It is not immediately clear if Ümit Mesut is in when the door to his shop swings open. The dimly lit space, which is sandwiched between a former Victorian public baths and a burger shop in Clapton, east London, is a cinematic Aladdin’s cave, its floor reduced to a narrow path between stacks and shelves of film paraphernalia.
“Hello?!” A voice rises from behind the counter, soon followed by a shock of grey hair and a bushy moustache. Mesut, who is 62 and originally from Cyprus, had been attending to some low shelves between customers. He has been running the shop for more than 35 years.
In one corner of Ümit & Son, a tower of Only Fools and Horses VHS tapes teeters next to shelves of canisters containing prints of movies, their titles scribbled on sticky labels: King Kong, Metropolis, Citizen Kane. A scrawled sign reads: “VIDEO + FILM IS ALIVE AND WELL IN HACKNEY.”
There are rows of DVDs alongside antique film projectors and movie posters, an old record player perched on an unused photocopier, stacks of Kodak slide carousels and a fridge of soft drinks – a nod to Mesut’s former life as a grocer.
“Maybe I’m a hoarder pretending to be a shopkeeper, or maybe it’s the other way round,” says Mesut, who’s wearing a vest, three shirts and a gilet (he’s trying to save on his heating bills).
I am eager to learn how a shop like this has survived multiple recessions, creeping gentrification and a pandemic that nearly did for Mesut, who was hospitalised with Covid-19 in 2020. But the main reason for my visit lies behind a red curtain that hangs at the back of his cave. Mesut pulls it open to reveal a room so perfectly formed in miniature that it could belong in a doll’s house. Fifteen velvet-lined cinema seats are arranged in rows between walls painted theatre-red.
There are Tiffany wall lamps, a projector screen at the front with its own curtains and – propped up behind the back row – an old 16mm film projector. “Film has been in my blood for about 55 years now, and one thing I’ve always wanted is my own cinema,” Mesut says, surveying the room with boyish wonder.
Located in a former store room, the new micro cinema, which opened late last year for private screenings, is the fulfilment of a childhood dream. It’s also a tribute to a dying art that may yet get a reprieve as part of a wider analogue revival (think vinyl, and cine cameras, sales of which are rising).
“When I started this, I thought: who’s going to turn up to watch a film on a 60-year-old projector that might be in black and white and have subtitles?” Mesut says. “But they do because there’s hardly anyone left who’s presenting film as it’s meant to be presented.”
Mesut charges £250 to rent out the cinema (about £17 a seat). Demand has been high for birthday and anniversary screenings. Punters can bring their own booze and get popcorn thrown in with an introductory talk from Mesut, who’ll then play a film from his collection. Dozens of prints span six decades, from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
On the Saturday I visit, Mesut is preparing to welcome a group of twentysomethings who have come to see Raging Bull (1980) as part of a 21st birthday celebration. They drink cans of beer in the brief intermissions when Mesut has to change the reels. “This is the sort of place that’s been kind of wiped from London,” says Joe Cornick, the birthday boy, who is himself a cinephile and film-maker.
Mesut’s passion took root in Cyprus, where his grandfather, Behjet, ran a cinema in the northern town of Lefke. “I just loved the mechanics of it,” Mesut says, recalling daily dashes to the projection box after school (Cinema Paradiso is his favourite film). “Pictures coming alive on the screen, the reels going round, the light shining … It was just magical to me.”
After the family moved to east London when Mesut was about nine, he helped out in his dad’s east London cafe. After a couple of years of saving tips, he was able to buy an 8mm projector. “I used to make my own little tickets for screenings,” he says. Mesut’s first job was at the Rio Cinema, an art deco landmark in nearby Dalston. He started as the rewind boy – rewinding reels of film after screenings – before working his way up to head projectionist.
Mesut was in his mid 20s when, in around 1985, he took over the lease on a grocery shop in Clapton. It did well for a while, until bigger retailers muscled in. He started buying videos to rent out and collected old projectors because he liked looking at them. “But then people started wanting to rent or buy them,” he says. He gradually turned his shop into a mini cinematic emporium – the expression of a man who is so analogue by nature that his heart might as well be regulated by quartz. He has no computer, no email address, no mobile phone, no catalogue of his wares. “I know where everything is, more or less,” he says.
With each passing year, the shop has become more of an island in gentrifying east London. Mesut was priced out of the upstairs flat years ago, and now lives in a smaller place nearby with his wife and their grown-up children, one of whom used to work in the shop, hence the name. The rent on the shop is still just about manageable, but bills and business rates have rocketed and Mesut receives no outside funding.
“At least once a week, somebody will walk in here in a suit and tie and ask me if I want to sell the shop,” says the projectionist, who can only remember leaving London once in the past 30 years (he went to a film festival in Rickmansworth, less than 20 miles away). “I tell them it’s not mine to sell. What would they put here, another chicken shop? I’d lose my soul.”
Yet gentrification can be double-edged, as Ümit & Son has emerged as a destination for younger east London cineastes who share Mesut’s love of the mechanical and the grainy. Twelve years ago, when Liam Saint-Pierre, a film-maker who grew up in Blackburn, popped in to get his Super 8mm projector fixed, Mesut upsold him a bigger, 16mm projector. The pair got talking about the dearth of cinemas showing old film; by then, the digital transition was almost complete.
Liam Saint-Pierre, left, and Mesut, founders of film club Ciné Real.
Saint-Pierre, who is 45, suggested putting on film nights. The unlikely duo began carting a projector and screen around to galleries, warehouses and the back rooms of bars. For the past five years they’ve hosted popular screenings every few days at the nearby Castle Cinema, propping up an old projector in the back row.
Mesut, who became part of the show with short introductory talks, is as scathing about digital projection as he is passionate about “real film” (Ciné Real is the name of his and Saint-Pierre’s film club). “I’m not against digital, but for me it’s punishment,” he says. “The showmanship side of film is gone – they just want to get you in and out.” When Saint-Pierre took Mesut to see the latest Bond film, Mesut got bored and went out to chat with the cinema staff.
It was Saint-Pierre who suggested converting the old storeroom into a screen Mesut could call his own. For his first show, Mesut sat wedged on a stool next to his projector, feeding film through the gate with a surgeon’s dexterity. Saint-Pierre and some other friends took their seats to watch The Red Balloon, a French short film from 1956. Mesut remembers feeling emotional, his memory spooling back to his childhood in his late grandfather’s cinema. “I always mention him at the shows,” he says. “He gave me such a gift.”