Born on June 5th 1910 in London’s East End, the ninth and youngest child of a kosher butcher from the Ukraine (the family name was Gralnick), Charles left school at 14 to follow his father’s trade. A bar mitzvah gift of two cameras, and later a 9.5mm cine camera, prompted his lifelong involvement in photography; and a friend’s ardent socialism led him to abandon Zionism and join the Hendon branch of the Communist Party.
These interests led him to become, in 1933, secretary of the Kino group. Formed to circumvent Britain’s draconian film censorship, which was especially aimed at the new Soviet cinema, Kino organised 16mm screenings of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin for trade union and Soviet friendship groups, as well as producing a “workers’ newsreel” and agitational films such as Bread, in which a starving, unemployed worker is harshly treated by police and magistrates.
This early experience of taking films to motivated audiences, often in the teeth of official hostility, proved crucial when Charles and Cecilia, whom he had married in 1935, found themselves stranded in the United States at the outbreak of war in 1939. They had planned to cycle to Mexico to film the work of Lázaro Cárdenas‘ revolutionary government, but, having to find work, set up a film department of the International Workers’ Order in New York, promoting welfare and socialism among minorities throughout the war.
Forced to run this as a business in the increasingly paranoid postwar period, the Coopers were served with a deportation order in October 1950.
Back in England, they threw themselves into creating a new distribution company, Contemporary Films, which cooperated with Stanley Forman’s Plato Films in sharing the business of maintaining links with the eastern bloc while trying to enlarge Britain’s cinematic vision.
Contemporary’s first market was the burgeoning film society movement, which had an appetite for international, high-quality short films. Next came an alliance with the redoubtable George Hoellering, producer of Brecht’s and TS Eliot’s only films, whose Academy cinema, on Oxford Street, London, launched many of Contemporary’s adventurous acquisitions over the next two decades.
It is hard now to evoke the heady mixture of political and aesthetic excitement that surrounded the new cinema movements of the 1960s, which Contemporary helped to launch in Britain. In rapid succession, films from Poland, the USSR and Czechoslovakia were followed by the French new wave, a new generation of Japanese directors, Buñuel in Mexico, Bergman from Sweden, and – among Contemporary’s proudest achievements – the discovery of the Indian director Satyajit Ray. There were classic revivals too, such as Jean Renoir, who was virtually unknown in Britain until Contemporary promoted La Règle du Jeu, and, keeping the memory of early Soviet cinema alive with regular Eisenstein reissues.
Before going out to film societies and the emerging circuit of British Film Institute regional film theatres, new movies had to be launched in London, and the Academy had other suppliers. So Contemporary moved into exhibition, becoming partners in the Paris Pullman cinema, in South Kensington, in 1967, and later adding two Phoenix cinemas, in Finchley, north London, and Oxford.
But even as the cultural impact of imported “art” cinema spread, Charles Cooper remained true to his campaigning roots. He helped produce the first British anti-nuclear film, March To Aldermaston, in 1958, working with the film technicians’ union and Lindsay Anderson, and continued to support radical initiatives with non-sectarian zeal, distributing important films about Vietnam in the 60s, and the Greenham Common protest movie Carry Greenham Home (1983).
He also remained optimistic about gathering the independent film sector into a coherent grouping, patiently organising a shortlived Independent Film Distributors Association in the 1970s, even as new entrants loudly asserted their own independence.
In this work – far beyond the demands of running a business highly vulnerable to external factors, such as television’s reluctance to buy foreign or “difficult” films – Charles was loyally supported by his second wife, Kitty, whom he married in 1964, after Cecilia’s death in 1957. Together, they travelled to international festivals, consulting critics and exhibitors while trying to ensure they secured the likely successes – a process which sometimes involved buying films on the reputation of their directors, sight unseen.
Often the tension between politics and aesthetics was productive. Charles and Kitty felt that Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Confessions Of Winifred Wagner (1975) was an important document that would help younger audiences understand the insidious appeal of Hitler; and, when it was suggested that they might also acquire Syberberg’s phantasmagoric Ludwig: Requiem For A Virgin King (1972), they agreed, so introducing yet another unknown filmmaker to Britain.
Cooper died on November 28th 2001 at the age of 91.
Source: Guardian 4th December 2001
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