School of Music and Fine Art

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Director Sarah Turner talks about her groundbreaking film Public House

1 October 2015

‘PUBLIC HOUSE’ nominated for the Grierson Award.


Grierson Award nominated film Public House premieres on 12th October 2015 at the BFI London Film Festival. This genre-blending documentary of spoken word / text/ opera/ film, funded by a production award from Film London Artists' Moving Image Network (FLAMIN) and a research award from the School of Music and Fine Art, University of Kent, is directed by Sarah Turner, Reader in Fine Art and Director of Research in the School of Music and Fine Art.

Artist and Ivy House shareholder, Sarah Turner, lives nearby the pub and has been documenting key moments of the community take over since April 2012. Then, the pub’s staff were given a few days notice of eviction and closure; the cherished Ivy

House had been sold for conversion into flats. The creativity and energy of the community ensured this did not happen: the sale was blocked through an English Heritage listing, the pub was registered as the first Asset of Community Value in the UK, then triumphantly purchased. The Ivy House Community Pub re-opened in August 2013 and in doing so has both rewritten London history and proposed the potential for an alternative social imaginary.

We invited Sarah to talk about the inspiration for this ground-breaking work.

"Public House takes participatory documentary to a whole new level. Activated in response to the community take over of the Ivy House pub, London, SE15, the film is a multi layered exploration of memory, community and social reinvention which fuses fact and fiction in a shape shifting genre hybrid that moves documentary into a form of opera. The community owned Ivy House is now itself a shape shifting venue, hosting events as diverse as folk music, swing classes, knitting circles, big band Sunday roasts and samba workshops for pre schoolers. The film mirrors this cultural transformation in a movement through documentary events, to forms of community participation that are rooted in pub culture – in this case, spoken word and performance poetry – to a minimalist opera that is composed of ambient sound and the collective voice. The film's final image takes the creative energy of the Ivy House out of the pub and onto the streets, where a mass community assembly re-imagines William Blake's vision of angels on nearby Peckham Rye. "A tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars."

Public House explores the social function of pubs with the Ivy House story at the centre of it. What it means to be local, ideas of insider / outsider, community and participation, home and belonging, are the crucial anxieties of our age, crystallised in our relationship to place and space. Pubs are spaces that allow us to connect with others who are often quite different from us; the encounter with a stranger is at the heart of pub culture, and also – possibly – why we value it. What other spaces allow us to explore our fictions, both the events of our lives, and the complex human emotions which are staples of pub culture – lust, fear, desire and mourning – socially, in a public, as opposed to a private, house?

A unique social choreography took place in the community take over of the Ivy House when a dynamic and defiant community responded to the loss of a treasured public space. The film interweaves portraits of these key characters, events and voices with portraits of the surrounding landscape and streets. Key sequences of animated stills punctuate the work: The Ivy House overlooks a vast field of allotments and wide time-lapsed tableaus have been photographed over a couple of years. This almost pastoral image of artisanal labour, growth and seasonal transformation, offers an alternative portrait of Peckham Rye, an area often associated with the usual urban clichés of blight and decay.

Public House, the film, performs its own unique choreography through its approach to participation: We brought together a group from within the wider pub community to share experience – through writing poetry. We were preoccupied with the idea of remembering an encounter with a stranger that was life changing/ transformative. In the process the poems expanded from that – into – a wider thematic of pub encounters/pub experiences. Empathy, connection and the limits of understanding (what we learn and how we are changed by an other) became a major part of this: participants had to work with /interpret & support the “others” experience and crucially; when they performed the poems in the pub to an invited audience, they were paired off and they performed the other's poem first. In the film, we intercut both versions of the performance, largely moving from other to self: this produces some uncanny translations – eg, an older woman enacting the story of a much younger man – and is also key to codes of reading; who is inside and outside both the community and the film: There is a synergy in the experience of the pub and film audience: both are re translating, projecting/ re-associating these stories, as we see the person that we suspect is the subject of one story that we're holding the memory of, narrating or performing another's.

The multiple levels of voice, memory and performance, are further developed in the word/text poetry of the Soundscape, which carries the underlying structural movement of the film. The Soundscape is composed – as with music concrete – through fragments of spoken word and ambient audio drawn from the immediate environment. Much of this is in the sound design and is developed through accousmatic composition. Accousmatic composers work through an understanding of acoustic ecology, which sonifies ambient sound harmonically and tonally. In the film this builds through sound design/repetitive refrain and culminates in clear shifts where the fragments of voice resolve into fully formed librettos.

These librettos are constructed from verbatim voice recordings of pub users – past and present – engaging in 'pub talk': memories of the space as well as their fears, dreams, desires. These recordings form a sonic ethnography of the unconscious of a community: the verbatim performance of memory and imagining – or, the continual and engaged movement of the past in the present – is formed of the collective voice: cyclical refrain builds into harmonics, which stages the creative action and imaginary of the community as a form of creative expression.

The film weaves these elements together: moving from a document of individual memory via the testaments woven through the soundscape, into the pub's swing dance classes, which re interpret the movement of the 30's in this 30's space, through to the staged collective authorship that explores different forms of encounters through performance poetry, the film culminates in a mass assembly which proposes an alternative vision of Blake's angelic presence. This mass response to a historical image is a metaphor for how our imaginary potential is engaged through an exchange with our past. Public spaces that incorporate our every day, connect us with our past, our fictions and our truths are increasingly being privatised. Public House is an allegory of how the resonance of individual and cultural memory has the potential to reinvent these spaces, and in so doing imagine a different social contract."

 To view Sarah's talk about Public House click here:

For more information about Public House go to:

The film has a website that was set up in order to liaise with the Ivy Housecommunity and participants:

For further information on the Ivy House please visit:


 About Sarah Turner:

Sarah Turner trained at St Martin's School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. She is an artist, filmmaker, writer, curator and academic. Her feature films include Ecology, 97mins, 2007, Perestroika, 118mins, 2009, (theatrically released by the ICA in 2010 and featured in Tate Britain's major survey: Assembly), and Perestroika:Reconstructed, conceived and executed as a gallery work (Carroll Fletcher Gallery, London, April/ May 2013).

Turner's short films include Overheated Symphony, UK, 10mins, orchestrated for Birds Eye View Film Festival 2008, Cut, 17 mins, 2000, was broadcast on Channel 4, and A Life in a Day with Helena Goldwater, 20 mins, 1996, and Sheller Shares Her Secret, 8 mins, 1994, both headlined Midnight Underground when they were also broadcast on Channel 4. Sarah has had feature scripts commissioned by the BFI, Film Four Lab and Zephyr Films. Amongst other curatorial projects, Turner produced (with Jon Thomson) the launch programme for Lux Cinema in 1997; Hygiene and Hysteria: The body desired and the body debased, a touring programme of artists' film and video for Arts Council England and programmes for Tate and the National Film Theatre.


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