John Akomfrah on why the Rio in Dalston is more than a cinema

The filmmaker and founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective pays tribute to the community-led Hackney gem, whose future is in doubt due to the impact of Covid-19.

The Rio Cinema, DalstonIllustration by Lucinda Rogers
  • Rio Cinema, London, UK
    Built 1909, refurbished 1933

I’ve always been a child of rep cinema. I grew up next to the Paris Pullman in Fulham. Ever since I came back from Portsmouth Poly to London in 1982, the Rio has literally been at the centre of my universe. When we first arrived in Dalston, it was made up of post-migrant families from the Caribbean, Africa and Pakistan and so on, who were there with the earlier migrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe. It was a quintessential multicultural experience. And the Rio catered for those audiences.

It’s a classic 1930s cinema. Two floors. Art deco interiors. Not huge, but large enough to hold a few hundred people. Now it’s the only local cinema left that has the rep cinema diet – big-budget Hollywood stuff, independent cinema, small festivals.

In 1982, we [the Black Audio Film Collective] made contact with the Rio programmers and they were very keen to help in any way. I remember being on the roof with Isaac Julien and Rod Iverson for the Who Killed Colin Roach? shoot in ’83 [Julien’s film reflects on the suspicious death of a young Black man at the entrance to Stoke Newington police station]. The Rio had a Tape/Slide community project, and one of the first pieces we made as a collective was a tape/slide piece for Theatre of Black Women [Britain’s first Black women’s theatre company, founded by Bernardine Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall].

One of the highlights of my time going to the Rio was when Julien Temple showed Absolute Beginners [1986], his adaptation of Colin MacInnes’s book about 1950s London. The arguments about it raged for the entire evening, in the cinema, outside the cinema… It was an extraordinary cultural event. People from all over the place turned up. It really gave you a sense of what a cinema can be as a cultural institution.

John Akomfrah

I’ve got photographs of us showing BAFC films there like Handsworth Songs [1986], Testament [1988], Seven Songs for Malcolm X [1993]. It’s really not that far from our studio. If I’ve made a film and I’m not sure about the scale or length of it or the rate of the cut, we arrange to go there and take a look. We’re moving from our studio after nearly 20 years. I cannot afford to pay the sort of rents here. Those economic imperatives must be weighing heavily on the discussions at the Rio.

The Rio was central to our practice. It became not just a place of work but a place where you could explore how a cultural group functions and continues to work inside a community. I was on the management committee for years. It was a real feature of my life. I would be very, very upset if it went under. I think one of the reasons it might go under is if the sacred rules by which that place works are overturned. When I was in the management committee, our ethic was to support the workers – it’s their cinema; they curate it, they run it.

I am dreading and weirdly looking forward to cinemas reopening. The viewing experience in our homes has been fantastic but I want cinemas back. I can’t think what a world would be like that didn’t have them as central to the cultural landscape. What most people think of as a bad audience is how my viewing experience in cinemas is anyway. I’m quite happy to just watch a [Sergei] Parajanov film with just ten people in the room.

John Akomfrah was talking to Isabel Stevens.