Leytonstone Loves Film: John Smith Interview

Published 16 August by Callum

Looking ahead to Leytonstone Loves Film this September, we sit down for a chat with celebrated Waltham Forest-born avant garde filmmaker, John Smith.

As part of Leytonstone Loves Film’s packed line up of screenings, workshops, activities and installations from 27 - 29 September, Stow Film Lounge is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the M11 link road by screening two major works from John’s extensive filmography, namely Blight (1994-6, 14mins), a beautiful protest musical and a very rare screening of Home Suite (1993-4, 96mins), a personal exploration of memories conjured up by John's eviction from his Leytonstone home.

John will be in conversation at the Stow Film Lounge event, and local residents who have memories of the building of the M11 link road will be invited to join too.

In this chat, we discuss John’s introduction to filmmaking, his links to Waltham Forest and the reason for capturing this moment in time in his own incredibly unique way.

You’ve been a filmmaker for almost 45 years now, what first drew you to the art of filmmaking?

I used to do light shows for rock bands back in the late 1960s when I was still in school. A friend of mine’s father had a photographic shop in Dalston, selling ex-Government equipment, which meant we could get hold of second-hand film projectors for next to no money. As well as projecting psychedelic liquid ink projections and things like that, I started projecting 60mm ex-library films that we could also get from the camera shop. They were films that used to be shown in schools on celluloid like ‘Your Skin’ or ‘Your Hair and Scalp’, which were these bizarre educational documentaries. I would make different loops of the films so I could select little bits and let them run together on different projectors.

Something I was really interested in, which was quite magical to me, was the fact that films were made of 24 still images per second. It’s that magical thing that if you look at a sequence of still images in rapid succession, it creates the illusion of movement. It’s such a very simple device that really got me interested in filmmaking. My earliest films are all still photographs which were rapidly cut together to create illusions of movement. They were very visual pieces of work. 

The films Home Suite and Blight are being screened as part of Leytonstone Loves Film, could you give us a bit of context as to why these films in particular are being screened?

I lived in an artist short-life housing association place in Leytonstone for around 13 years. I was given it by an artist housing association at a very, very cheap rent, with the understanding that I’d probably only have a year or two to stay there. A lot of other artists got houses in the same area – they were houses that were going to be demolished along the route of the M11 link road.

As you’ll see from Home Suite, the house was not in fantastic condition, but you just thought, ‘well it’s not really worth fixing that, I might have to move out next week’. But because of the protests against the road, it kept getting delayed for years and years and years. At the time I was living there, over the 13 years, I made films which related to the world around me. My world was living in the house that was soon to be demolished in Colville Road in Leytonstone.

Home Suite and Blight are two entirely different films. The composer for Blight, Jocelyn Pook also lived in short-life housing in Leytonstone, so we were both personally completely affected. We both lived in houses that were due to be demolished. It was being knocked down while I was still living in my house, which is how I managed to get such close shots. The films have been selected because they were directly related to Leytonstone and they are an important part of Leytonstone’s history.

What made you decide to document that place in time in the way that you did? Relating it back to the memory of the house and the stories of people in the area?

I got very interested in the rather uncomfortable feeling that came up when a house started being destroyed and you could see somebody’s private world, or what remained of somebody’s private world, become publicly on view. There’s something that I found slightly disturbing about how these private worlds were being exposed, and I was really interested in the idea of memory and history. The idea of memory and loss.

When I interviewed people living in the area, I wanted to get as diverse a range of people as I could. They range from the age of three or four to 99. I asked them what they remembered about the places that they had lived in. I was asking very banal questions like, ‘what colour was your living room painted?’, ‘what was the carpet like?’ and it was really interesting, the kind of responses one got. From quite detailed things, to the woman who features in the film a lot saying, ‘I don’t remember anything, I don’t remember’. I was interested in the idea of the diversity of the communities. Like a lot of my films, I wanted it to be quite abstract as well. 

Alongside the images in Blight which are quite striking, Jocelyn Pook composed a remarkable soundtrack. How did you come to work together?

I usually work very much on my own, but Jocelyn asked me if I was interested in collaborating on a project and I thought, ‘why not? I’ve never actually made a film in which music really figured predominantly, so maybe we could come up with something together'. It was about a week before the deadline to get the proposal in and we spent ages trying to come up with ideas. We came up with lots of ideas, but nothing we were happy with. I’d already started shooting Blight, I wasn’t quite sure what form it was going to take, but I certainly wasn’t planning for it to have a music track. Jocelyn had seen some of the material and really liked it, so she said what about if we collaborated on Blight and sent that in for the proposal? I already had an idea of what form it was going to take, so I was a bit resistant at first, but she eventually persuaded me and I’m glad that she did because I’m happy with the end result.

It’s the 25th Anniversary of the M11 link road, how do you feel when you look back at that time now and do you still regularly visit the area?

I have another artist friend who’s house was going to be demolished, but it was the last one in the line and he managed to actually buy it very cheaply himself. It didn’t get destroyed, so he still lives there. So I still go to Leytonstone very regularly. I also regularly drive down the M11 link road where my house was. That’s quite a strange experience. Colville Road, where I lived, they knocked down my side of the road, but the other side of the road is still standing, so it means that as you go by on the motorway, I know exactly where my house was. If my house still existed, it would be suspended in space over the inside lane of the Northbound carriageway. I found it quite weird to begin with. I sort of felt, although there’s no evidence of my house even existing, I felt that my life and time that I’d spent in that place, which was quite a formative time in my life, was there for everyone to see. It was an important time for me living there, because I met quite a lot of artists who have subsequently become very close friends, even though now most have dispersed from the area.

I guess if you didn’t know it before it probably doesn’t seem strange, but it was very, very odd that now you couldn’t travel somewhere by walking for a couple of minutes. It would now take you twenty minutes because of this divide right down the middle of Leytonstone.

When you come back to the area now, do you feel a strong sense of culture and community? Has it changed a lot over the years?

Well some things have and some things haven’t, I guess. C&S Builders Merchant that I used to use is still there! The Northcote is interesting because that’s become gentrified like many other places. I went there quite recently and saw they’ve expanded with a big garden and a place doing pizzas. The ambience of the place is very different.

Do you have any other project coming up that people can look out for in the future?

I’ve just made a little film that’s showing around a bit at the moment. A short description of it would say, ‘a biblical interpretation of the Ryanair safety card’. That’s the last thing I’ve completed. That’ll be at the London Film Festival this year in October, just after Leytonstone Loves Film and at the same time I’m doing a screening at the British School at Rome. I’m quite good at putting things on my website so if you look it up, you’ll see things there.

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About John Smith
John Smith was born in Walthamstow, London in 1952 and studied film at the Royal College of Art, during which time he became an active member of the London Filmmakers Co-op. Inspired in his formative years by conceptual art and structural film, but also fascinated by the immersive power of narrative and the spoken word, he has developed an extensive body of work that subverts the perceived boundaries between documentary and fiction, representation and abstraction. Often rooted in everyday life, his meticulously crafted films playfully explore and expose the language of cinema.

Since 1972 Smith has made over fifty film, video and installation works that have been shown in independent cinemas, art galleries and on television around the world and awarded major prizes at many international film festivals. He received a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists in 2011, and in 2013 he was the winner of Film London’s Jarman Award.

About Blight
Made in collaboration with the composer Jocelyn Pook (previous collaborator with Massive Attack, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick), this remarkable film revolves around the impact of the building of the M11 link road in East London, using images and sounds of demolition and road building in conjunction with the spoken words of local residents. A moving memento to the end of a community.
Watch an extract

About Home Suite
Home Suite is unique a close-up journey through a domestic landscape and a journey through memory. Playing upon ambiguity and the unseen, it is a personal exploration of physical details of the space to trigger fragmented verbal descriptions of associated memories. The film takes the audience of a stunning journey where the details of life connect with a historical moment.
Watch an extract