London’s Castle Cinema Keeps the Magic of Film Alive

LONDON — On a dreary, rainy mid-January Sunday, a steady flow of people braved the weather, dismounted their single-speed bicycles, and shook off their Barbour jackets as they walked beyond the Spar convenience store, up a flight of stairs, and into the warm mid-century modern décor of the Castle Cinema. 

Although the symphony conductor biopic Tár (2022, dir. Todd Field) was on the bill, as was Babylon (2022, dir. Damien Chazelle), the story of Hollywood’s raging heyday, all the hipsters had come to see a movie that came out at least five decades before they were born — and originally shown by running three rolls of film through an original refurbished Philips Kinoton FP20 35mm film projector. A Matter of Life and Death (dir. Michael Powell), a 1946 British fantasy-romance film set during World War II in which British soldier-turned-movie-star David Niven plays a Royal Air Force pilot who must face a divine court to plead for his life, had long been digitized. But local film aficionado Ümit Mesut and his friend, filmmaker Liam Saint-Pierre, were showing one of the first Technicolor movies in three rolls, each about 30 minutes. 

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A Matter of Life and Death is an utterly unique fantasia from the production duo of [Michael] Powell and Emeric Pressburger  — it could be on a double bill with It’s a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz — and the only way to really see and experience it is film,” Mesut explained to the audience before starting the film. “We purchased this one from the South End Film Club … In the olden days they had intermissions to change the reels. This is what it is; this is real cinema. We’ll have a main break to get a drink and a shorter one to run to the toilet.”

Twice a month, Mesut and Saint-Pierre set up the film machine, pluck out a different canister, and give the same speech before commencing their own version of Cinema Paradiso in Hackney. Their vision, Ciné-Real, aims to preserve the beauty of celluloid in a consistently digitizing world, as well as to bring cinema lovers out of their living rooms and back to the theater. 

It’s working. Every screening of a classic film hand-chosen from Mesut’s store on Lower Clapton Road has a full house, with people waiting for cancellations. This month, Ciné-Real will show another Powell & Pressburger film titled The Red Shoes and Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. This spring, the duo will put on Raging Bull (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese) and Being There (1979, dir. Hal Ashby) — each advertised with a version of the original movie poster featuring an image of Mesut’s face digitally altered as various film characters, including Humphrey Bogart, Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando as The Godfather, and even Robert De Niro boxing. 

Near a storage room at the Castle Cinema in East Hackney, London. Owners Asher Charman and Danielle Swift have been running pop-up film events for nearly five years, including Ümit Mesut’s twice-monthly Ciné-Real showings and open-air screenings in Hackney with hot tubs for the audience.

In London, there are currently three cinemas that still show projector films: Rio Cinema, the Prince Charles, and Castle Cinema’s Ciné-Real. While only anecdotal data exists comparing the number of digital-only theaters with those that show both celluloid and digital, directors such as Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have championed the cause, printing recent movies such as Interstellar (2014) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) on 35mm. 

But Mesut has never abandoned his favorite medium, unlike George Lucas, the Star Wars director and founder of Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, whom he directly blames — and sometimes curses — for ushering in the digital era. “People come to me and say we’re making a film; we’re shooting film,” Mesut told Hyperallergic. “I say, ‘Well, you’re not washing, you’re not cutting, you’re definitely not printing.’ That’s film-making — at least for the last 210 years. Some people care; some don’t. People ask me, ‘Will film ever come back?’ No, it effing will not. You won’t get change when one copy of a 100-minute film on 35mm is $100,000 against 100-quid for the same on digital. If the film is a flop, what are you going to do? You’re going to melt it to get the silver out of it,” he said. 

The lobby bar of the Castle Cinema, a reconstructed theater built in 1913 as an independent single-screen cinema. Total seating reached 619 people before it was converted into a bingo hall in 1958.

As Mesut tells, however, he had the perfect childhood for a film aficionado. Growing up in Turkish Cyprus, he spent hours of his free time at his grandfather’s cinema, usually in the projection booth. “At the time I didn’t pay much attention to the images, I just loved the mechanical side of film projection,” Mesut said in a short film about his life made by Saint-Pierre. “The magical moment for me is when you strike the switch and the motor comes on and you strike ‘lamp’ and the lamp comes on and you’ve started the show.” After his parents moved to London in the 1960s, his father opened a little Cypriot café in Hackney and showed the young Mesut how to make “the little cups of coffee.” When Mesut collected £11, he invested in his first projector and put on his own “open-air” screenings. “I would make my own tickets, put up my own screen and run reels of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton hits,” he said. 

Not surprisingly, Mesut’s first job was at the Rio Cinema, a 1930’s Art Deco picture palace in Dalston, Hackney. “I kept badgering the manager Mr. Mustafa to give me a job, and when I turned 16, he gave me a job as rewind boy — that means I would wind back the film after it was shown and send the reels back to the next theatre or to the distributor,” Mesut said. “I got paid in Bruce Lee posters.”

Ümit Mesut stands behind the counter of Ümit & Son, the film and video store he owns on Clapton Road in Hackney, where he sells old videos, projectors, recorders and some cannister films. Mesut also repairs just about everything related to film.

Mesut soon climbed the ladder from apprentice projectionist to chief projectionist and eventually decided to open his own store — at first, a video/DVD store, a sweet shop and a grocery store, and then Mesut started to sell pieces of his own projectors and cameras. Initially, Mesut called his store Ümit & Son because his son worked in the store, but started to get more involved in “computer stuff,” but luck walked into the store one day in the body of Liam Saint-Pierre. 

Smarting from a recent breakup, in October 2011 Saint-Pierre decided to approach Ümit & Son about an old Super-8 projector that he had found lying in a bin. Amid videocassettes, Betamax, reels, and canisters, Mesut appeared, fixed the camera, and then talked Saint-Pierre into buying an old Bell & Howell with new belts for £250. “Inspired by the conversation, I decided then and there to set up a film night where we would show feature films projected on 16mm,” Saint-Pierre said. “I asked Ümit to be the projectionist.” 

There was just one hitch: Mesut said no. He couldn’t bring himself to talk in front of a crowd. But when “everything went wrong with the first screening  — Jaws — Mesut agreed to help … just once,” Saint-Pierre said. “That was 11 years ago, and since then, Ümit has been the projectionist at Ciné-Real, where we have shown 16mm films once a month, screening for crowds as big as 250 people.”

At first, the duo showed analog wherever they could set up a projector: under damp railway arches, small bars, and old working men’s clubs. But three years ago, after the newly opened Castle Cinema hired Mesut as the projectionist for an Anna Biller retrospective, the pair managed to talk the management into giving them two nights a month, which has ballooned to three and four nights and even some special events. 

But the regular viewings — and the shifting of attention from the latest and greatest in digital to the survival of celluloid — isn’t the end of Mesut’s crusade against the “all the money-grubbing so-and-sos who have taken away our choice,” he said. Mesut and Saint-Pierre have opened their own small screening room in the back of Ümit & Son, which Mesut rents out for personal showings and where he will start teaching master classes in filmmaking and projection. Lastly, Mesut has said that Tarantino has approached him about making a documentary about film’s re-emergence. 

“An old friend of mine used to say, this fight is very relevant because it’s not just what we look at, but how we look at it,” Mesut says. “When you play a film on digital and then put it on the film projector, it’s night and day; there is no comparison — the colors, the deep blacks, the depths. It just blows me away. I don’t want to do away with digital, but why do I need to pay 15 quid if I am just getting a large TV screen? It would be nice to have a choice.”

The back room of Ümit & Son, London’s mecca of Super-8, 16mm, Technicolor, and other celluloid material from days past. Owner Ümit Mesut says that he is fine with today’s digital projection, just that he wishes “the people had a choice.”
Postcards and flyers from previous Ciné-Real showings, which often feature founder Ümit Mesut’s face digitally inserted into a famous movie poster. The placards are a hit among young attendees who find them extremely quirky.
The screening room in the back of Ümit & Son, where Ümit Mesut puts on private showings for approximately 20 people for £250 (~$350) all-inclusive. The décor dates back to the turn of the 20th century.
An original velvet booth in the lobby of the Castle Cinema, a renovated movie house that shows both classic and modern films in the heart of Hackney, London. In March 2016, owners Asher Charman and Danielle Swift launched a Kickstarter campaign to renovate it and reopen to the public, raising more than £55,000 (~$66,097).


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