British Film Institute


The British film institute resists definition. It is a movie theatre comprised of three thwarted and an IMAX cinema. It is the home of the worlds largest film archive. It is a charity
governed by Royal Charter. It is a film academy. More than anything, the BFI is a London cultural institution.

It’s easy to miss the BFI South bank building, as it is engulfed by towering concrete high-rises and crowds of tourists stumbling away from Big Ben with their sights set on the Globe Theatre. Only by taking a sharp turn down an unassuming alley next door to the national theatre, towards the muddy Thames, will one discover this treasure trove of cinema.

From the outside, it looks like a film studio. The front is floor-to-ceiling windows that give the passersby a glimpse into the cafe and gift shop. Passing through the automatic doors, you become immersed in the buildings studio warehouse atmosphere. Aluminum-tiled floors are accented by red velvet ropes, and posters of films old and new dot the Walls. You feel both as if you are entering a shrine of cinematic history and simultaneously participating in the creation and preservation of upcoming films.

Grandiose musings aside, the BFI Southbank is simply an excellent bulwark against the tourist crowds that stampede across Southwark.

Growing up in the suburbs of San Francisco, my local movie theatre played all the blockbusters, delivered with a side of creaky seats and gum-stained floors. If I had a cinema like the BFI in my neighborhood, I no doubt would have grown up with a greater knowledgeof and appreciation for the cinematic arts. This isn’t a place you come to sit in the back and make out with your date, this is a place where cinephiles can feed their appetites for the great films of old and the up-and-coming films of the day.

At the BFI, grannies seeking a matinee ticket special rub elbows with bearded hipster film snobs catching the latest David Lynch and suited businessmen grabbing a cocktail at happy hour. Whether they come for the movies or the calming modernist architecture, the BFI Southbank is undoubtedly a local meeting place, buzzing with activity even on the Thursday afternoon that I visited.

Perhaps the BFI resists definition because it has such widespread appeal to an audience as diverse as the films it shows. Don’t come to the BFI expecting to zone out to a superhero movie as you scarf down a bucket of popcorn, (they actually don’t even sell popcorn.) Come to the BFI to remember what a trip to the cinema was back in the old days: a temporary refuge from reality and an immersion in the fantastic.

text by Michelle robertson