Sarah Turner’s Public House, as part of Upprojects’ Floating Cinema

Grierson Award nominated film Public House, by artist and filmmaker Sarah Turner, is largely referred to as a “participatory documentary film”, in which no one narrative is privileged over another, not even that of the artist, who herself is a shareholder of The Ivy House. The film in fact depends on intertwining voices, which can be heard as a collection of individual expressions or as an operatic arrangement. The result is a “shared imagination” a cross-section of human experiences, dreams and anxieties.

The pub in Nunhead faced closure in 2012 after being sold to a property developer. Built in the 1930s, The Ivy House served as refuge for locals during the Blitz, which it happened to survive despite having lost each of the neighbouring buildings as well as several people, and the end of the war too was celebrated inside its doors. During the 1970s it served as a music venue, and hosted names that have since become consecrated in rock history, including Dr Feelgood, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and Elvis Costello. Throughout its history in fact, it served as more than a local watering hole, inviting members of the community to see it as a self-prophesising time-capsule, each encounter adding to the history of the building and its position as the nexus of local life. After being given one week’s notice to vacate the premises, the locals fought for its survival, and ensured the building gained Grade II listed status as well as establishing it as the first and only pub in the UK to be purchased, and run, under the “community right to bid” Act.

The story of The Ivy House pub is a remarkable one, but it should not detract from the film itself as a standalone art-work. The film opens with a reference to William Blake’s vision of celestial beings over Peckham Rye: “A tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars,” and it ends with it too, this time embodied by the residents, demonstrating that the real heart of The Ivy House lies within its regulars. This is not the only instance of showcasing the art that pertains to the surrounding neighborhood, the film is embellished with spoken-word, music and dance performances, all coordinated and performed by the locals. Turner treats each sequence with infinite attention to detail, capturing single moments and presenting the atmosphere of the unique building with all of its hideaways, dusty furniture and pre-war fixtures to the viewer almost like a surreal landscape. She is both participant and observer, offering an alternative social contract along with the other shareholders of The Ivy House.

The film is a rare glimpse into one of the few remnants of a London that before long will not exist, an oasis that has not yet been carved up and sold to the highest bidder. It also addresses migration anxiety, and achieves a new resonance following recent events- what is currently the position of foreign nationals in long-standing, historical communities such as this? Above all, the film reintroduces the subject of the body politic, a concept that has waned in recent years. Whilst the saving of a run-down local pub from the uncontainable rise of gentrification can be viewed as merely a nostalgic exercise, it is far more appropriate to view it as an act of defiance against separation, alienation and obscurity. All this, and more, is open for debate within the walls of the Public House.

Public House will be shown as part of UP Project’s The Floating Cinema on the 21st of August.
Join the director in conversation canalside, a stone’s throw from one of London’s cultural highlights, The Floating Cinema. Reserve a seat at: #floatingcinema @upprojects

Laura Catsellis

1. View of The Floating Cinema. Courtesy of Upprojects.