But lots of digital transfers are not great - they're cheap. They're fine, but they're never going to be like the original.”

The process of restoration doesn’t end with digitisation. Keeping film copies in order to have originals is hugely important given how quickly digital media change. Film is a constant form of storage which does not alter. As Stewart defiantly puts it, “all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain't going anywhere.”

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The BFI were kind enough put on a display of how film projection works in practice. Tina McFarling, Media Advisor, and Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, provide a tour of two screens at BFI Southbank. Chatting in the projection room above the screen which hosted the 70mm première of Dunkirk, their passion for celluloid was on display.

Standing next to two mammoth 70mm projectors, Simmons talks through the real-terms use of film, and the technical expertise behind it. “It's a lot more labour intensive than sticking digital prints on, but it's something we want to do,” he says.

One of the projection booths at the BFI

During the visit, the team are prepping a rare 35mm screening of the documentary I Am Cuba to be shown that afternoon. Simmons says that operating a celluloid projector is a “more complex operation” than digital. Looking at the endless labyrinth of film and sprockets, it's easy to believe.

“If you're screening from film in a cinema,” he says, “then you need engineers, technicians who are capable of doing it, whereas a lot of multiplexes have deskilled their operation.”

Simmons says that, while larger chains have one engineer to oversee every screen with the actual process of running the films centralised with a centre loading playlists, the BFI has twenty-two technicians, each closely overseeing the projection of a film when on duty.

“There's so much about the different elements of the presentation that you need to know that all comes together with the sound, the lighting and the rest of it.

“When you're starting a film, it's more of a manual operation. Someone needs to be there to press the buttons at the right time, manage the sound, operate the curtains, and attach the trailers to the feature.”

Having skilled operators is all very well, but of course you need to have the equipment to operate in the first place. “We have to make sure that the equipment is kept and utilised as well as making sure the prints are available, and then the skills will follow”, he says.

Simmons says many are likening the film fight back to vinyl’s resurrection, but has a rueful smile when he talks about film being described as “hipsterish” and “boutiquey”.

He also points out that the quaint touches that make film attractive to this new, younger audience – blemishes, the occasional scratch – are a headache for projectionists. “For me,” he says, “that's quite difficult because a bad print of a film is never a good thing, but if it's a bad print of a film that can't be seen any other way...” He trails off sadly.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, he says. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You're running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second.”

He switches a nearby projector on – it’s loud, quick and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent. “It's a really physical process,” Simmons continues. “The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”

The idea that shooting on film, for which the very raw material is in short and ever-decreasing supply, is endangered is a tragic one. “There's a finite amount,” Simmons says. “People aren't striking new prints, so if you damage a print, the damage is there forever.”

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The Prince Charles and the BFI are in a privileged position to protect endangered film stock. A friendly partnership between them, which sees the BFI lending reels to the Prince Charles, as well as benefitting from the business of London’s rabidly cinephile audience, allow them to prioritise screening on film the majority of the time. Not every cinema is so lucky.

While the historic Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford does have a 35mm projector, owner Becky Hallsmith says that it’s mainly the digital projector in use “for all sorts of logistic reasons”.

Though Dunkirk’s push for film projection was a welcome one, it still didn’t make sense for the UPP to screen it. “Certainly we thought about it, but I felt that if you're going to see it on celluloid, you probably want to see it on 70mm, so we decided not to get it on 35mm.”

Economic factors come into effect here too – the UPP, based just out of the city centre in Cowley, vies for Oxford’s filmgoers’ love with the Phoenix Picturehouse in nearby Jericho. While they do have slightly different markets, Hallsmith was aware that the Picturehouse was already set to screen Dunkirk in 35mm, leading her to decide not to.

 “It's not like I'm saying we never do it” she clarifies. “But there are reasons I haven't this time.”

Hallsmith was also aware that not all of her projectionists are trained in screening film, saying that, by screening Dunkirk in digital, she was “taking that little headache out of the equation”.

For the UPP, practicality of this kind trumps sentiment, given the cinema’s small operation. “I'd love it if I had the time to work out what films had beautiful 35mm prints and programme accordingly,” she says, “but I just don't have the time to put that amount of thought into details of programming. We're tiny. I'm doing all sorts of different jobs around the cinema as well. The programming is by no means the least important - it's the most important part of the job - but there is a limit to how much one can do and how much research one can do.”

Despite the practical issues related to 35mm, Hallsmith is still glad to have the option available, saying that when the digital projector was installed in 2012, there was enough room for the installation to account for the 35mm one – and to revamp it.

Despite many 35mm projectors being sent to an unceremonious death in skips, some projectors that are replaced for digital successors are cannibalised for parts. Hallsmith was a beneficiary. “Most of the bits on our 35mm projector are quite new,” she explains, “because they had all this stuff that they were taking out of other cinemas, so they upgraded our 35mm for us because they had all the parts to do it with.”

But Hallsmith is grounded when I ask her if having both projectors in operation is important. “It's important for me,” she laughs. “One of my real pleasures in life is to sit at the back near the projection room and to hear the film going through the sprocket. It's one of the most magical sounds in the world and always will be for me.

“But I know that for a lot of our customers, it is neither here nor there, so I have mixed feelings about it. It's not like I think everything should be on 35mm. I love it, but I can see the practicalities.”

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It is certainly practicality that’s governing cinema chains. Cineworld, Odeon and Vue have all seen huge expansions in recent years. Vue chief Tim Richards, says celluloid is a “niche product”, but the admission is tinged with sadness.

“The problem that we had,” he says about the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk, “with the conversion to digital that happened globally, there are literally no projectors left anywhere, and it's very, very hard to get one. We managed to find a projector and then we couldn't find anybody who actually knew how to run it. There are very real practical issues with the medium.

“To reinforce that we have a new look and feel to our head office, and I really wanted to have an old analogue 35mm projector in our reception and we couldn't find one. We had thousands of these things, and we had none left. We couldn't even get one for our reception!”

Even with a working projector and a trained projectionist, Richards says the format has “very obvious issues” with mass consumption. Again on the subject of Dunkirk, this time in 35mm, he says, “One of the prints that arrived was scratched. It's something that's been in the industry for a long time. If you have a big scratch, you simply can't screen it. You've got to get another print, especially when it will run through part of the film.”

It’s something that saddens Richards, who still says that projecting on film forms part of the “philosophy” of Vue. “We’re all big supporters [of film] and we love it. We've all been in the industry for between 25 and 30 years, the whole senior team. We genuinely love what we do, we genuinely love movies.”

That said, Richards, who is a governor of the BFI, is firmly committed to refining digital, more practical for Vue’s multiplexes. “If you go down and look at what we opened up in Leicester Square, our new flagship site, it's a 100 year old building where we shoehorned in new technology so it's not perfect, but it gives you an idea of what we're doing."

The new site has two Sony Finity 4K resolution projectors working in tandem – as well as the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system. The dual projection gives the screen a brighter, deeper hue. From a digital perspective, it is bleeding edge, and the set up is being rolled out across the UK and Germany, with 44 sites and counting. Richards is, as you would expect, enamoured with the results, claiming “that screen stands up to anything in the world”. What might be more surprising are the reactions he claims that it has elicited from celluloid devotees.

“There were a lot of old hardcore film fans there who were pleasantly surprised at the quality” he says. “People think of digital as being that new, TV-at-home which has got that clinical feel to it, and they don't feel it's got that warmth and colour saturation. This [Finity presentation] has that warmth of an old 35mm or 70mm, so I don't think the future is going back.”

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For Richards and Vue, the future appears to be as bright as that 4K Sony Finity screen in Leicester Square - for celluloid, not so much. While the appetite for watching movies on film might be growing at a promising rate for indie exhibitors, the list of technical and logistical problems is still insurmountable for many smaller venues - saying nothing of the race against time to preserve easily-damaged prints.

The main concern is an ephemeral one: the preservation of the knowledge needed to run a film projection. When the BFI’s Dominic Simmons speaks about the skills of his team and the need to pass those skills on, it evokes near forgotten skills such as thatching and forging. If the BFI and the PCC have anything to say about it, those projection skills will live on, but it’s unclear how far their voices can carry in a digital multiplex age.

As for the voice of celluloid-lover-supreme Christopher Nolan, even he too is shouting down what seems to be an unstoppable march towards a convenient digital future. But in a groundswell of growing interest and passion for the film reel, it seems that a director so obsessed with playing with time in his films seems to have bought exactly that for celluloid. Time is running out on the film reel, but there might be more of it left than we thought.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015