“This is the city. In the city there are many stories, and the Rio is one of these.” Thus runs the founding manifesto of the Rio Tape/Slide Newsreel Group.
Something rather groundbreaking was brewing in 1982: the Rio in Dalston — London’s first community-led cinema — gave a group of Hackney residents some recording equipment, so they could capture local life — which would then be played in as short films before the main screening. As one contributor put it, this was a reinvention of those Pathé News reels of old.
The Rio Tape/Slide Newsreel Group (RTSNG), as they became known, went on to capture an East End that was as vivacious as it was angry; and as community-led as it was stratified. This was an era of rampant anti-Thatcher protests; and great racial unrest following incidents such as the death of Colin Roach. But the 80s was also a time when Dalston’s Ridley Road Market flourished, reggae and hip-hop were going mainstream, and fairgrounds and street parties still had a genuine village feel about them.
Hardly any of the reels remain, but what has been saved are frames from many of these films, which were rediscovered in 2016 by film producer, photographer and artist, Andrew Woodyatt.
They bring what we sometimes perceive as a drab, ashen time, into vivid colour. And they now feature in the book, The Rio Tape Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 80s.
Here is a mesmerising juxtaposition of photos, which bottles the kinetic, capricious energy of Hackney at that time: A young black man is stopped and searched on Kingsland High Road, as two police dogs watch on. Fair-goers and a local bobby team up to push an ice cream van out of the mud at the Hackney Show. A group of travellers warm themselves by a wheelbarrow fire on Hackney Marshes. Two elderly ladies load up on cans of Skol, for (we presume) a do. Cheeky youngsters perform street acrobatics in front of the camera.
As actor Zawe Ashton writes in her forward to the book: “My Hackney was multi-generational, multi-ethnic. it was its own country, it seemed, its own planet.”
The sound and movement may be lost from the Rio’s images, but the stills from them are so alive, you can almost fill in the sensory gaps in your head.
Says Felicity Harvest, the coordinator at the Rio at the time, “It was politically an exciting but frustrating time… apart from the odd Ken Loach film, the vast majority of the medium of cinema presented a straightforwardly capitalist perspective, with often very dubious values in terms of women in particular.”
Poverty is a recurring theme in the images: a colliery brass band marches through Stoke Newington High Street to raise money for striking miners, while cars are left stripped as part of a pavement car workshop on the Stonebridge Estate in Haggerston — which was demolished soon after the picture was taken.
These images also tell the story of London’s indefatigable ability to fight for what’s right — even if it takes a while; all those placards demanding an end to police injustice, NHS cuts and corrupt government will feel very familiar to today’s protestors.
As for the collection’s most endearing pictures, they might just come from the projects One Day in Hackney (1983) and its follow up, One Day Off in Hackney (1984). As Felicity Harvest remembers, “The idea was very much ‘let’s show Hackney to Hackney’.
These everyday portraits of east Londoners going about their daily lives — cabbies filling up their taxis, kids swinging off bus stops — are the kinds of snapshot that perhaps say the most about us, but which we rarely bother to capture along the way.
The Rio Tape Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 80s is available to buy, RRP £26.