PUTTING WALTHAMSTOW on the International Film Map

In this episode, language consultant and film festival co-founder Paul Fletcher speaks to me from his home in (what some might describe as) the hippest part of East London!

I have such a strong interest in both of those topics – language and film festivals – I decided that I needed two separate episodes to hear Paul’s stories.

So here in this first episode, we talk about how Paul co-founded (together with wife Liza) the Walthamstow International Film Festival 11 years ago.


➤ When was the last time you lived in Manchester?

Well the last time I lived in Manchester was ‘89. Wow! 32 years ago. I’ve lived in the south longer than I lived in the north.

➤ Do you still consider yourself a northerner?

It’s a bit complicated because I think in my heart it’s the north but I can’t see myself living there again. I like to visit, you know what I mean? I think in my DNA it’s northern but London – this is my home.

➤ I know. That’s how I see you but listening to you there is not a hint of southern accent.

See my kids say you don’t have a northern accent and and when Liza puts on a northern accent like in a bloody Mike Leigh film and they’ll say, ‘Uh her accent’s better than yours!’ I say, ‘Yeah it’s bloody caricature, isn’t it?’ I think I’ve got a northern accent maybe not like strong.

➤ I wouldn’t say you have like a proper Yorkshire, Lancashire type accent but you have no south in you, in my opinion.
So, when you meet someone new today randomly and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ how do you respond?

Yeah I’d like to think that I would say I’m an artist but I tend to say what I do for money which is language training.

But to be honest, when they ask what you do, they generally mean, ‘What’s your job?’ and the job that pays money. I mean in my heart I’m an artist but to put food on the table for my poor little orphanage children, it’s got to be language training.

But even that’s not doing much at the moment – I’m just like hustling around really. I have a lot of different ideas but I like art and when I say art, I mean all the arts but especially film and writing and stuff. So yeah we had our film festival last Saturday, actually. Eleventh year! And it went really well.

➤ Was this the first year that it’s online?

No, last year was online and that was a complete disaster. Absolute disaster. We used Zoom – paid professional Zoom and we had this live stream and it showed about three films but then people kept messaging in the chat box saying, ‘I can’t see it! The sounds off!’ And then it just went black and then it came back on so we abandoned it. I said, ‘Really sorry I’m gonna abandon this. This is a load of rubbish.’

And then this year, we did it physically. It was live. It was in a space. Because over in London now you can sort of like have a space with up to – I don’t know what the regulations are but this held 300 people. Socially distanced and all that.

It was like a big sort of old warehouse. There’s a massive screen – they’ve been showing the football. And good sound system – except the sound system was pretty echoey.

And it’s in a brewery! There’s an area in Walthamstow now where all the brewers – all the craft beer makers – congregated. It’s an old industrial estate. I don’t know what it used to be used for – manufacturing and engineering and stuff. But they’ve got this big massive hangar room where they were showing live events. They invited us to do it this year to promote their brewery at the same time.

And you know it worked really well for us because they gave it us for free and they promoted it themselves. And yeah, we had about 700 people over the day.

➤ Can you take me back to the beginning? Because when I met you in 2000, we were both struggling artists and filmmakers.

Was that 2000? it was before 2000. You worked in the Millennium Dome, didn’t you? I met you before then.

➤ Okay then it would have been ‘99.

Yeah, ‘99. Me and Liza were living in Spain and Valencia for three years and over there I was doing a lot of writing. And there’s a couple of film festivals over there – independent film festivals which were great for us because you know, you go and it was all original versions, so a lot of them were in English.

So we just like watched all these films and then because it was International film festivals – not the same level as Cannes but quite big – all the filmmakers were there and all the directors and actors were there. We met some pretty famous people just in the bars.

➤ What year was this?

This was like ‘96.

➤ Okay, so you’ve had the idea since then, to put up the film festival?

Well I was writing novels – bad novels. But then this guy there says, ‘Oh you know this sounds like it could be a script,’ and he put that in my head.

So I started writing a script while in Spain and then managed to finish the script. Then we came back to London and then we started making films because at that moment in time – in technological time – digital was kind of happening. And it was more or less affordable.

And my mate said, ‘Oh you need to buy a camera and a Mac. And then you can make your own films.’ So I looked into this and it was like you know, it was quite expensive then, it was like 2000 quid for a camera, 2000 quid for a Mac. But, I thought, ‘Sod it!’ and I got a £2000 loan and Liza got a £2000 loan. We bought them and we just set up Twist Films, and started making short films. We had no idea how to make films or anything.

➤ Do you remember Festen? I remember you were completely inspired by that film.

Yeah Festen was fantastic. All that Dogme stuff you know, you just go out and make films with non-actors and it doesn’t matter if the boom’s in shot and you just do one take and all that – just really blew my mind. That was brilliant, all that Dogme stuff.

➤ So you started making films because you were inspired by these Danish filmmakers. When did you first get the idea of doing a film festival? Was that back in Spain?

Well maybe it was incubated there. Maybe like the seed was put in the dirty barren soil then.
But we were making little films and we were trying to put them in film festivals and it was quite difficult to get them accepted because it was all like VHS. I was sending out all these VHS tapes. But I’d say one of the bonuses of that period was you didn’t have to pay to enter a film festival or we were entering film festivals where we didn’t have to pay.
We made a few films and then we started getting them in film festivals – exotic places like Kiev and Belgrade and then a couple in London, one in Paris. They weren’t great big film festivals but interesting ones. And then we kept making the little films and then I had that script called ‘The Canal. It was a feature length film, I was trying to get that commissioned or whatever you call it and I got this agent.

➤ Can you give me a 2-3 sentence summary of ‘The Canal’?

So it’s about a guy who’s in London who has left Manchester – bit like me – and he had to leave Manchester – not like me. He’s in London and he finds out that his ex-girlfriend is going to get married to his dreaded enemy in Manchester and he decides to swim back to Manchester in the canal system of Britain and gain publicity and stop her marrying him. He’s followed by some crazy characters but really it was a journey into the heart of darkness.
It was a journey into the the soul, the psyche of post-industrial Britain. And you know if you think of a film like Shawshank Redemption, he has to go through that slimy dirty shitty sewer at the end which is like a baptism. So that was kind of like based on that.

➤ So wait, when you pitch it, it kind of sounds like a screwball comedy but you’re saying it’s more drama?

Well it is a screwball comedy but it has got some, I would say, depth and psychological backstory to it that makes it into a different level. That’s what I would say.
I got this agent who was really into it and then they would say, ‘Yeah we’re gonna do it. We’re gonna do it,’ and then you get wrapped up into that jungle of film commissioning and blah blah blah. Anyway in the end it just got so much, I just kind of petered out. One agent went bust passed it on to another agent who had… blah blah and I just thought, ‘Oh fuck this, we’ll make our own films.’
And then we started making our own films. The big idea was to build up to make this feature film and but to do that I was making short films called ‘A to Z of London,’ so every letter represented an area of London and a character and then you could put them all together like 26 together and they would be interlocking. That was the big idea and you know I managed to finish that.

➤ Is it anywhere online?

I think some of them are online but most of them are in DVD form in my garden office. So anyway, we made all these films. We’re living in Highbury in London. Then you saw life was taking over. I was working as a TEFL teacher. Liza and I got married and we needed somewhere to live and we were looking for a flat and I needed to earn money. You know what it’s like. We came up to Walthamstow because we had a mate who was living up here and then we came up to look at some places to live. And when I came up here I thought, ‘This place doesn’t even think it’s in London!’ It was so weird. We went down the market and somebody got thrown out of a shop as we walked past and screaming at each other – I think shoplifting. And as I walked around the corner, I stood on this dead soft wet pigeon. I said to Liza, ‘I can’t live here. This is like a bullshit place!’ And we left. We got a takeaway coffee and just left straight away and we started looking at other places like Baron’s Green and Kingston, we were looking all over the place but we just couldn’t afford anywhere! And then one day I said, ‘Liza let’s give Walthamstow another chance.’

➤ ‘Let’s go back to the dead pigeon place!’

Yeah! [Laughs] And then we came up on that day and there was one house to view and it was an open day, so anybody could go. So we just went down and had a look at it and as we came into the front garden bit, people were coming out laughing, going, ‘What the hell? Who’s expected to buy that shithole?’ Me and Liza came in and we just fell in love with it, and thought, ‘Oh this is it! This is it! This is brilliant.’ We didn’t even know where the sun was, you know. Liza’s brother came down with a compass and said, ‘Yeah your garden’s in the southwest position.’ We had no idea. We pulled a bit of wallpaper and the wall fell off! There were dead mice on the floor. Everything was painted green and purple. To get to the bathroom, you had to go through two bedrooms. Not one, but two! It was bizarre. Anyway, we moved in and the filmmaking was like put in the cupboard for a bit. We’d lived here a couple years and I was working in teaching English and stuff and you know, it’s going all right, I was just in a bit of a rut.
And then, around here there’s a thing called ‘The Art Trail.’ So every two years people would show art. You’d go around to their houses or their shop or the pub and everyone who was an artist put art out. It’s like paintings and sculptures and poetry and stuff. And me and Liza went on a little day trip.

We had a look around all this art and it’s really good but I said at the end, ‘I’ve seen everything!’ Nobody was showing any films. They were doing drama, they were doing sculptures and then we went to the pub – Rose and Crown, up the road. We had a few pints, we just talked and I just had this like brain wave, like you do after five pints. I said, ‘Let’s start a film festival!’ And Liza said, ‘Uh yeah. Let’s do it. What should we call it?’
And then we were going, ‘E17 films… um London… East London film…’ And I said no, ‘We’ll call it, “The Walthamstow International Film Festival.” Then, when they look online, they’ll have to say, “Where the hell’s Walthamstow?” and they’d have to look and then we’ll be putting Walthamstow on the map as well.

➤ What year was this?

I think it would be about 2009… 2008. So we come home, Liza went to bed. And I just went online and registered it on these websites. There was one called Filmfest, one called Filmview and there was another one called Film Freeway and I just registered it. You didn’t even have to do anything.

➤ I like that because if you wait, you’re not going to do it. So register it. Do something! That’s why I always like buying domain names. Whenever I get a new idea, I buy the domain name and then I’m committed.

It’s you and the domain names! [Laughs.]
So yeah, I registered it that night and then the next morning I woke Liza up with a cup of tea and a piece of toast and said, ‘I’ve registered it.’ She said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘The film festival!’ She said, ‘Oh my god, no!’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve registered it. But nobody will enter it. It will just be me and you showing our films.’ She said, ‘Okay.’ And then three weeks later, this VHS comes through the door from Belgium. And I thought, ‘Oh my god. We’re gonna have to do it. And they had to pay like 5 dollars.

➤ So you got 5 dollars in your account and a VHS.

Yeah it went into Paypal. And this VHS, we watched it. I mean you know, it was all right, it was like, a five minute film. I said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna have to do something’. And that kind of spurred it on!
I had a mate who was trying to get on this course in college – this design course – and he needed something to show them because he was a mature student, like 40-45 or something and they were saying, ‘Oh you haven’t done anything.’ He says, ‘I’m going to make something, I’ll show you I can do it.’

And I said to him, ‘I know what you can make. You can make one of those 1950s TV’s, you know, like a wooden one with big knobs. But we’ll make it really big and then inside it, we’ll put a flat screen and then you make that and show it to your colleagues to get on the course. And we will use it in the film festival.’

➤ Wait, at this point you didn’t have a venue though

No we had no venue, no. [Laughs]

➤ So where were you imagining putting this big TV?

In the front garden and just showing it. So he made it and it was massive. It was like the size of a – how big was it? It was like the size of a big window, like a box, a big box! And it looked brilliant. He made it out of flooring and big knobs and inside it was empty but I bought this flat screen – I think it was a 45 inch flat screen. We put it in with a little dvd player on the shelf and it kind of worked.

➤ How many entries did you end up getting in the first year?

(Conversation continues…)