“The only thing you pitch is your tent” is the tagline for the Quadrangle documentary film festival. Referencing the major industry led documentary film festival in Sheffield, where the UK’s documentary film and TV industries gather to develop new projects, and is awash with budding filmmakers pitching their hearts out; Quadrangle is a flipside to that exciting and necessary mayhem.
Quadrangle is close to London, just within the ring of the M25, on an old farm near the village of Shoreham in Kent. The local woods and hills there are familiar to me, as I grew up in south-east London and had many a Sunday afternoon drive and country stroll with my parents in the area. At just 30 minutes on the train from London Bridge, it seems like a million miles from other London film festivals. The Quadrangle farm has a campsite and is nestled within the idyllic Darenth Valley; it was set up as a trust in 1974 for sustainable living and the creative arts. It has been used for educational workshops, residential courses, yoga retreats, drama productions, conferences, exhibitions, and now it’s the second year of the film festival, which has been set up by documentary filmmaker Chloe Ruthven and Jessie Teggin from London’s Open City Film Festival. Both Chloe and Jessie as childhood friends were regular visitors to Quadrangle, and Chloe had featured the location in her 2007 documentary Mario & Nini, which follows two troubled young children as they descend into gang culture. One scene features the two boys on a camping trip to Quadrangle.
London is awash with film festivals, with around 60 a year, which is more than one a week. These festivals cover every genre, country, and subject matter. So what makes Quadrangle so special? It’s a simple blueprint, but one that is totally unique. With a small capacity of around 150, and with regular communal lunches, a banquet dinner, a Saturday night party, and a campsite bonfire, there’s an immediate bonding that takes place. And with everyone there because they have a love, interest or career in documentary film, the friendly and relaxed vibe as you’re all thrown together creates unforced friendships. As the Festival is geared towards the documentary industry, some filmmakers bring works in progress to discuss with the audiences, plus there’s a chance for invited established filmmakers to screen their favourites and inspirations, and again, to discuss afterwards. Add a selection of workshops and short films, but keeping the overall festival programme quite sparse, then the simple but effective Quadrangle is complete.
The screenings take place in a giant barn, plus smaller outhouses and an old army tent. Visitors included filmmakers Kim Longinotto, Marc Isaacs, Moshen Makhmalbaf, Dick Fontaine, Liz Mermin and Dan Reed. My personal weekend was spent seeing powerful classic documentaries about gay activist Harvey Milk (in The Times of Harvey Milk), the war in Kosovo (in The Valley), and the groundbreaking Sherman’s March, plus works-in-progress including from Sarah McCarthy (in The Dark Matter of Love, about adoption) and Liz Mermin (in Amazing Azerbaijan, about the most recent troubled Eurovision Song Contest) , and new films such as the Sundance hit The Ambassador (about political corruption in central Africa, told from a Borat-style angle). Add fun late night clips from classic docs and YouTube hits courtesy of the Kitchen Sink Collective. I also chatted around the campfire, watched the canopy of bright stars above, and ate breakfast by the slow moving river - not the usual film festival experiences.
I’ve always been a big supporter of film in alternative places, which is where my roots as a programmer lay. As I’ve worked for festivals over the years, I’ve continued to remain true to how film can be taken out of the cinema. Of course, there’s a time and place for the traditional cinema, but alternative venues can create communal experiences for audiences, and can bond people in a similar way to being at a music gig. It’s still important to be aware that the film is the thing; the image on the rectangle of white at the front is paramount, and is why the audience has collected in the place to watch the images on it in the first place. I’ve particularly enjoyed my time as programmer at the Branchage Festival in Jersey; Jersey has no cinemas outside of a corporate multiplex, so when putting the Festival together we see what spaces are available for the films we select. In fact, we’d used an old barn for screenings; Gideon Koppel screened his rural documentary sleep furiously while the sound of the dairy cows came through the ancient stone walls, and Italian goat film Le Quattro Volte was in a similar setting. But we have a whole island to play with; castles, churches, war tunnels, and even slightly more out-there locations such as a poly-tunnel (for a screening of The Vanishing of the Bees) and a horse box (for Liz Mermin’s Horses documentary). The whole of Jersey therefore becomes an immersive platform for cinema and beyond. Quadrangle shrinks this concept down to a perfect three day bite-size chunk, and treats its very select audience with intelligence and respect, knowing that they are there to watch and discuss films. The fact that there are no gimmicks means that the films take centre stage. As the site has the 150 maximum capacity in place, the Festival can never grow in numbers; it’s already selling out in its second year. Any bigger though, and the concept simply wouldn’t work. But it will be interesting to see how Quadrangle does develop over the next few years, and if it becomes a blueprint for similar film retreats.