One of the most radical pieces of British Cinema is finally available. Barney Platts-Mills’ debut film is shot entirely on location in Stratford, a part of East London. The film tells the story of Del Walker (Del Quant), a young delinquent and his friends, who spend their free time on petty-thefts and on fights with their local rival, Parker (J. Hughes Jr.). The boys hear that an old gang member, Jo “Bronco Bullfrog”, (Sam Shepherd) is out of the prison and when they meet him at a local café, Jo invites Del to take part in a robbery at a local railyard.
Meanwhile, Del meets Irene (Anne Gooding), a 15-year-old girl, whose father is imprisoned for armed-robbery. Del is impressed by her and he starts dating her. The young couple has to face their parents’ animosity who do not approve of their relationship. When Del invites her at his place his father tells him that he does not want her there, while Irene’s mother does not consent to Del’s lifestyle. The couple realizes that they have nowhere to go and their date ends in disappointment.
Del and his friend Roy (Roy Haywood) help Bronco Bullfrog with the railyard robbery and get their cut for their participation. Next day Roy is attacked by their rival gang, something that puts Del into trouble, since the police consider him to be responsible. Del elopes with Irene and they move to the country to seek a better future and a place that they can be together. Eventually, the lack of prospects will force them to come back and call on Bronco’s flat, since Irene’s mother has reported her missing.
When the local policeman enters Bronco’s flat to arrest Del and return Irene to her mother, the boys attack him and run away. Del reconciled with the idea that there is no way out persuades Irene that they have to go back home. He and Irene are waiting stoically for the arrest, while Bronco decides to take his chances and run away.
The film is a slice of life and the portrayed actions do not follow the conventions of narrative cinema. Despite the aforementioned plot synopsis, there’s no clear narrative direction, since actions start and are left unfinished with no narrative justification. The portrayal of ennui is realistic, filled with moments when the characters are bored and waiting for something to ignite their interest. This formal aspect of the film can be compared to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, a film of similar thematic interests.
The acting is unaffectionate, since the director worked with amateur actors and the story is based on events taken from their own experiences. However, the final result is not simply a ‘candid camera’ event. The film seems to be very much influenced by the cinema direct films of the ‘60s and their interest in the dialectical contradictions deriving from the camera’s engagement with reality. This engagement did not simply aim at promoting narrative coherency, but at drawing the viewer’s attention to the very process of recording that reality, with the view to finding it strange.
Cinema Direct was very much influenced by Brecht’s understanding of art’s role to make the familiar strange. In his theoretical articulation of the concept of the ‘gestic camera’ Brecht says that ‘the camera searches for motives, it is a sociologist’. (quoted in Silberman, p.38). For Brecht, the function of the camera as a sociologist aims at connecting the reality of the portrayed external actions with the audience’s historical reality. The viewers, therefore, are invited to take a stance towards the portrayed events and agree or disagree with the depicted historically formed reality.
Therefore, the final cut is the outcome of the cameraman’s interpretation and interaction with a material that includes intrusions of non-scripted and accidental events. Equally adjusted to this mode of shooting is the actors’ involvement that is more amenable to opening up to an exploration of possibilities and responses. Such a modus operandi constitutes the actors as co-creators of the film and not just as passive impersonators of a role.
Similarly, Bronco Bullfrog poses one of the most fundamental challenges in the medium. The actors are in the position of performing for the camera and performing themselves at the same time, given that the film is based upon material taken from their own lives. Yet, the result is very complicated to the point that one cannot easily distinguish the boundaries between performance and authenticity.
Furthermore, the location shooting in East London combined with the unaffectionate performances gives the film an element of amateurish freedom. As Maya Deren has explained, location shooting gives a sense of amateurish freedom, since one has to maintain a balance between the things that pre-exist and the techniques one uses to convey specific ideas. (Deren, 167).
BFI has done a great job releasing a film not widely-known (even in Britain). Bronco Bullfrog is a British film that seems to be aware of the radical cinematic movements of the ‘60s and avoids sentimental identification with the oppressed. The minimal plot and the avoidance of psychological penetration of the characters make the audience feel uncomfortable and complicit for the social problems depicted.
Very good extras, which include a documentary, Everybody’s An Actor Shakespeare Said (1968) made by Platts-Mills about the ‘Playbarn’ project run by veteran British theatre figure Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. Last but not least, for those not used to the cockney accents, it is highly recommended to take advantage of the hard of hearing subtitles available.