The Mile End Genesis cinema is the perfect location to host the British Urban Film Festival. The cinema, nestling in the shadows of tower blocks in the East End of London, is far from the glamorous locations normally associated with a film festival.
Among the attendees, some are curious to discover exactly what an urban film is, while others wonder whether the recent mainstream commercial success of Noel Clarke's Adulthood, Saul Dibbs' Bullet Boy and Ray Stevenson's Hip-Hop Opera has created a flourishing underground cinema scene. I was wondering whether Britain needed yet another film festival and how it would compare to the successful Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. The contrast between the two events could not be any more marked. In the Big Apple the festival takes place in prime real estate, with sold-out screenings.
The genre of urban cinema, as we know it today, was coined in 1991 following the success of John Singleton's Boyz *the Hood and Matty Rich's Straight Out of Brooklyn. The commercial and critical success of Boyz *the Hood demonstrated that movies set in the projects of America about poor black youths and told in their patois could be successful. Straight Out of Brooklyn was just as pivotal in defining urban cinema, not just because the story about a high school kid's struggles resonated with so many, but also because of the arguments that were conducted in the press between Rich and Spike Lee.
Rich told Lee that his films did not really represent the lives of poor, young black men, who, he said, counted it as a success if they made it through the day without being shot. He was from the streets, and therefore his film was more authentic. The director of Do the Right Thing retorted that the overall picture was broader than simply crime-ridden streets. For a time it seemed that Rich had won the argument. Urban films in America became defined as ones dealing in street crime and drugs, with acclaim given not for how well the narrative was told, but for how accurately the film represented the street.
Marc Booth, who runs the Blank Slate short film scheme backed by the UK film council, argues: "The mistake of this limited view of urban film was highlighted as black-on-black US urban crime films collapsed when audiences didn't want to see them anymore. A second generation of film-makers emerged who wanted to see more aspirational stories."
So the definition of what constitutes an urban film evolved. And the latest line-up from the New York Urbanworld festival shows just how far. Films included Lance Hammer's sombre Ballast, set in the Mississippi Delta, and Gina Prince-Bythewood's civil rights-era tale, The Secret Life of Bees. While urban film is still largely restricted to ethnic minorities, it is not exclusively so.
Looking at the BUFF programme, my first thought was that they'd missed a trick by limiting the films to Britain. The urban genre is home to some of the best emerging artists around the globe. I also worried that the festival would regress to the old-fashioned view of what constitutes an urban picture. The first night featured a mixed bag of short films and trailers that had a rough, homemade feel, but were not restricted to street crime and not even to London. Feature films included an over-long but amusing comedy, Urban Education meets Billy Blaze, about an aspiring Newcastle rap star, and Swimmer, a dark drama about a boy's obsession with an older woman directed by Ash and Naeem Mahmoud. Although there was much to admire, I couldn't help feeling that the festival was still struggling to find its own voice.
The success of urban films can be measured by the growing profile of Blank Slate. I produced one of the films on the scheme, Mash Up, directed by Jesse Lawrence. Last year Lawrence made the Film Four and UK Film Council-financed short, Much Ado About a Minor Ting, a black-and-white tale about senseless violence on the streets of London. A growing interest shown by funding bodies demonstrates that the desire for urban films is high.
Booth argues that for urban cinema to succeed, "it needs to find its own voices and not just follow the example of America. The urban scene here can be UK-centric. This year I was happy to work on a short film set in a Chinese community in Ireland." It's these new ideas that urban cinema should be developing. The race is on to find the successor to Noel Clarke as the next big cinematic voice of the street.
VOICES FROM THE STREET: FIVE UP-AND-COMING STARS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The 34-year-old Cologne native made the provocative drama Princess (Prinzessen) about a group of four young girls on a run-down housing estate.
The 31-year-old has the archetypal urban story. Born in Burkina Faso he moved to the rough suburb of San Denis aged 11, and gained fame in music, as slam poet John Pucc Chocolat. Currently starring in Quentin Tarantino's Second World War epic Inglorious Bastards, he's due to direct black-and-white gangster tale, Barbes, in the summer.
The director, writer and star of Adulthood grew up in a single-parent home in west London. He stamped his mark as the voice of urban Britain when he penned Kidulthood.
Proving that you don't need to come from a socially deprived background to be considered an urban film-maker, the middle-class Tennessee native's pimp adventure Hustle and Flow won an Oscar for Best Song.
The Brazilian made his name with Bus 174 about the hijacking of a bus before making Elite Squad, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. It was the final part of a trilogy which started with Fernando Meirelles' City of God, considered by many to be the definitive urban tale.