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Vanguard Film Festival at Arnolfini

Tuesday 26 October 2021, by Elizabeth Mizon

The Vanguard Film Festival was the final of three events making up Vanguard x Vans: On The Screen in Bristol this autumn, a “celebration of street art and skateboarding history”. An advertising boon for skateboarding apparel manufacturer Vans, no doubt, the festival also served to draw attention to street art collective Vanguard’s debut exhibition at M Shed: Bristol Street Art: The Evolution of a Global Movement, which runs until 31st October.

That the organisations chose to split their festival into three smaller events seems unnecessary given the cohesion of their themes. However each event was distinct; the films at today’s final offering, The Vanguard Film Festival, related specifically to the history of hip hop’s street art elements, delivering an almost entirely documentary record of the birth of the graffiti movement, its political and economic fabric, and the connections made between US and UK grassroots cultures.

The line up comprised the world’s “first hip-hop feature” and US cult classic Wild Style (1982); the UK documentary Bombin’ (1988) featuring a young paint-can wielding Goldie; and Martha: A Picture Story (2019), a dynamic and touching documentary about veteran photographer Martha Cooper, who struggled to get the attention she deserved for devotedly capturing the 1970’s NYC street art movement as it was born.

Cooper conducted this street photography around her assignments as the New York Post’s first female photographer where her editor had directed her to simply “look for cleavage”. A favourite of mainstream documentary festivals around the world on its release, Martha: A Picture Story was an excellent choice to end on; it gave us a masterful, relatable character-led insight into a dynamic and resonant period of history and, unlike the film’s direct contemporary Finding Vivian Maier, one from whom we can still hear. And we did - the festival flew Cooper herself over for a Q&A to finish the day’s schedule.

The other two films were also plenty interesting, especially when viewed side by side. Wild Style is almost a drama-documentary; largely a fictionalised ‘slice of life’ for street artist ‘Zoro’ (played by legendary NYC graffiti artist Lee Quiñones), it has long segments showing parties, club nights headed by Grand Master Flash, montages of shuttling el-trains covered in technicolour lettering and (seemingly) improvised dialogue the authenticity of which is doubtless, if a little wooden. The film frequently makes for dated viewing, but is fun - and a crucial time capsule.

Bombin’ then gave an insight into just how strongly the real-life characters of Wild Style would immediately influence art and culture in the UK, as young people discovering the messages of the hip-hop scene were also suffering at the hands of police, poverty, and inner city life. We saw young artist Brim Fuentes and his contemporaries invited to the UK to give hip-hop workshops, voraciously attended by young Thatcher-addled kids. We were also introduced to forerunning young British hip hop artists including a teenage Goldie who, in return, visits Brim in the Bronx. He, too, attended for a Q&A.

Vanguard x Vans: On The Screen was held entirely at the city’s premier contemporary art gallery, the Arnolfini, which has often housed important and radical work. But the Arnolfini audience is staunchly white middle-class.

Hosting events celebrating ‘underground/radical/urban/[insert label]’ culture in deeply white spaces is not uncommon for corporate funded events, but it was particularly rankling alongside the films characters’ vocalisation of how poverty and lack of funding for their activities was affecting their lives. It wasn’t a surprise that we didn’t see today’s Anglo-side equivalent of South Bronx youth turn up, even though the festival was free.

I often wonder in these situations whether the organisers explored holding the event in the community spaces of less affluent areas - numerous film festivals, events and individual screenings, almost certainly with less financial backing, do so throughout the year.

More importantly, it just seems like common sense; a clear effort towards making a small, but key, change to a segregated art scene almost 40 years after Wild Style and Bombin’ showed us theirs.

Here’s more info on the festival. All three film festivals ran alongside the exhibition Vanguard: Bristol Street Art which finishes on Sunday 31st October 2021.

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