A dense, overgrown cemetery dwarfed by decaying tower blocks is not the most obvious setting for a film and arts festival. Add to that its previously undesirable location, in east London’s Mile End, an area once fraught with crime and deprivation, and one could be forgiven for approaching with caution.
Yet filmmaker and local resident Danny Boyle believes it is this offbeat profile that will attract up to 10,000 curious outsiders and locals alike to Shuffle, the five-day festival he set up last year to help support a push for affordable housing in the British capital.
“It’s a partial reaction against the tide of the multiplexes, which are convenient but personality-less,” the 57-year-old says of Tower Hamlets’s Cemetery Park site, where two outdoor screens have been rolled in on trucks. “Compared to the heyday of cinema – there was a cinema opposite Mile End station – where they were full of character, cinemas today, the multiplexes, are bland. They give you an extraordinary screen, extraordinary sound and facilities, but young people want more. They want movies, but in a space that’s interesting.”
Shuffle also provides up-and-coming filmmakers with a platform to showcase their work. Boyle is offering a one-on-one mentorship with him in New York (his other base) as the top prize in the festival’s new short-film competition.
Boyle has allowed himself a dash of personal nostalgia as well. Last year saw his Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire screened on the wall of the disused St Clements Hospital. This year, his 2002 zombie horror 28 Days Later will screen at sundown in the graveyard next to the former asylum.
“It’s about the wilderness in the city, that film, and we made it in the area,” he says. “It’s a delightful place to show it. Obviously, it’s a scary movie, so to show it in a graveyard as the light dies, especially in an over-run graveyard like this, should make the sense of occasion quite good, I think – and jumpy.”
Other big-screen, ticketed events include a 25th-anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s seminal comment on race relations, Do the Right Thing, as well as Nic Roeg’s surreal Outback adventure Walkabout (with the director and his son Luc in attendance), Lynne Ramsay’s debut Ratcatcher, and Jim Jarmusch’s oddball Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp.
A flurry of daytime family activities is also promised, as are a series of walks and talks in and around the cemetery itself – which is said to contain tens of thousands of bodies in mass, unmarked graves (former inmates, apparently, of the Victorian workhouse turned asylum). To help lighten the mood, there is stand-up comedy (Bafta nominee Nat Luurtsema and Richard Sandling are due to perform), open-mic sessions and a clutch of singers, bands and DJs are due to round things off, with an army of accordion players guiding festival-goers to the site throughout the day.
The person responsible for curating the lively programme is Kate MacTiernan, who says it reflects the festival’s aim of promoting affordable housing and the effective use of public space. “The main difference with Shuffle is that we’re responding to what’s on site – acceptance, in a place where people were previously shut off,” she says. “It’s now opening up to people. It’s the opposite of what it was as an asylum. We’re in the most urban woodlands in London. It’s about being in the presence of nature, in the city, in this wilderness. So our films look at city, nature, love, survival and death. They are eternal human conditions and powerful tools, as the world gets more and more urban.”
As a curtain-raiser, MacTiernan has arranged for the festival to open with a free “Village Feast” for 500 locals and festival supporters before the event opens for business. A bespoke menu, designed by Le Cordon Bleu chef India Hamilton, will offer its own limoncello, and dishes will feature ingredients foraged from the cemetery’s diverse eco-system.
“It’s hopefully becoming a part of people’s calendar year,” she says of the event, which will be trying out a café, bar and restaurant on site, and could see Boyle premiering his future films there, if the timing is right. “It’s still early days,” she adds. “I think you need to do at least three to find your feet, but we’ve had a very strong response so far. People seem to be craving this type of event in their own backyards.”
To August 3, shufflefestival.com