It’s a testament to a film that it always seems to resonate whenever it’s rediscovered, dusted off for special occasions or unwittingly stumbled upon, which makes the special screening of Bill Douglas’ epic Comrades all the more tantalising.
The screening, at Studio 74, in the Exeter Phoenix, is to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, housed in Exeter University’s old library. It’s hot on the heels (kinda) of the film’s Continental renaissance. And it comes with an introduction by the film’s script editor and Bill Douglas’ buddy Peter Jewell, plus the Bill Douglas cinema museum’s curator Phil Wickham.
Clear your afternoon and your mind, because there’s so much to get your teeth into and enjoy with the film, the screening and the introduction.
The story of Comrades is based on that of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. They were a group of Dorest farm workers who were arrested and transported to Australia in 1834 for trying to improve their conditions by forming an early form of trade union. How apt their story appears in a modern society of no-hours contracts and increasing splintering of working experience and protection.
Throughout the film the character of the travelling lanternists appears in many guises, spreading news and entertainment and having a spell-binding magical element in tying things together. This brings in aspects of the history of film and the use of the medium, which is now taking on sinister overtones faced as we are with overwhelming fake news and media manipulation.
But at its heart, and surely the key to Comrades’ ultimate appeal, longevity and relevance is that it’s a story about people: how the performances and the film capture essential aspects of humanity; how personal stories and artistic vision combine in the power of film.
Let’s leave the last words to actor Phil Davis when describing Comrades. It has a political message, he says, but it’s not a political film, it’s a film about people.
Here are some jumping off points to whet your appetite and convince you to pop along. Plus you really should make a trip to the Bill Douglas Museum, it’s a cornucopia of cinema history, social history and a joyous collection.
First off, here’s a link to snippets of a Comrades Q&A with Philip Davis and Phil Wickham at the BFI, and below are some fascinating short documentary pieces on the film.