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Save the Tavern and We Came to Sweat

Sunday 26 April 2015, by Ryan Ormonde

A campaign to save a legendary nightclub is the theme of two separate documentaries depicting the fight to save community and history from their demolition by property developers. The Starlite in Brooklyn, New York is the subject of Kate Kunath and Sasha Wortzel’s We Came To Sweat while the ongoing fight to Save the Tavern (specifically the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in South London) is the impetus behind Tim Brunsden’s film of that name.

Up to a point the films have a similar structure, first setting out the history of their subject, as patrons, performers and members of staff give firsthand testimonies, before these people start to articulate the politics at play. Both venues have cast iron cases for protection status: The Starlite was a trailblazer of two intersecting civil rights struggles spanning six decades; The Tavern represents a continuation of centuries of performance on the site where it stands and as a pub has served and protected the LGBT community for at least 60 years. There is a sense of malaise in the Starlite as ‘We Came to Sweat’ is being filmed however, as though its strongest supporters have either given up the ghost or become ghosts themselves; accounts of the past sound like old songs rather than lively cases for the defence. In contrast, the folk assembled to talk up the Tavern are all inveterate activist-raconteurs, every one bouncing a distinct laser-sharp angle off the venue, its functions and its times, until a dazzling object emerges. This film doesn’t just make a compelling case for saving the Tavern, it makes the idea of disrupting its historic role within the community an unthinkable travesty.

Then the threat of extinction is introduced. Debbie is the great gay hope for the Starlite. She mobilises, orates and calls to action, insisting a general cannot go to battle alone, an observation that heartbreakingly gives a name to her undoing. In London, The Tavern’s army are prepared: Amy Lamé was there the last time the RVT was saved from the hands of developers: then they were planning to erect a dry ski slope housed in a shopping centre. Marisa Carnesky pours derision on the notion that 2.5 million can be all it takes to wipe out a cultural institution when the venue is capable of bringing far more than that to the area. She has noticed that the RVT is a microcosm of the whole of London, of the UK even: its economic future relies on its historical and cultural value. At the time of filming Lamé has a hunch that the new plans will follow the recent pattern for bulldozing sites of community worth, to make way for towering luxury apartment blocks.

The Starlite family pray together, and their godliness is all part of their radical, historical inclusivity. A long time regular to the venue describes it as his church. Paul O’Grady, who was a central community figure as well as a performer at the RVT for most of the 1980s, charmingly likens that place to a village hall. He talks of the many funerals and wakes that were held there at that time, for patrons and staff who had died from AIDS. Others talk of the fundraising for many good causes, a constant thread over the years. Often when there is footage of a drag artiste on the stage she is speaking not just as an entertainer but as community leader and protector.

The Tavern campaign continues. You can follow their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Future-of-the-Royal-Vauxhall-Tavern/546032735542640

Save The Tavern, Dir. Tim Brunsden, 2014
We Came To Sweat, Dir. Kate Kunath & Sasha Wortzel, 2014

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