Genesis Cinema, Whitechapel
© Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

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Rocks is streaming on Netflix.

I didn’t discover arthouse cinema until I was 18. I saw Distant Voices, Still Lives [1988] at the Screen on the Green in Islington.

I couldn’t work out why the shots were so slow and why it was just about one family. It was all a bit mystifying. But all those images stayed with me until today. That film was really a big turning point for me, realising there’s someone behind the camera here, there’s a storyteller, and they’ve got a vision and it’s set in Britain.

Sarah Gavron
© Brigitte Lacombe

Later on I discovered lots of female filmmakers, like Sally Potter and Jane Campion, and I remember going to the National Film Theatre [now BFI Southbank] with my fellow NFTS [National Film and Television School] students to see classic films which were a revelation to me.

The Genesis is the most recent cinema on my mind as, when we opened up from lockdown in September 2020, it was one of the places we showed Rocks, with socially distanced screenings. It was so exciting. We didn’t think we were going to manage a theatrical release, because we planned it for the previous April and it got delayed.

The Genesis is in East London, where the kids in the cast are from. We did a screening with them and they went on stage and just seeing them in their own environment, and with their friends and family, being able to enjoy the experience of their film up on the screen and them blown up ten feet tall, it made such a different sense to me of the collective experience. It was a validation of their stories and the story that we all had collectively made.

The Genesis has got such a great history. It was originally a variety theatre. Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy performed on stage there. It became a cinema in 1912. I was interested in that because when I made Suffragette, I really came to understand how important cinema was 100 years ago. It was the only way you could see newsreels to know what was going on. Everybody went, whatever background you were from.

The foyer of Genesis Cinema

That area around Tower Hamlets used to have 33 cinemas; then in the 80s, with the rise of VHS, lots of them closed, including what is now known as the Genesis. It reopened [in 1999] because of a brilliant man named Tyrone Walker-Hebborn. He hadn’t been in the cinema business, but he loved cinema. Now it’s got five screens, a café and a bar. They host the East London Film Festival, which Tyrone co-curates. It’s a real hub.

The Vue in Stratford was the cinema the Rocks cast were desperate for the film to be shown in, as that’s where they congregate with their friends. They hadn’t been to the Genesis before and didn’t know independent cinemas like that in London offer cheap tickets for young people.

When we were editing Rocks we did test screenings with youth groups. They’d laugh at things we didn’t know were funny or high-five at something because they recognised it from their experiences in school. You realise the power of that as a collective experience.

And as a filmmaker you spend so many hours in sound mixes and grading sessions getting every detail right. In Rocks we threaded so many sounds into the sound design, like the call of the mosque. In a cinema, you notice all of that.

  • Sarah Gavron was talking to Isabel Stevens.

Further reading

“We gave them too much power”: how Rocks became a gem by giving its young cast license to shine

By Simran Hans

“We gave them too much power”: how Rocks became a gem by giving its young cast license to shine

Rocks follows a London girl growing up fast and letting go slowly

By Ela Bittencourt

Rocks follows a London girl growing up fast and letting go slowly

Sight & Sound May 2021

In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

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