Bright Lights Film Journal

Being the Story: Talking with Fabien Riggall about Secret Cinema

Secret Cinema's 2013 performance of Brazil. © Secret Cinema / Alastair Philip Wiper

The secrecy part of Secret Cinema relates very much to this digital and automated world that we are living in. People increasingly want to get away from screens. They want to participate in the most literal way. Rather than just looking at the spectacle of things, they want to be the spectacle and they want to be the story.

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Secret Cinema has been hailed as heralding a new era of interaction between film’s creators and their audiences. For ten years, the initiative has sought to re-inject some of the magic and mystery into the cinematic experience, inviting attendees to secret locations where they then participate in elaborate stagings of some of the best-loved films of our time, from cult classics to new releases.

Fabien Riggall. © Secret Cinema / Holly Clark

These experiences incorporate elements of theatre, music, art, dance, and literature to build a holistic “world” of the particular film being staged, bringing it to life and enabling individuals to become part of its narrative. The idea is to create a 360-degree world using larger-than-life sets, soundscapes, live music, and a cast of between 30 and 80 actors per production. The individual has a lot of power within the world created, and each person is able to decide how much they want to engage – though they are encouraged to get wholeheartedly involved with the action. Participants often see this as an opportunity to let loose, giving them the opportunity to become somebody else for the night.

The sense of immersion that is an integral part of these experiences begins with the pre-narrative – a one- to two-month lead into the experience that introduces participants to the world’s dress code, bespoke characters, biographies, background story, and digital platform (e.g., Participants are assigned a character, in whose guise they must attend the event (dressing up is, after all, a big part of the fun). Leaving phones and cameras at the door, they do not just attend a film screening; they enter the world of the film itself. Meanwhile, the secrecy component of each Secret Cinema experience means that its location – often a disused warehouse or somewhere equally able to accommodate the temporary creation of a large-scale, custom-built set, hidden from the outside world – is only disclosed to participants shortly before the day of the event itself.

Dr. Strangelove, performed in 2016. © Secret Cinema / AI Overdrive

From using the Old Princess Louise Hospital to stage an immersive screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; to taking a small group of people on a figurative trip to experience Berlin nightlife at a transformed Ministry of Sound, where they entered the world of German crime thriller Victoria; to what have been deemed truly epic productions of Moulin Rouge! and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Secret Cinema events have won acclaim from both film aficionados and those simply looking for a memorable night out.

Moulin Rouge, from 2017. © Secret Cinema / Luke Dyson

Founder and Creative Director Fabien Riggall has dedicated his life to finding interesting ways to stage and produce films. Passionate about cinema from a young age, he worked as a producer of short films before founding Future Shorts, a London-based short film label, in 2003. Future Shorts has an extensive network of partners, with whom it works to organise and participate in both the exhibition and the distribution of films from filmmakers throughout the world.

With Secret Cinema having grown beyond an initial loyal fan base to attract thousands of attendees to each UK-based event, Riggall is now looking at ways to further expand its scope – in terms of both geographical location and social impact. A fund-raising initiative enabled the company to provide free film screenings to refugees at the Pas-de-Calais camp in France in September 2015 in what was termed “protest screenings,” part of Riggall’s deep-rooted belief that art has a social role to play in times of suffering, offering escape and solace as well as challenging the status quo.

Fabien Riggall with Lin-Manuel Miranda. © Secret Cinema / AI Overdrive

I caught up with Riggall at Cairo’s RiseUp Summit, the MENA region’s annual gathering of entrepreneurs that he was attending as a speaker, to discuss his creative vision and his impetus to bring this vision to different cultural contexts.

LUCY MARX: I’d like to talk about the idea behind immersive cinema and what its role is. What is going on at the human level when people experience Secret Cinema?

FABIEN RIGGALL: When people talk about something being “immersive,” they often use the term to indicate that what they are referring to is different, or an all-encompassing experience. But they could be speaking in a very generic way; they might be trying to sell TVs. What Secret Cinema really represents for me is an exploration of how we can use storytelling as a way of reimagining reality.

I, Daniel Blake, performed in 2017. © Secret Cinema / AI Overdrive

The secrecy part of it relates very much to this digital and automated world that we are living in. People increasingly want to get away from screens. They want to participate in the most literal way. Rather than just looking at the spectacle of things, they want to be the spectacle and they want to be the story.

In today’s society, where the world has gone a little bit crazy, where we face an information overload, where there are all sorts of religious, ethnic, social divisions between different groups, where politicians can tell stories that essentially divide society … it’s more important than ever for artists to just get involved. Storytelling within a political frame is tremendously important. And audiences want to live stories rather than just observe them, as it were.

28 Days Later, 2016. © Secret Cinema / Marianne Chua

So I think Secret Cinema is a reaction to this over-automated world of ours. And I think it has also developed as a result of looking at the future of entertainment and asking what we really want from it. Do we want to simply enjoy these experiences, or do we want to look at the deeper issue of how culture could define society? Do we want to offer an alternative to a society that is defined by wealth and money?

‘Tell no one” is the tagline of Secret Cinema. How important is this concept and the element of mystery?

Poster for The Handmaiden event, 2017. © Secret Cinema / Fraser Gillespie

This notion of secrecy is linked to the fact that I think that life is mysterious by its very nature. Digital culture has changed that and has allowed life to become something that we live through a lens. As we are increasingly spending more time inside our computers than we are being present in real life, so secrecy becomes sacred. The idea of not telling anyone anything, when we live in a society where everything is known, is something important.

A lot of the success of Secret Cinema rests on there being many things we don’t reveal beforehand. People don’t know in advance which building they are coming to or which film they will be seeing. Secrecy is at the heart of what we are doing. But obviously we also want to grow as an organisation around the world. So what I see is that millions of people can keep a secret – if that makes sense. As a child, if someone has a secret, everyone whispers it to each other but they don’t tell the parents. I like this idea that society – a collection of adults – can take part in keeping something secret and mysterious, without explaining it to the power structures.

I like this idea very much. We spend so much time image crafting on social media, and I think one way of breaking that constant image crafting is through reintroducing the element of unpredictability. You have talked before about bringing the mystery back to film, which is an idea that I love, and I can see how these concepts are linked.

Yes, I think that’s a good point. We live in an age where the image that we create of the way we live and what we are doing with our lives, and the moment that captures what we’re doing, has become more important than what we’re actually doing. With the idea that everything is visible, and known, we take away that sense of unpredictability.

I believe in an unpredictable world. There have to be things that are unexpected and unknown. Creating experiences, keeping them secret, allowing people to live without their phones for five or six hours, while they interact with the world, it helps us tap into that. I think often the more connected we are online, the more parts of us are actually disconnected in our real lives. We use technology in the same way we use drugs. We develop bad habits. We need to realise the power of technology and to build a project that is just as powerful, but in reality. One that uses technology as a means of bringing people together and uses social media in a responsible way, rather than giving a quick fix to our moments of sadness or just as a way of getting affirmation.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, from 2015. © Secret Cinema / Mike Massaro

It’s clear that you’ve thought a lot about human behaviour and the human condition. Was it always clear to you that immersive cinema was something people would respond to so enthusiastically?

The way I live really is that I make things up as I go along. I like to live spontaneously and I talk a lot of nonsense sometimes, and really I like to make things up as I go. And when I try to challenge what’s around me, it’s as a spontaneous reaction to what I encounter.

I didn’t realise that Secret Cinema was going to have quite such an impact, but it’s still small when you put it beside the power of the big entertainment and tech giants. But the fact that we can sell close to 20,000 tickets without revealing what the film is that people are going to see, or what the experience is that they are going to have – in this world of constant information, where everyone needs to know everything before being convinced – this is amazing. It’s a testament to the audience that they’re not looking to just be an audience. They are looking to be participants, and I think they are ready to take part in these worlds. But I don’t think of the experiences as immersive. I see them as being hyper-real, something that augments the way that we live and gives us the opportunity to experiment and have adventures.

Miller’s Crossing, performed in 2014. © Secret Cinema / Hanson Leathrby

Do you think this will or could or should replace traditional forms of film viewing?

I don’t see it as a replacement. I see what we offer as being another tool or another frame. I love just going to the cinema or the theatre, sitting in a chair and being entertained. I see it as being just another choice. So I imagine that in the future you could take part in the worlds of filmmakers, musicians, artists, fashion designers, cooks … whatever. You could be inside their world or you could go and sit in a restaurant and eat your meal, or you could go to the cinema and watch a film, or you could go to a fashion show and sit by the catwalk; all the choices would be there. But what I’m interested in is people standing up, seeing how they can be part of what is happening, bringing the ingredients to the cook.

The Handmaiden. © Secret Cinema / Michael Jershov

To what extent do you think the model of Secret Cinema could be replicated in very culturally different environments? You have said that you want to launch Secret Cinema in Egypt, so what is your vision for this?

At the moment we’re expanding into the US and various other places. Our business model is that we have to grow to survive – and to grow the concept, we need to take it to big markets. So that’s the more mainstream, practical side of things.

But what I’m really interested in is how the concept will provoke reactions in different cultures, how it will assemble artists from different places who will contribute to it and the possibilities this then offers for creating a very different frame and environment. I think it’s very exciting: the idea of first launching in the US and then somewhere that is really the opposite. And I’m very passionate about connecting with places that have experienced some kind of conflict. Obviously there are humanitarian charities that work in different areas, but one thing that is very important when it comes to a person’s mental health is retaining a feeling of hope that you can get access to dreams, to ideas, to stories. When people are in particular situations – in a refugee camp or very poor – this can easily be lost.

28 Days Later. © Secret Cinema / Olivia Weetch

So I’m very interested in what the reaction will be to Secret Cinema in different parts of the world and in how the balance of the cultural world is shifting. There is an enormous number of people who speak Arabic around the world, but there are no big entertainment platforms catering to Arabic speakers. We’ve talked about creating big video platforms for an Arabic-speaking audience, and I’m interested in seeing where that could go. How can you create something that is inclusive of different cultures and cities – whether you are in New York, Paris, London, or Kabul, Tehran, Cairo – cities that face radically different challenges?

If you look at Cairo, there’s a really interesting arts scene that – to an extent – is underground. It is certainly not mainstream. But then if you look at Saudi Arabia, people do a lot of connecting online because of traditional social norms. I’m interested to see how an idea like Secret Cinema could translate into these different cultural contexts.

What’s interesting is that in Saudi Arabia, for instance, we’ve been approached by the Crown Prince’s representatives to talk about his inauguration because they want to stage things in a different way. They’re excited about the future and about the fact that 70% of their population is under 30. There’s a real shift happening, and visiting Saudi helped me to understand more about that shift, the creativity happening online and the artists that are working underground, doing graffiti around Riyadh.

Victoria, 2016. © Secret Cinema / Kennerdeigh Scott

That’s what really excites me: the idea of these hubs opening up around the world, to allow creativity to flourish. It’s already flourishing, but all too often the Western system dominates the way ideas are shared and perceived. Now we have a serious opportunity – culturally and from the perspective of societies – to do things quite differently.

If you look at Dubai, its power is enormous but it doesn’t, for me, represent this region. It uses very particular – Westernised – ideas and concepts, which is fine, but usually they are presented as big, Cirque de Soleil-style things. If I’m going to bring Secret Cinema here, to different cities in the MENA region, I’m interested in figuring out how we can celebrate this culture. Can we build a series of huge auditoriums constructed out of Bedouin tents and take them to the desert? Can we employ people in local villages to help create experiences that people from the big cities will travel for?

Back to the Future, performed in 2014. © Secret Cinema / Laura Little

When I went to Nigeria, I found that they have 15,000 films being made locally every year. They build cinemas, but they always build them in shopping malls. I say, let’s think differently. How can we use imagination to create cinemas in Nigeria? How do you imagine cinema here? What’s the future of cinema? What’s the future of theatre? What do people want when they go to a building to experience culture? Do they want to sit in a seat? Maybe. But maybe they want to be in the desert and smoke shisha.

The 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema and people are very proud of this. Film has a preeminent place in the cultural repertoire, and when I look at the arts scene of Downtown Cairo in particular (the restoration of buildings, the revival of the Downtown Cairo arts culture), I feel there is a whole cultural movement here that has a natural synergy with what you are seeking to do.

That’s very true. We just went up to the roof [of the Jameel building, in Cairo’s GrEEK campus] and saw an old disused theatre, 100 metres away from us. It would be so wonderful to start opening places like this up again, just exploring how we could celebrate the fact that there was a Golden Age of cinema here in Egypt.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. © Secret Cinema / Paul Cochrane

When Naguib Sawiris was speaking earlier [at the RiseUp Summit], it was clear that he was very passionate about cinema. He said earlier – and it’s true – that in so many ways stories are drying up. The stories coming out of Hollywood are getting repetitive, a series of big superhero films about saving the world. It’s true that a lot of the talent has gone into television, but then we need to ask ourselves what the future of cinema is. How do we explore what cinema is? Of course, Hollywood will continue, but what is the future and how can we shift where the cultural centre is?

Being in Cairo is just extraordinary. I haven’t been able to see enough; I’d like to come back and spend more time here. This has been such an opportunity to get to know and discover things. The reason I wanted to come to RiseUp was to open my eyes, and I have heard such interesting exchanges. Just earlier today I heard a panel asking why there isn’t an Arabic Netflix, why there isn’t a video platform for Arabic speakers, why everything is being dominated by the West.

If you have enough investment in building a new creative landscape and it’s powerful, it has a huge role to play in dealing with conflict resolution and all sorts of other problems. There isn’t enough attention given to creativity in the world, and there has to be another way to solve our challenges.

Governments are not coming up with it and that’s a fact. Governments are poor storytellers.

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Thanks to Secret Cinema for allowing the reproduction of the photos.