Filmmaker Alex Barrett Tells Us Why He’s Bringing Back the City Symphony Genre


We love city symphony films here at Nonfics. Daniel offered a primer on the genre a while back, and I included two of them on my list of the best documentaries of all time (and another on the list of best docs about New York City). Naturally, we’re all for a city symphony comeback, and so we’re pretty excited about a new feature in the works titled London Symphony. Directed by Alex Barrett, the silent film will be like the classics of the 1920s yet also a modern take on the English capital of nearly a century later. Barrett previously made a short film titled Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, which is a beautiful, focused city symphony aimed at a single location, and now it’s also sort of a trial run for the longer effort.

Now he’s launched a crowdfunding campaign to help get London Symphony made, and I hope they reach their modest £6,000 goal. It’s a worthy project, as you can see in the goods at the Kickstarter page, as well as in the endorsement of film historian Kevin Brownlow, plus the words that Barrett has exclusively shared with us explaining why he’s bringing the city symphony genre back now. Read his in-depth answer below.

“The seed of the desire to make London Symphony was planted in 2008, when I put a team together to make the short film Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge. Much like London Symphony, Hungerford was a tribute to the cinepoems and city symphonies of the 1920s. My collaborators and I felt that this mode of filmmaking was being underutilised. To boil it down to essentials, we felt that just because it’s now possible to shoot in widescreen, color and record sound, it didn’t mean we had to. There’s a purity and an exciting experimentation to the films of the 1920s that we wanted to recapture.

“But, of course, the 1920s are long gone. In the silent era, the ‘rules’ of filmmaking were still being discovered. Ninety years on, it’s possible to argue that a certain kind of unavoidable homogeneity has seeped into filmmaking of all kinds, even within the experimental and art house traditions. So an attempt to recapture the silent era’s genuine sense of experimentation would be little more than a futile gesture, at best a pastiche of film forms gone by. Knowing that we wanted to avoid a parody of this kind, we set about attempting instead to make a tribute to the films of the past that was filtered through the eyes (and technology) of today, trying to reimagine the city symphony for the 21st Century. Although the film was necessarily limited in scope by nature of its three minute runtime, making Hungerford raised some interesting questions for my writer, Rahim Moledina, and me.

“So it’s perhaps no surprise that, five years later, we found ourselves once more discussing these issues and setting our sights upon a feature-length version of the film. The extended runtime would allow us to widen the canvas and explore the whole of London, thus permitting a deeper examination of how the forms of the past can help us make sense of life today. In recent years, questions of modernity and identity have exploded within London: multiculturalism and capitalism are changing the face of the city, meaning that there has never been a better time for us to produce a postmodern study of modernity. Furthermore, the dichotomy at the heart of our film — between the old and the new — is something that Londoners face every day, as the historic centre becomes ever more consumed by the modern metropolis being constructed around it.

“The present never stays still for long, and we want to capture it before the future arrives, while also attempting to interpret it by looking back to the past — what can history teach us about life today? But, more than this, we want to explore the diversity of culture and design found within the city, presenting a positive social message about this diversity.

“Of course, trying to capture the soul of an entire city — especially one the size of London — in a single film presents a number of practical problems, notably ‘which locations should we include?’. We’ve drawn up an initial list of over two hundred locations which are scattered around the four corners of the city. It’s not definitive, but it’s a start. Amongst everything else it will be, London Symphony will be an exciting journey through London — both figurative and literal.”


(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.