INTERVIEW: Amy Smart – Flatpack: Assemble

INTERVIEW: Amy Smart – Flatpack: AssembleWords by Heather KincaidPics courtesy of Flatpack Film Festival 

If you’ve ever struggled to catch interesting independent films in the West Midlands, you’re not alone. For all Birmingham is the UK’s second largest city, the region’s indie and arthouse cinema offerings have long been frustratingly limited outside of special events and festivals. But all that is now on course to change thanks to a new project from Flatpack Film Festival.

Launched in 2016, Flatpack: Assemble delivers a year-round programme of screenings and special events aimed at raising the profile of independent film in the region as well as supporting potential exhibitors. Following a preview of Hannes Holm’s irresistible Swedish comedy A Man Called Ove, project manager Amy Smart told Birmingham Review more about Flatpack: Assemble, its goals and its impact so far.

“About five years ago, the BFI set up the Film Audience Network, which was the first time any sort of serious money or support had gone into exhibition, because normally everything tends to focus on production,” explains Smart. “The network consists of nine film hubs scattered around the country, and each one has a lead organisation which is responsible for a given patch. When this started, the West Midlands was weirdly split between Film Hub South West and West Midlands, led by The Watershed in Bristol, and North West Central, which is led by HOME in Manchester.”

“Obviously that was a bit crazy, so Ian Francis, our director, had some conversations with the BFI about how Birmingham and the Midlands were quite underrepresented in terms of the number of screens and funding, and how it needed someone to champion the region. So in 2016, we got the funding from them to set up a sort of sub-hub, working closely with the Watershed in Bristol.”

Part of the difficulty of setting up a full hub in the West Midlands was the scarcity of decent-sized venues: all of the other nine hubs are based in relatively large, multi-screen independent cinemas, of a kind that just doesn’t exist here. Though Birmingham is home to the UK’s oldest working cinema, The Electric only has two screens, and without the safety net of being part of a subsidised arts centre like mac, it also has to remain commercially viable, showcasing popular blockbuster films alongside more unusual fare. As such, in Amy Smart’s own words, “Flatpack probably is the go-to organisation for film in Birmingham”.

To its credit though, Flatpack has managed to turn its lack of a fixed abode – other than its Custard Factory offices – into a strength, reaching out further and holding events right across the region. The next Assemble event, for example, will be an outdoor screening of La La Land in Rugby. The press and industry previews at the heart of its programme, meanwhile, take place at The Electric.

“Assemble is a bit of a beast,” laughs Smart. “Over the last twelve months, we’ve been doing a real range of different things – audience-facing activities like short films and pop-ups, and previews here for the professionals who don’t necessarily get chance to trot off to London to see new releases every other week. It’s also a great chance for press and bloggers to help shine a light on new films. The main thing we’re hoping to achieve is to encourage people to take a chance on indie films more. There are so many films being released every week that often things get lost, and something like [A Man Called Ove] might not even get a screening in the Midlands at all.”

Amy Smart, who previously worked as mac Birmingham’s cinema producer – putting together its screening programme, knows first-hand how tricky it can be for exhibitors to get to London on a regular basis.

“Often people who are working in the industry here end up programming blind – they’re having to go on recommendations and reviews rather than seeing things first, so it’s great that we’re doing these every other month,” explains Smart. “We knew that there was definitely a demand for this amongst distributors. I work with one other programmer from the Midlands who does go to London and see previews, but the others generally don’t, so I think it was quite important from that point of view.”

Flatpack’s criteria for selecting films is far from fixed, however: the only real stipulation is avoiding blockbusters and any films that aren’t likely to need help getting noticed. Of course, sometimes films will defy expectations and end up surprisingly commercially successful – both Moonlight and Hidden Figures received Assemble previews here in Birmingham. More often though, they’ll be much more low-profile picks: powerful documentaries like Notes On Blindness, or foreign language films like the superb Iranian horror Under the Shadow.

“It has to be British and/or independent, and we’ve tried to use different distributors each time so we can build up relationships with different people and get more variety. We’ve also tried to vary the genres, so we’ve done horror, comedy and documentary – we want to make sure it’s not just one kind of offering. But essentially it’s just stuff we want to see in Birmingham and we’re hoping people will trust Flatpack’s suggestions.”

How much take up there is for each screening seems to depend on the title (there have been attempts to vary days and slots with little apparent impact) but audience figures have remained pretty respectable since the project’s inception, particularly considering the Assemble previews are only open to those in the Flatpack network, rather than to the general public.

“With these things you never really know how it’s going to be received, but I think the lowest number of people we’ve ever had was about 40. Our best one [Moonlight] booked up completely.”

As well as bringing films to the people who might help to raise their profile or run future public screenings of them in Midlands venues, Assemble also offers professional training and networking sessions for those involved in the local film scene.

“In terms of training and development, we’re quite keen to offer things exhibitors want, so we’re quite open to talking with programmers and projectionists and marketing teams – and not just in traditional theatrical venues. It could be a festival, a pop-up, a community cinema or a film society – anyone who’s exhibiting films in some way.”

“For example, as part of Flatpack 11, the festival just gone, we had an industry day called Film Camp which was a mixture of workshops and panels on things like screening films with a live score. There’s quite a lack of quality children’s programming in the Midlands, so we had a workshop called Build Your Own Family Screening. We also ran a workshop called DIY Driving, where families made big cardboard cars and parked them up to watch a film, which was great – something a bit different from just going to the cinema and watching Frozen or Cars 3 or whatever. We’re quite interested in making events more special and interactive.”

Those looking to get started on new projects like community cinemas or local film nights can take advantage of the specialist advice, training and cheap equipment hire Assemble has to offer.

“We’ve got a project called Build Your Own Film Night that we’re really proud of, which is essentially a workshop to give people the skills, tools and knowledge to put on their own film night legally. We take them through property rights and creating playlists and selecting features, as well as how to promote it and put it on technically.”

We’ve also got some kit that we hire out to people through Cinema for All, which is a national organisation for championing community cinemas in the UK. It’s amazing – there’s a projector, speakers and a 12ft screen, and we’re hiring it out for £25. That gets a lot of use because one of the biggest barriers if people want to put on their own film night is that they’ve got to get kit from somewhere, and if you’re hiring it from a private company, it can cost you about £100.”

“While Assemble is predominantly industry-focused, ordinary film fans and audiences should be equally excited about these developments. With so much support available, we can hope to see a significant expansion and improvement in film offerings in Birmingham and beyond over the coming months and years.” Asked whether she’s optimistic about the future of film in Birmingham, Amy Smart’s response was emphatic: “Absolutely! I think we engaged with just shy of 40,000 people last year, so hopefully it’ll just keep growing and growing.”

“I think film is the most accessible artform, really,” she adds. “Some people wouldn’t necessarily walk into a gallery because they think it’s not for them, but pretty much anybody can walk into a cinema, so we’re just trying to build on that.”

For more on Flatpack: Assemble, visit

Flatpack: Assemble will be screening La La Land in Caldecot Park, Rugby on Sat 1st July – in partnership with Rugby Festival of Culture. Attendance is by direct invitation from Flatpack Film Festival.


For more on Flatpack Film Festival, including full details on the Cinema For All and Build Your Own Film Night initiatives, visit

Flatpack will be screening American Werewolf in London at Dudley Castle on Sat 5th August, with tickets priced at £10 (concs £8). For direct event info, click here.

BREVIEW: BE Festival @ REP 21-25.06

BE Festival @ REP 21-25.06 / By Heather Kincaid

Words by Heather Kincaid / Pics courtesy of BE Festival

As events got underway on Friday 24 June at this year’s Birmingham European Festival, the atmosphere in the buzzing Festival Hub was noticeably different from the three preceding days. Where a mood of apprehensive optimism had prevailed before, now anxious faces engaged in animated discussions, asking urgent questions about the future.BE Festival logo

Few among the artists, attendees, organisers and others gathered there from across the continent will not be directly affected by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Nevertheless, in keeping with the spirit of collaboration, co-operation and creativity in which BE Festival was conceived, directors Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun delivered a rousing speech, urging us to meet the news by coming together to show the world that a better Europe was possible.

Programmed well in advance, none of the shows at BE Festival 2016 were directly themed around the EU referendum, yet its presence could be felt in almost every aspect of the event – like a capricious ghost looming over the festivities, showing us Europe’s past, present and possible futures in a bid for us to understand the impact of Thursday’s decision.

Situation with an Outstretched Arm – Oliver Zahn’s ‘performative essay’ on the history of what has come to be known as the ‘Hitler salute’, explores the complex and inextricable connection between art and politics. In deconstructing the gesture in paintings and in practice, it demonstrates how aesthetics and symbolism play a vital part in the establishment of ideologies and in how we interact with them. At a time when both art and criticism are under financial threat, it feels like a bold statement asserting their importance in teaching us to identify and analyse power mechanisms.

Situation with an Outstretched Arm by Oliver Zahn @ BE Festival 2016Meanwhile, Xavier Bobés’ Things Easily Forgotten tells a story set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spanish regime, which lasted until 1975. With emboldened far-right extremists making news across the continent again, angered by mass migration and an increasingly internationalist outlook, it’s a potent reminder of how recently such groups have held real power. And how easily it could happen again if we fail to work together to prevent it.

In very different ways, Teatro Sotterraneo’s Reload and Aldes’ In Girum Imus Nocte both hold a mirror up to Western society today. Satirising the constant distractions of a labyrinthine Internet, the hilarious Reload looks at our restlessness, reduced concentration spans and decreased capacity to delay gratification when fed a constant stream of information and entertainment. With the Internet serving as the major battleground upon which the EU referendum campaigns were fought, Reload accidentally seems to highlight some of the problems with the debate: is it possible to really have a serious conversation or follow ideas through properly when fighting against a barrage of memes and soundbites?

Elsewhere, CollettivO CineticO’s Hamlet stands like a warning, showing us a kind of election by TV-style talent show with local contestants competing to be crowned as Shakespeare’s Danish Prince.

Presenting a far bleaker view of our world, In Girum Imus Nocte speaks to the frustrations of modern living that have caused many people to rail against what can feel like oppressive limitations in our society. Dancers move aimlessly, jerking and twitching like clockwork automatons in a world of grey and black, against a repetitive, ticking soundtrack. Occasionally, their drab routines are punctuated by outbreaks of mob fury, hedonistic celebration and bouts of deep, exhausted sleep. In such a world, change in whatever form it’s offered will inevitably be seized upon by some.BE Festival 2016

Perhaps the single hottest (and most inflammatory) topic in Britain’s EU debate has been the issue of immigration, particularly in relation to the ongoing Syrian crisis. An Wei Lu Li’s pointedly titled Democracy draws attention to the plight of refugees through a series of large-scale paintings located around the city.

The centrepiece of this city-wide ‘exhibition’ is Leviathan – a giant picture of a curled body on the ground in Centenary Square, only really visible in its entirety from the privileged vantage point of the Library of Birmingham terraces. Down on the ground, meanwhile, passers-by unwittingly trample across the body, gradually causing it to fade away. In a democracy, the work suggests, we’re all responsible on some level for the policies our leaders enact, even if we choose to ignore them.

Picking up on the same theme, W. H. Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ made an appearance in Los Bárbaros’ Things We’d Love to See on Stage. Though essentially a random collection of unrelated things, it also included “a politician doing politics” – which turned out to be a maneki-neko (beckoning cat figurine). “He’s not under Europe, but he’s probably pro-China, so we don’t know how that will work out,” joked one performer. The show took on a particularly poignant dimension when an opportunity for the audience to choose something that they’d like to see on stage themselves prompted a callback to an earlier item on the list. Previously, “maps” of Europe, Britain, England and Birmingham had been created out of piles of compost. After a member of the audience suggested “unity”, cheers erupted when another came forward to combine the maps into one pile.

Leviathan by An Wei Lu Li @ BE Festival 2016No single performance could have been better suited to the occasion, however, than Power to the People, a project themed around democracy, developed by a handful of last year’s artists through the BE Mix initiative – a brief, scratch-style residency that takes place after the festival each year. In the lead up to the show on Friday, performers on either side of a debate had been canvassing for votes for their respective ideas – one a piece directed by a single person, the other collaboratively devised by a team of five.

As with the referendum, the results of the vote on the day itself were pretty close, but ultimately the Five Directors Project won it. Next came questions designed to identify viewers’ assumptions. Is democracy really the best form of government? Does theatre at BE Festival confirm its audience’s biases? Congratulations to us, we collectively decided that the only power system that most of us have ever known was superior to any other. But since we also decided that the art we see should challenge us, the company went on to spend half an hour trying to prove us wrong…

If there’s one thing that BE Festival makes clear, it’s the case for even the most lighthearted of creative endeavours as something with the power to prompt reflection on the important issues in our lives.

With no sign of an end to austerity yet in sight, and the likelihood that Brexit will make it harder for British artists to collaborate with their continental neighbours, one can only hope that it continues to be able to serve this function.

For more on BE Festival, visit

Follow-Birmingham-Review-on-300x26 Facebook - f square, rounded - with colour - 5cm highTwitter - t, square, rounded, with colour, 5cm high