Wilf Thust was the Workshops originator. He had a background in art and education as a teacher in Germany, and brought methods developed in the German avant-garde. During his teacher training, Thust had studied the pedagogy of the Bauhaus and Joseph Beuys, whose proclamation ‘teaching is art’ inspired Thust’s own professional practices. As a teacher in Bremen, Thust handed out Super 8 cameras to be shared around his classes, and when his time as an educational researcher in Bielefeld University was disrupted by student protests, he made the documentary The School Strike OS 77.
Thust saw the seriousness with which these working-class students approached politics and the self-organisation they were capable of, and he took these experiences back with him to London, and to Four Corners. Along with Ron Peck, Mary Pat Leece and Jo Davis, Thust had been one of the founding members of Four Corners during their time at the London Film School. By the time Thust returned to England with Jo, who had become his partner, Four Corners was undergoing a period of transformation.
The premises on Roman Road was converted into a cinema accompanied by a regular programme of public screenings, allowing the group to combine production, consumption and discussion of films all in one space. Out of this dynamic context, the Young People Cinema Workshop was born. Thust’s intention was that young people could actively respond to films seen at Four Corners, and then make their own work from and out of their reactions. He conceived of it as a ‘media research group’ with young people learning and working outside of a formal institution.
There were benefits to working outside of the system: it allowed the Workshop to engage the most ‘unapproachable’ young people. Despite the presence of many progressive groups in Tower Hamlets, real social problems persisted alongside the brutal reality of the National Front. Thust wanted to reverse the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality experienced by many of the students: testing out his own prejudices whilst attempting to enter into their experiences, narrowing the gap between student and teacher.
The form of the Workshop grew out a programme organised by Jo Davis and Mary Pat Leece called ‘In Front of the Camera’. Here, participants would view work by established filmmakers and feedback their comments, before projecting their own slides and film interpretations. The young participants became the motor of the Workshop, driving projects forward and determining the group’s course. Lisa Warren in particular was remembered by Thust as a lynchpin. Warren had joined the Workshop from Davis and Leece’s group in Oxford House: she produced a script for the Workshop and brought a gang of friends to meetings.
This script became the film Don’t Think So, a rough and ready tale about East End youth and their fraught interactions with family, teachers, and each other. Unlike the more polished films the participants were responding to, such as Derek Jarman’s Jubilee and Ken Loach’s Up The Junction, Don’t Think So registers the process of its own making and is a vital document of the learning and thinking that went on in the Workshop. The group used scrapbooking and wall charts to map out ideas. Part account of progress, part guest book, and part space for critical comments, these sheets spilled out into the film itself in hand-drawn intertitles and sets. The final film is fun and more than a little anarchic: charmingly clumsy at points as you see the participants learning on the job.
Funding from the Channel 4 Workshop Agreement allowed Thust to undertake more ambitious projects. Between 1982 and 1985 Is That It? was under production at the Workshop. Thust devised it as a film made solely by the young people of Tower Hamlets, with Four Corners providing only the technical means and training, with no conceptual guidance. The project soon evolved to become a diary of work, recording Thust’s interactions with the young participants alongside media statistics about the lives of youth in the borough. Although the final film was not well received, it was groundbreaking in its foregrounding of young voices, and as a record of the Workshop resonated throughout the years.
At a screening of Is That It? held at Lux in 2002, one of the Workshop’s members was in the audience. Anthony David attended the group when he was 15, and the radical pedagogy he experienced at Four Corners influenced him in the creation of the archive of social movements May Day Rooms, and in his work in the Experimental Teaching Unit he established at Central Saint Martins. The impact of the Young People Cinema Workshop can be found in unexpected places, but its legacy is also channelled still at Four Corners, in our ongoing commitment to providing education and training in film and photography.