Beside ourselves

In anxious times people tend to become more inward-looking. That’s when I need cinema the most, to nudge me off the boring orbit of my self. A few films I watched over the last week or so, at the newly-minted Sands Film Festival and the always exciting Glasgow Short Film Festival, helped with that. I thought it would be worth sharing a few notes on here to justify my continuing to pay for web hosting, if nothing more. Here’s what I watched:

  • Most of the (Im)material worlds programme, a collaborative curatorial project instigated by Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn (Chulalongkorn University) and Philippa Lovatt (University of St Andrews) with Emma Dove and Tina Fiske (CAMPLE LINE) and Kitty Anderson and David Upton (LUX Scotland), and which played at the Sands International Film Festival of St Andrews in March 2022, and also online.
  • A couple of screenings in Glasgow Short Film Festival, though I’ll mainly be talking about the one that wasn’t a short film – Theo Anthony’s All light, everywhere (2021)

One obvious way in which cinema can move beyond the self is by gathering bits of experience from other perspectives. Moreover, cinema can do this through other means of perception beyond those available to a human body. Maeve Brennan’s Listening in the dark (2018) makes this point through the history of scientific attempts to understand bats. Microphones and pitch-shifters are needed to hear, see, and record bats’ sounds, and to discover echolocation as a new form of sensing that can be redeployed by humans through technical means. I learn from the film that insects have also done this, evolving varied sensory organs to detect and avoid bats.

Theo Anthony’s All light, everywhere is an interesting counterpoint to this, looking at the history of camera-based visual surveillance. Janssen’s revolver and Marey’s photographic gun starts with natural curiosity, about the transit of Venus and the flight of birds, and is quickly appropriated for artillery targeting. But precision is not always the goal of the militarised image; it is also a rhetorical device and an extension of power. The guy from Axon, the company that makes both Tasers and police bodycams, explains that the cameras should retain some of the limitations of the human eye and perspective. This is, in particular, the police officer’s perspective. The camera is not there to record ‘what happened’ but how the officer may have perceived it. Another guy tries to present an alternative, a bird’s eye view that he claims would be more neutral. But only some kinds of action in some kinds of places are visible to an aerial camera, and only some people in certain positions can choose to use recorded images to defend themselves or incarcerate others.

There is a great pull to use image-making as a tool for social control. Both the anthropocentric technologies of facial recognition (from eugenicist physiognomy to AI) and the seemingly detached perspectives of cartography and geo-sensing appeal to a scientific materialism that is supposedly neutral. Neutrality is not a path to justice. Neither is solipsistic subjectivism, however. Thinking critically about the colonial lineage of technologies of sound and vision can also mean a recognition of the ways they open up non-human perspectives. Perhaps technologies are not entirely predetermined by their histories. Arguably, the whole trajectory of decolonial moving image practice is embroiled in this dialectic.

In Shireen Seno’s film, there are photos of trees, with humans for scale. White men. Scientists again, observing, measuring, collecting the Filipino flora. “Photographs as a catalogue of the resources of the colony”, as Seno puts it, as concise a statement about colonial image-making practices as you’ll get anywhere. There are also photos of women, not white, with potted plants (perhaps for company, Seno speculates). These are harder to read and more demanding. One goes back to Édouard Glissant and opacity as anticolonial resistance. To become unrepresentable in order to become ungovernable. In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour, opacity is literal; fog fills the frame and the figures appear and disappear as they go about their toil. Perhaps you’d want to use sound to orientate yourself in this shifting cloud, but there is no soundtrack. Ethereal as this may seem, people are working or going around on motorbikes; this is an earthly landscape. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Promised Lands skewers the kind of mystifying, exoticist encounter with landscape that sometimes informs liberal ecocinema. Her on-screen words speak back to the voiceover, sternly rejecting its poetic flights. NO. I REPEAT NO. NO TO YOUR EMPTY SPECTACLE.

Alia Syed uses a similar anti-spectacular strategy, fixed long takes with voiceover, on Meta Incognita: Missive II. The language of colonial exploration and resource extraction from an old captain’s log is flipped on its head once transposed into a dystopian future. It’s an incomplete story that demands an imaginative effort, while the slow changes in light and tide challenge the viewer’s attention. The archival underlayer and geographic coordinates invoke a documentary principle, an external referent that might or might not fill the gaps of the incomplete fable. Emilia Beatriz’s many-layered tale of two islands separated by a whole ocean, but linked by their resistance to becoming mere military target practice, also goes to the archive and to the future. As the multiple screens connect Vieques (off Puerto Rico) and Garvie (off Scotland), their anticolonial resonances necessarily oscillate between historical and speculative registers. The land itself can tell human time: this is how much peat you’d use in a year, this is ten years, or forty. A moving scar that slowly heals, if done properly. A few days earlier I had watched a BBC documentary about another Scottish island, contaminated with anthrax by the British army in the 1940s. By the end of this unseasonably warm week, the island was on fire.

These fires are apparently fine, though. It just looks cool.

I don’t know what good it may do to watch films while there are fires everywhere. In their introduction to a dossier on the work of some Southeast Asian filmmakers, Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Philippa Lovatt invoke animism “as a way to acknowledge a different mode of ontology and cosmology, a way of being in the world where humans are not superior or centred” (2021). Without necessarily ascribing any single spiritual hypothesis to these very different films, they do share this decentring, made possible by cinema’s means of perception. Their perspective is subjective but not human-subjective; they are films of and about the world, of which people are a mostly perplexed, often careless, sometimes disastrous part.

Failing from home

With a commission from Glasgow Short Film Festival, video-essayist Jessica McGoff recently published a 10-minute reflection on her experience of attending online film festivals. In this piece, McGoff reflects on the conflation of domesticity and cinematic space, and pins some hope on the potential of film festivals, through curation, to resist the homogenising trend of streaming monopolies. In the last section of the video, she recalls watching Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, 2020) and feeling questioned about the ethics of spectatorship, as “[t]he film altered the space around me as much as that space provided viewing context”. This reminded me of some notes I had made a few months back when I watched this film, at a different online festival, at home. I was also struck by an ethical dissatisfaction, a discomfort that I struggled to articulate, so I appreciated the chance provided by McGoff’s film to reopen that question.

Screening Room: on digital film festivals from Jessica McGoff on Vimeo.

Purple Sea is an account of the Syrian filmmaker’s journey from Turkey to Greece on a boat which capsized with over 300 people on board. Alzakout was wearing a camera on her wrist and this footage, captured accidentally while she tries to stay afloat, makes up most of the film. Her voiceover situates this moment in a personal timeline of displacement and love, which brings the viewer into its confidence to share memories of joy and hardship. It would be possible to call the footage beautiful, with the shimmer of the sun on the Mediterranean, the slow movements of objects and people underwater. But 42 people died on that trip, so formal beauty is not the point. The filmmaker first considered giving the footage to Forensic Architecture to demand accountability for Greece’s delay in launching a rescue. The camera is called to witness, and the film then produces a framework where the spectator is also asked to witness. The intimate voiceover, the impression of liveness from real-time, shaky footage, and the embodied point of view carry a strong demand for empathetic viewing, but they may also hit the limits of this identification.

I watched Purple Sea as part of the 18th edition of Document Human Rights Film Festival. As a member of the festival board, I think Document went well: the programme was both weighty and exciting, the conversation events were generous, and the platform ran smoothly from an end-user perspective. A year into the pandemic, the online film festival format is gradually crystallising into familiar forms, within a range of pragmatic choices and platform affordances. Before the festival, we had discussed the need to consider the conditions of viewing. Many human rights films deal with painful subjects, and the emotions they may awaken could be harder to process for viewers watching alone, after months of relative isolation and emotional depletion from the pandemic. Does the festival then have a duty of care towards the viewers even if they’re not in a festival venue? Beyond clear content warnings and opportunities for discussion, it seemed particularly difficult to figure out how to extend an ethics of care into the domestic spaces where the festival was streamed.

Powerlessness, anger and frustration are common emotions when watching distant suffering, a phenomenon widely studied by anthropologists. Activist film festivals try to shift those emotions towards engagement and empowerment, by emphasizing resistance and showing clear options for action. While mostly symbolic when enacted by relatively privileged audiences, these actions serve to cleanse the conscience and postpone the crisis of powerlessness. I’m familiar with those feelings of personal inefficacy and those recuperative twists. In other words, I’m used to feeling bad about not doing enough to change the world, and trying to hold on to some hope that watching together can lead to acting together. But watching Purple Sea in an online festival gave me a new experience of failure: Not just failing to act, but failing to even witness.

I watched Purple Sea in my living room, while my flatmate cooked dinner in the kitchen, the dog fussed, the laundry hung by the radiator, the carpet needed hoovering, the shelf needed dusting, work needed to be attended to, an entirely mundane mess extended out past the border of the screen. The minutiae of all this, while unimportant in itself, made my attention to the film something optional, that needed to be actively produced, and therefore something I could fail at. Failing to commit to witnessing was an ethical failure, a dereliction of my part of the deal with a film that opened itself up so generously.

Writing about film and video as testimonial encounters, Leshu Torchin says:

A constellation of factors contributes to the efficacy of a testimony. Rhetorical and iconographic strategies supply interpretive grids to make distant suffering a cause for concern, compassion, outrage, and solidarity. Practice, too, matters, as activities associated with distribution and exhibition can help channel the sentiment into action. It is as much about the testimonial encounter as the testimony itself. (Torchin 2012)

If Purple Sea’s formal strategies offered an embodied route towards a subjective understanding of a specific tragedy within the general violence of borders, and the spectator also starts out from a material situation, then the testimonial encounter in this case poses a problem of how to move from one embodied position to another in order to witness as required. Without wanting to go all 1970s theory on this, there is something in the claim that the classic cinematic apparatus works as a machine for attention and subjectivation, removing distractions and encouraging the spectator to move beyond their body. More importantly, the cinema screening (and especially the festival screening) is a social situation and this sociality binds us into a tacit pact to attention, bearing the responsibility of witnessing as a collective. As Torchin writes,

witnessing publics are not an enduring, eternal, or general formation, but temporary and contingent collectives hailed through address and encouraged into an active engagement and responsibility with what they see. (Torchin, Creating the Witness, 2012, p. 14)

The viewer can be hailed and encouraged, but ultimately they need to make an active choice to open themselves up, offer themselves to the testimonial encounter. This is what I am failing to do while watching at home, simply because it is more difficult, it demands more from me. First of all, it brings to the surface the incommensurability of the experiences. I am safe on firm land, looking at the cobwebs on the ceiling; how can I also be off the shore of Lesbos, treading water? It is an impossible identification which jars with the perceptual invitation to immersion through the immediacy of the footage. This is no phantom ride.

In her video, McGoff notes that while watching the film, “it struck me that I couldn’t really leave the space where I viewed it”. This living space, which during the pandemic has also been the space of work, leisure, and media use, becomes what she calls a “contextual monoculture”. Lacking the diversity of audiences and contexts that different spaces create, she worries that the dispersion of film viewing into individual encounters threatens the survival of film festivals and other forms of resistance to the culture industries’ flattening of experience. I think festivals will be fine for a wee while longer, but some thought must be given to their ritual function in preparing audiences for a demanding encounter. There is a long stretch to go from the mundane familiarity of the living room or the laptop screen to the openness to an experience that is radically outside ourselves (like any perspective on the world will be). After a year or two of gratefully accepted sameness and avoidance in the midst of disaster, some of us may need some coaxing into responsibility.

Death and the online film festival

One of the first blog posts here was about cinema as ritual, in two senses: as a social practice and as a formal set of actions that may address an abstract or supernatural purpose. The pandemic has brought about a crisis of collective rituals, from the quotidian to the transcendental. This unravelling of common habits has mundane consequences, like losing track of the days of the week, but also profoundly painful ones. At tens of thousands of lonely hospital beds and funerals, the conventions that allow human societies to cope with death and grief are tenuously sustained by video-calls. It is both miraculous and crushing in its banality.

If the most sacred and necessary of rituals are being mediated by online streaming, it is no surprise that everything else, from pub quizzes to orchestras, is streaming somewhere. After a spate of cancellations, film festivals and academic conferences have also now returned as online programmes, and probably stand a better chance of survival than the cinema venues and universities that would have hosted them. For anyone lucky enough to have a computer, an internet connection and a safe home, and who isn’t being forced to risk their lives at work, this situation has generated a surfeit of ‘content’ far beyond the usual limitations of geography and timing. The expanded remote access includes participants that otherwise would have been excluded due to disability or location, and it excludes others who have divergent relationships to technology. I don’t want to enter into a discussion of whether streaming is good or bad, better or worse than cinemagoing or conference panels, as I have no interest in protecting those rituals. I don’t care if they survive; I care deeply about the people who depend on them for a livelihood, but that’s a different issue.

This is not a festival venue

This is not a festival venue

Online access is the consummation of mechanical reproducibility, and as Benjamin argued, the breakdown of uniqueness can demystify the reproduced object and wrench it out of the sphere of ritual. The tension between reproducibility (of the film) and uniqueness (of the event) is constitutive to the existence of film festivals, conceived as a way to ‘eventify’ film. This is being negotiated online in many different ways, as the sector fumbles towards new models that may enable some semblance of survival. Live streaming, time-limited access, and live Q&A sessions are some of the strategies that festivals are using to assert a sense of occasion, which is to say, a ritual time. The first online festival I attended this year was Alchemy, which had live screenings and a very pared down, straightforward interaction centered around brief introductions by programmers and a chat box after the film. As a taste of the new normal, and it had many advantages, such as an international audience and the ability to eat lunch during the screening without bothering others. But it didn’t have the treasure hunt of site-specific screenings around Hawick, the floor-to-ceiling screen in perfect darkness, or the gap between screenings to write notes in a sunlit window, go charity-shopping, or eavesdrop on earnest filmmakers at the café. It’s the ‘in-between bits’ that are missing, as Tara Judah wrote a few days ago. The gaps are backfilled with housework or email, and so the ritual contract is fragmented.

It becomes very difficult for festivals to offer a distinctive experience without their unique locations. In a recent piece, Erika Balsom considers how “presented online, moving-image artworks risk absorption into a ceaseless cascade of undifferentiated “content.””. From behind a laptop screen it all looks pretty much the same, despite the bewildering proliferation of platforms and logins. It is all also a bit more intentional, less random, like most things online which depend on being called up by the consumers, and are therefore less likely to surprise them. The waning of unintentional, unplanned sociability is harder to articulate as a loss in the pandemic, as governments entrench a worldview where the important relationships are those of wage work first, and normative family unit second. Online film viewing is – in my experience – similarly tending towards the productive or the familiar, more fully realised as labour because the stretches of time around it have been minimised. With no travelling to the cinema or waiting in the lobby, there is nowhere online where you can just sit and do nothing, let things unfold that don’t depend on your intervention and choice.

The fantasy of digital availability of everything presents itself as a fugue from mortality. You can’t miss anything – you can always watch it later (I am still genuinely upset about MUBI’s departure from its 30-days-only model, which at least allowed you to move on if you had missed a film). But of course, you don’t have infinite time. You don’t know if you can ever watch it later. Life is literally too short. The life of images can also be shorter than you think, links rotting all over the web, emulsions sliding, nitrate burning. At Alchemy, several films reflected on the failure of the archive to deliver the future promised by the past. In Salma Shamel’s short film, Those That Tremble as if They Were Mad, an inkjet printer sits in a backyard, printing certificates intended to reward contributors of oral testimonies of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. The bureaucratic attempts can’t help but extinguish the same radical fire they intend to record, and soon succumb to the reactionary collapse of the popular uprising. In another screening, Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You lingered over the rusted cans of the Nigerian Film Unit. The decay of analogue film has a well-established romance, perhaps because its time is just out of reach, within living memory, and hence its destruction is imagined as preventable. But as with any technology of memory, the loss of film is as indispensable as its survival to its history.

The Orphan Film Symposium is premised on this ephemerality. Orphan films survive by accident. They give the lie to the fantasy of total availability, representing as they do the tip of a lost iceberg. Meant to serve a time-limited purpose, the passage of these films into history has been crafted with today’s arguments, technologies, and archival optics. Often meant to be private, their public existence diffracts their modes of address and complicates their understanding. This is perhaps the logical setting in which to think about death, and this symposium offered a needed space to do that. It was also one of the best academic conferences / film festivals I have ever attended, and its expanded universe of blog posts and videos constitutes an incredible, generous, and timely resource. Against the relentless futurity of business as usual, the mood at this event felt more authentic. The incredibly skilled technical team greeted us from Mexico DF, wearing facemasks. Presenters joined in from around the world, lamenting a missed appointment at Amsterdam, and always finishing with ‘stay safe’. The combined themes of the symposium – water, climate and migration – reminded us that beneath the current emergency there is a catastrophe that hasn’t gone away with the decreased CO2 emissions of recent months. In other words, widespread death, closed borders, and a retrenchment into the private sphere are not going to stop the waters from rising.

There were two moments in the festival that confronted me with death more directly. At the end of the first day of screenings, as I watched from my sofa well past midnight, I was taken by surprise by a film where Eiren Caffall reflected on her life with the same chronic illness that will probably kill me one day. Safe and alone in my house, I could let my fear run through me until it exhausted itself, find a healing use for that metaphor of the sea within. In that moment I was glad not to have to make small talk with colleagues over canapes afterwards. Then on the third day, also late at night, Ja’Tovia Gary introduced her extraordinary essay film The Giverny Document. Watching this multilayered inquiry into Black experience and pain, on the day of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, amplified the rage that the images demand. The artist talked about the intricate, beautiful work of animation directly onto film as a somewhat therapeutic practice, which created a powerful tension with archive footage including evidence of police brutality recorded on phones. In conversation with archivist Terri Francis, they consider the fact that thinking about Black media is also thinking about the moving image as evidence. Over the days since then this question has been on my mind, as the harrowing images of George Floyd’s death, filmed by a black teenager, join this ‘counter-archive’ of atrocity and injustice.

But also in the archive: a Black child twirling in the sunshine with a paper plane.

And also for the archive, today: the statue of a slave trader being hauled off its plinth and into the water. Signs of life.

(via GIPHY)

The featured image is a still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914), one of the films screened at the Orphan Film Symposium. It can be seen here with an introduction by Ned Thanhouser, but please be warned that it is a disturbing, cruel film infested with animal death and deploying a racist, colonial gaze.

The poverty of cartography

Imperial College, London, late August. Empire is everywhere. The entrance to the Faculty of Mines is guarded by two stolidly Victorian marble men and surrounded by pseudo-classical visions of ‘mining, but make it sexy’. Nearby, the Royal Geographical Society is also rich in compromising regalia, with the old globes and treasure chests that represent the material and symbolic plunder of the four corners of the world. I am here for my first visit to the annual RGS conference. The chimney of the old aristocratic house (Hyde Park as a front garden, no less) where the conference takes place is tiled with hand-painted coats of arms, blue on white. One of the tiles says that they were painted by a lady of the house, and as a female presence in a patriarchal institution, I can’t help but see it as an analogy of white feminism. The little tiles are still a thousand times more interesting than the garish, useless Albert Memorial across the road. On the day that the Prime Minister suspended Parliament, London was hot and exciting as ever, an everchanging bloom eating away at its own monumentality, and the conference played out its own tensions between insurgence and academic inertia.

People protesting the adjourning of Parliament

People protesting the suspension of Parliament on 28 August 2019

In the first panel I attended, about the everyday spaces of the hostile environment, Phe Amis historicised the emergence of categories like ‘foreign national’ and ‘illegal immigrant’. To historicise means to show that something is made up. But witness how quickly these made-up borders and imaginary lines crystalise as common sense, as in the mostly uncritical compliance of British universities with the UK border regime. As Sanaz Raji explained, and as I have seen in my own experience, very few staff know how the process for criminalising international students works. Meanwhile, the proliferation of surveillance in students’ everyday lives means that even those students subject to immigration control via the university are unlikely to challenge it. While in higher education, everyday bordering has become normalised through unthinking bureaucracy, in the health services it draws on professional attributes like ‘clinical acumen’. As Tarek Younis explained, based on his ethnographic work in the NHS, Prevent training uses the idea of ‘gut feeling’ to disavow the role of race – and racism – in the implementation of the policy.

Against this reductive, administrative way of thinking about people and territory, other models exist. Anticolonial and indigenous perspectives were often cited at the conference. Refreshingly, with a couple of exceptions they are not presented as untainted epistemologies but as pragmatic understandings that can form their own banalities and corruptions. Joanna Morley mentioned the framework of ‘buen vivir’ in Ecuador, now being mobilised by local elites in pursuit of extractive development, and Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane showed how post-apartheid elites have adopted African words and metaphors as empty signifiers of transformation. If the coloniality of power pervades intersubjective relations (Quijano, 2007), and capitalism has been able to hybridise and engulf its contradictions, is resistance ever imaginable? Geography offers its own ways of rethinking the world. It is about undoing borders, changing scales, seeing multiplicity. For instance: seeing the global – national – local not as scales but as entangled dimensions; or understanding that a neighbourhood is a political entity, as Francisco Letelier argued in his paper about ‘lo vecinal’ in Chile and Spain. In her study of national park frontier expansion in Mozambique, Kei Otsuki challenged bienpensant environmentalism, pointing out that in many contexts, the prohibition of hunting has been imbricated with racialised ruling, while current rights-based approaches to environmental justice often fall back on ‘procedural equity’, where a technocratic solution is meant to be found. Otsuki sought instead an anarchist framework that can make sense of free interaction and conflict with no easy consensus, which seems necessary in the frontier conditions that she studies. The frontier, which is not identical to the border, can be a site for remaking society.

The garden at the Royal Geographical Society

The garden at the Royal Geographical Society

The squat is also a frontier. Mara Ferreri argued for vacancy as a way of thinking, where the appeal of the temporary can prepare the ground where communing can root. In her study of squats that turned housing cooperatives, Ferrari does not only trace what may look like a typical process of enbourguoisement and co-optation, but instead offers a non-purist account of resistance. She seeks to understand housing co-ops ‘beyond the mythologies of autonomy’, as antagonistic but negotiated practices that solved specific problems for the people who lived in them, in more or less lasting or ideologically coherent ways. This sense of pragmatic collective action was very clear in Julia Vilela Caminha’s work on occupations in Brazil, where this is less a countercultural movement and more an extension of the same self-building resourcefulness that has shaped the cities of the Global South. Arguments of justice and legitimacy surround these acts of reclamation, again threading a fractious relationship with the State and the law.

The geographies I am drawn to are these: Grounded, messy, borderless. These are not necessarily the geographies you will find in my own work. Film studies and geography have a long and inconclusive affair, where it feels like both parties have used each other without undergoing much internal transformation. Cartographical approaches are by now comfortable and generally uncontroversial, and so it seems we’re back to the stories. Ealasaid Munro and Ian Goode told adventurous tales of operators and audiences of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild, and screened this gem of a film about non-theatrical exhibition. People are seen walking up the road to the village hall; you can almost feel the chill of the rain on your coat. These are stories of journeys, like those related by Italian oral history interviewees, memorably including a long donkey ride into the nearest village in one case recounted by Daniela Treveri Gennari. There were some maps on my slides about the use of village halls as cinema spaces, but what I really wanted to talk about were the patient record cards used by a Kirkcaldy doctor to sketch out the meeting halls where he put up his projector and screen, each with a paper trail of local philanthropy and corporate film services. Like the halls, these bits of card were repurposed, used efficiently for the common good rather than profit. I saw in them a tiny glimpse of what a degrowth cinema may be like.

A few days later I was again showing some maps, the kind that come in film festival brochures and invite people to explore new places in their home town with the pretext of watching a film. This time I was in Liverpool, taking part in a workshop on Mapping Music History, organised by Jonathan Hicks. There were clear parallels with cinema history in Lawrence Davies’ research on the history of jazz clubs and the journeys that bookended participants’ experiences, as well as their use of multipurpose and civic spaces, which touched on dynamics of distinction and respectability not dissimilar to those of the film society movement. Solene Heinzl told the fascinating story of a squatted industrial complex in the outskirts of Paris, where art-led insurgence reclaimed the site as a ‘free space’ (or TAZ), but where legitimation as an art space can run counter to the principle of commoning. Putting some place on the map, making it visible to cultural tourists, is not always an unmitigated good.

When I started dabbling in cartography, satellite and drone imaging were only starting to become available to ordinary users and non-specialist commercial users. The books all spoke about the military roots of cartography, the inseparability of mapping and dominating. At the RGS, Oliver Belcher presented a fascinating and extremely persuasive case study of MIT’s collaboration with the Pentagon in the development of a GIS for counterinsurgency in Vietnam. As a complement to aerial photography, the GIS synthesised data collected ‘on the ground’. Perhaps in the familiar critique of the all-seeing-eye of cartography there was not enough emphasis on the importance of the individual data point: It is all about aggregation. This was a point that became a focus for discussion at the Mapping Music History event. Adam Behr talked about mapping as shorthand for communication with bureaucrats and with the general public. Phil Nelson later argued that the most efficient way of mapping a music scene in this day and age was letting people map it themselves, either by volunteering the information or through the traces of their digital activity. The view of mapping as surveillance was easy to identify here. Nelson, for instance, found that some people were reluctant to contribute information because their venues or events were not fully compliant with licensing rules. (This is also easy to understand in the context of film exhibition, as compliance is relatively expensive and complicated for small-time exhibitors).

In these cases, where information flows need to be understood in the context of a power imbalance, storytelling can again offer an alternative. Fay Young talked about the playful experience offered by her audio tours and quizzes on Glasgow history, and Jonathan Trew talked about the Glasgow City Music Tours, where physical landmarks serve as ‘technologies of memory’ for people to tell their own stories. As a tour guide, Trew also gathers and recounts these memories, so that the commentary has an accretion of unverifiable personal stories. This starts to take on the character of a folklore. In the closing paper, Les Roberts offered a provisional theorisation of songlines as a non-representational way to hold stories without trying to pin down lived memory. While in both cases the appeal to traditional or ‘other’ forms of knowledge poses its own problems (not least the violence of cultural appropriation), they are part of a search, a dissatisfaction, a sense of urgency and realisation that the perfectly compiled database won’t save us.

The kind of ‘epistemic disobedience’ (Mignolo, 2013) that may be needed now is that of refusal, of strike. Anything else will be appropriated: by REF, by Western academia, by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (as bell hooks names it).

At the end of my stay in Liverpool, I went to see Shezad Dawood’s installation Leviathan. Dawood’s use of archive footage of whaling makes her post-apocalyptic short fictions unwatchable at times. “The bodies of Leviathan were the pilings on which our world stood”. Dawood tells a story, a mix of past and future, neither true nor a lie, both archive and myth, about greed, extraction, and divine retribution. Comfortably ensconced in the art gallery, this won’t make it stop, like an academic conference in an imperial institution won’t dismantle the master’s house. But it could at least help break the spell, the illusio, and make us question whether we need to put our energies into sustaining the institutions that oppress us.


Alchemy 2019: Notes from a weekend away

This year I finally made it to the Scottish Borders town of Hawick for Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. I had been hearing about Alchemy for years, as it build a reputation for its fresh and knowledgeable programming, and for staging a distinctive event using the official and hidden infrastructures of the town. Due to the festival’s interest in artists’ moving image, video installation and mixed-media projections in unconventional sites are an integral part of the programme. This, along with the premiere of Phil Collins’ feature documentary Ceremony, persuaded me to get on the train and bus to the Borders during a weekend on the cusp of summer.

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

According to the website 147 works were screened over five days. I was there for two, and spent some time answering emails from coffeeshops and climbing the somewhat underwhelming motte, so I only saw a fraction of them. Enough to get a sense of how special this festival is. The variety of venues is certainly an attraction: shopfront venues up and down the high street, in the museum, the archive, and of course the very well equipped arts centre. The festival is a visible presence in the town, without commandeering it. The programme shows a serious labour of research, curation, and presentation, sourcing films that would hardly be available elsewhere. I didn’t like them all – but that’s irrelevant. They give me something to think with and some time to do it. Experimental films, especially those that draw attention to the surface of the image, and to the flow of time, are devices to untether the mind from its obsession with yesterday’s petty failures and tomorrow’s little problems. They make time for something else – sometimes more abstract, sometimes more visceral.

The first film I watched, in the superb auditorium of the Heritage Hub, was Tondal’s Vision. This is a highly stylised reinterpretation of a single-reel early silent film, stretched to feature length. In its fascination with patina and decay it is in the tradition of Bill Morrison, but it departs more radically from the existing footage. Slowed down to an extent that is either meditative or exasperating, depending on how much coffee you’ve had, the footage is looped, mirrored, repeated, and reframed. The filmmaker hijacks the film’s tableau aesthetics, dwelling on the contortions of condemned souls in a nightmarish circular journey. The sticky, flattening effect on the emulsion had its moments. At its best, it abstracted the figures until their movement, the articulation of their joints, was all that mattered. This modernist strategy was intensified in the segments of blank lead film, dirty and scratched and tinted with rainbow colours. I found myself thinking I would like to freeze the frame and paint my room in those colours, or have a t-shirt made; this is how decorative this film is. The catalogue says the technique used to unpick the nitrate figures from their backgrounds is called mordancage, a word I had never heard and which has led me to a very pleasant ten minutes of internet browsing. I was taken with the neon colours, pushing the boundaries of the spectrum, and found myself disappointed to learn the colourising had been achieved digitally. Not because I necessarily hold on to the romance of celluloid, but because I had hoped that these colours were accidental discoveries, rather than design choices.

No such disappointment with Esther Urlus, whose 16mm works were shown a bit later. There she was, as full of light and mischief as her films, with red hair to match, standing by the emergency exit just in case. Each film was a genuine experiment; I could imagine the filmmaker in the dark room, trying this or that chemical bath, strips of celluloid running through her fingers. I tried to imagine the artist-run film lab in Rotterdam where this was made. I watched the impossibly flat landscapes of Idyll or Red Mill and wonder what it is like to grow up without mountains. She told us of a homebrew emulsion she used for the somewhat hermetic Konrad and Kurfurst, a historical tale told against the grain. The approach to sound was as uncompromising as the images. Like Tondal’s Dream, some of the films here – particulary Elli – used flicker and rapid reversals to produce physical discomfort. This was a formal strategy that reappeared in several other films, but here it was used in small doses to greater effect.

An example of a more all-encompassing take on flicker was Take It Down, a short included in a programme addressing memory and history. I really wanted to like it, as it played with documentary footage of the movement to remove statues glorifying racists from American university campuses, and of local reaction. The decolonisation of universities and public spaces is an important struggle. Unfortunately, this film’s formal strategies felt unjustified, and this diluted its political stance. The relentless flicker and solarisation of the little Confederate ceremony at the start did not counteract the fact that the audience gets to listen to their arguments for a solid few minutes. The film platforms these white supremacists and, rather than confronting them, just makes them painful to watch. This is not critique – this is the ‘enough rope’ argument that has made Farage a constant presence in the supposedly liberal BBC. The second part of the film, with the visual removal of the monuments, was less jarring but more disquieting. The postcard images of the sites were improved by the removal of the offending statue, but this seemed to absolve the very institutions standing right behind them of their blame. Yes, of course the statues of confederate warriors should be taken down from the front of the court house, but let’s not pretend that black people are not going to still be imprisoned much more than whites. The pretty colours added here were less distancing than embellishing. I am not here doubting the anti-racist commitment or the intentions of the filmmakers, but acknowledging that it’s really hard to make sufficiently sharp socio-political critique through the medium of experimental cinema.

In the same programme, I liked Morwenna Kearsley’s string of reflections laid along a train journey I make often. But while I get off halfway, she goes all the way: To Perth, to those reflections on cultural memory that I always abandon as too complicated and unproductive. Her project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and in unpicking the thread of injustice that holds together the institutions of heritage, there was one bit that she didn’t pull: The connection of the Lever fortunes with forced labour and genocide in the Belgian Congo. (Disclosure: I was also funded by the Leverhulme Trust till last year.)

But it was the first film in that programme, the simplest, which held my attention. Armindo and the Dark Chamber (Tânia Dinis) was possibly my favourite film in the festival. Apart from two bookending sequences, it is simply a continuous shot of a metal band carrying old photographs one after the other, from right to left, and her voiceover. The writing is precise and well paced. As we looked at endless provincial children and weddings, she said that we strive to find ourselves ‘in other people’s faces, in other people’s houses’, a grasp for recognition. That ease of recognition was poignant for me, because it necessitates colonialism. I can recognise myself in those Portuguese provincial middling classes because my whiteness is like theirs and it’s the same Catholicism that produces the rituals to be photographed and that makes grandmothers look like one another.

Another film that builds on a romance of analogue media is That Cloud Never Left, but its documentary lyricism is harder to pin down. I was intrigued by this, a collaborative work that doesn’t stop to explain its process. In an Indian village, people make toys out of scrapped 35mm film. Young men build a platform and a giant version of their rose-tinted cellophane lens. The red filter is also the blood moon. On television, spellbinding animations explain the lunar eclipse, awaited by the town. I am fascinated, as always, by making, craft, tools: the curved knife to peel fruit, the handsaw to cut clay. I am drawn to re-use, and this, like so many places in the global south, is a scavenging place. The staged elements get in the way of my ethnographic desire to see and understand the ‘authentic’ way of life of the village’s inhabitants, which is a way to say I didn’t enjoy them but think that’s as it should be. At the end, we tried to Skype with the director, but we couldn’t hear her, which was a much better outcome.

On paper, Phil Collins’ Ceremony is a similar type of film: Video documentation of an intervention, a process carried out with a collective. In intention and execution, it is the opposite: prosaic where That Cloud is lyrical, expositive where the other is more cryptic. This comparison is not intended as a value judgement, though I did think that there was too much Momentum-style certainty to Ceremony. In short, Collins orchestrated a public outdoor event during Manchester International Festival, the centrepiece of which was a statue of Friedrich Engels brought by road from the Ukraine. The journey is the best part of the film, as people in Eastern European towns half-recognise Engels with a mix of Ostalgie and mistrust. That ambiguity is diluted in the celebratory and celebrity-led street party. That is understandable: this is not a time for subtleties. On the other hand, it is not a time for Great Men From History either.

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

There were, by the way, several special programmes, all of women filmmakers (eat your heart out, Cannes). And lots of individual works by women. Before getting the bus back out of town, I stood in a low-ceilinged room at the back of an empty shop, watching as a rocky, snowy path stretched across two screens facing each other. Sequences of words swirled towards and away from the viewer, simple sentences announced by a tinkling of tiny bells or beads. It was joyous and cold, the playfulness of the WordArt defiant amongst the sharp edges of the rock. The words were about dogs and desires for a good life. Simple, mundane things; a simple, small setup. The work is called ‘What does she see when she shuts her eyes’ and it is a collaboration between Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff, but also a kind of memorial to Ott, who died recently. The information sheet says the rocky paths are Icelandic lava tubes. Somehow, in this austere room, in the intimate words moving between the two projectors, I feel hopeful.


Last week I was in Liverpool, where the Biennial of Contemporary Art was just getting started. It took me by surprise – I was just there to look after someone else’s cats and write – but one look at the brochure made me take notice: so much video. Of course, the video projector is by now as fully integrated into the art world as the sculptural plinth, and the black box is very much an expected part of the white cube. Conversely, as Maeve Connolly argues in The Place of Artists’ Cinema (2009), the gallery has become another ‘alternative’ screening venue within film culture, holding a space for the ‘gallery film’, the experimental and anti-mainstream. This alterity is not only concerned with the formal dynamics of the works, but with the relationship they propose with the viewer, with heightened awareness of the reception space and a break from theatrical cinema etiquette and expectations.

On the opening night, Agnès Varda appeared on stage at FACT, in a warm and stimulating conversation with superstar curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, to introduce a retrospective of her work and a new commission. Varda has brought to Liverpool a three-screen work presented in a gallery, and with characteristic generosity she invites viewers to be lost and to consider the possible connections between the three images, to let them ‘tickle the mind’, and to see how these images make them feel, what they remind them of. In the conversation, she reflects on the reception conditions of gallery projection versus the cinema, and embraces the instability of meaning that the encounter offers:

“these images are proposed to be seen together, sometimes in silence, sometimes with sound. […] Sometimes we must accept there is no meaning, there is only impression, physical reaction of the eye, the ear, the situation of your own spirit when you come in, maybe the day after you’ll see it differently”

Empty Spaces Cinema at George Henry Lee building


Camp and Furnace

I didn’t get to see Varda’s installation. I did catch a bit of a screening put on by Empty Spaces Cinema in the cavernous basement of the George Henry Lee building as part of the Independents Biennial. I also saw a bit of football on a big screen at the Baltic Triangle, where every other warehouse seems now to be a gig venue with pop-up screenings. Like with the gallery film, the differences between big-screen football and cinema are those of social convention; it is the same apparatus. There is plenty of untapped richness in that ambiguity; in Glasgow, earlier this year, the Goethe Institut put on a live-score screening of a Germany match. And then you’ve got Zidane, the feature-lenght film made by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno following the player through a whole game. As Connolly points out, Zidane premiered at Cannes, was then screened in a stadium at the Basel art fair, and circulates in galleries as an art object, a ‘double-channel limited edition’ (26). Video works like this then have a multiple existence and blur the boundary between film festival and art biennial. However, the history of artists’ moving image is also closely linked to site-specificity and installation. It is still in this centrifugal relation to the world that the strongest works emerge.

I was very moved by Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), a three-channel film by Naeem Mohaiemen installed in the courtroom at St George’s Hall. The work is an 85-min documentary about the Non-Aligned Movement, a transnational political project that perhaps people in the global North haven’t really heard much about, but which is at least a familiar phrase to those of us who grew up in the Third World when it was still called that.


The camera enters the Palais des Nations in Algiers, where the 4th summit of Non-Aligned countries took place in September 1973. Archive footage and interviews reconstruct the historical density of the occasion, with Fidel Castro holding court and Kwame Nkurumah denouncing the ongoing attack on Allende’s socialist government in Chile, which would culminate in the bombing of the presidential palace and the start of Pinochet’s dictatorship two days after the end of the Algiers summit. The film lets us take in both the high-minded critiques of imperialism that made nationalism seem like a viable plan for decolonisation, and the macho intrigues that morphed into dictatorships instead of the liberation promised. There is a theme of unrealised utopia, almost a fatalistic sense of impossibility undermining the exhortations for unity and self-determination. The three-channel composition allows for some formal strategies not usually available to single-screen films, counterpoints and explanations running alongside rather than cutting into each other: it is a good documentary. But its installation in Liverpool lifted it beyond its informative, reflexive approach to history. The three screens are neatly set up in the middle of a court room, which is reached after walking through the dungeons now set up as a history display memorialising the thousands of poor who suffered here.


Three-channel video in the courtroom

In the film, there are long sequence shots that circle around La Coupole, a sports stadium designed by Oscar Niemeyer in Chéraga, Algeria. In the archive footage, gymnasts on the asymmetrical bars twist and spin; now, this is a modern white elephant which costs too much to maintain. Then there are the open-air corridors and flat plazas with water features to freshen up tropical afternoons. I felt at home in those spaces. I recognised the utopian architecture of the university where my parents met and also of the university that formed me. Yet here I was, watching it in the oppressive space of a windowless court room, all dark polished wood and injustice, thousands of miles away.  The spacious and abstract (and yes, also inhuman) architectures of Algiers belong to a different order than this Neoclassical behemoth, with its penitentiary system hidden behind a concert hall, its Roman columns and equestrian statues. St George’s Hall is an imperial statement piece. La Coupole is meant to be an anti-colonial one, but the film wonders whether that struggle needed the grandiloquence of monuments.

It has been a year of trying to settle accounts with 1968 and its legacies. On Friday, Big Adventure Cinema, who are on course to build a new community cinema for Liverpool after the closure of the Little Cinema, hosted a screening of Made in Dagenham, preceded by the 1971 Ken Loach short Talk About Work, and discussed by four women who worked in the local Ford plant (Halewood) and took industrial action for equal pay during the disputes depicted in the film. The screening took place in the Casa, a pub and venue whose story goes back to the Dockers’ strike in the late 1990s. In the audience were current workers at the Halewood plant (which is now Jaguar Land Rover) and trade unionists with similar experiences in other sectors. This framed the screening of this fairly mainstream independent film in a context that was both celebratory and educational. A recurring theme was the vacillation between recognising the achievements of the workers in the 1960s who fought for equal pay legislation, and raising awareness that in practice the gender pay gap continues to exist. 

There is a melancholy to radical history, particularly now when the forces of Fascism have more power than they had had since the 1930s. Was it all in vain? Well, the game isn’t over. (Even if the World Cup is). In between our anger and our grieving, we must find space for some learning, some thinking about the past and the future. These two screenings, both political, both site-specific, deploy very different strategies for their critical historiography: architectural dialectics and local personal experience.

Making memories in Shetland

Hillswick Public Hall sits between the A970 and the Ura Firth. It was built in the 1930s, replacing an older hall which had been a surplus Air Force pre-fab hut, bought and assembled by the community in 1921. According to a poem published in Feburary that year in the Shetland Times, the hall had become a necessity since the school authorities had started to take a dim view of the dances held in their premises. The new hall, which “holds a throng/ Who care for naught but dance and song”, was a demonstration of how “Without a doubt, in different ways/ We’re gayer than in pre-war days”. By then, the nearby St Magnus hotel had already been attracting tourists from all over the UK for twenty years, with the promise of loch and sea fishing, scenic cycling routes and cliff walks. The hotel, established by a steam-boat company, was only open in the summer, so something was needed to pass the winter evenings. The old hall sat on a gentle slope, on its own, between the two villages it served till it was replaced by the new, purpose-built structure.

On a Saturday afternoon in 2017, the water shimmers beyond the cliffs and three furry pigs graze on somebody’s lawn across the road. A couple of cars are parked outside the hall, and Graeme Howell is leaning on the access ramp bannisters, enjoying the fine summer evening. Graeme moved up from England in 2015 to take up his job as general manager of Shetland Arts, the organisation that runs the Mareel arts centre in Lerwick, which is also the base for ScreenPlay Film Festival.

Engine room of the North Star cinema, built long before Lerwick had public electricity. Many more images of the cinema and its advertising slides can be found in the Shetland Museum and Archives website.

When it opened in 2012, Mareel became the first permanent cinema venue in Shetland since the closure of the North Star, which had operated since 1913 and became a (much remembered) nightclub in the 1990s. ScreenPlay has been going for 11 years and it offers an appealing mix of international features and a platform for local filmmakers (the programme this year includes a film about the North Star cinema!). The strength of the festival is in part rooted in a longer lineage of volunteer film exhibition and community filmmaking, but also in external connections to industry professionals like Mark Kermode. There is perhaps something characteristic in this modern port town’s appreciation of the homemade and the foreign, oil rigs and knitting.

Inside the hall, a volunteer team are setting up two 16mm machines and a video projector for backup. Liam, a young technician from Mareel, hopes he can remember the instructions and timings for the changeovers, as the film does not have cue marks. He has been learning the craft of analogue projection from Stuart Hubbard, who with Kathy Hubbard – also of Shetland Arts – have been doing community screenings as the Shetland Film Club since 1990. The Club is less active now that there is again a permanent cinema in Lerwick, but they collaborate with Shetland Arts to take screenings to village halls in other parts of the archipelago. The portable screen, now flanked by a Shetland Arts banner on the Hillswick Hall stage, is often packed in the back of Stuart’s car, but it has been a long time since the 16mm projectors were used.

16mm projectors awaiting the audience at Hillswick Public Hall

16mm projectors awaiting the audience at Hillswick Public Hall

The Hall was completely refurbished in 2012. The casket-like shape of the auditorium is fully encased in light-coloured wood, which calls to mind the Nordic intimacy of a sauna. On the shore side there is a function room with a bar and large picture windows framing views of the Ness of Olnesfirth across the water. The other room is a big catering kitchen, where members of the Hall Committee are slicing homemade fruit cake and setting out the tea service for the post-film discussion. The Buena Vista Social Club album plays quietly, incongruently in the background, and is later replaced by Scottish traditional tunes. It is a well-used hall, hosting various clubs through the week, Sunday teas in the summer, and music sessions that nurture local talent. Films are a less frequent occurrence.

They were more regular 70 years ago, when the Highlands and Islands Film Guild was formed to provide cinema entertainment across this vast area. The screening at Hillswick is part of the Major Minor Cinema project, which brings together researchers from Stirling and Glasgow universities to explore the history of the Guild and its audiences. The project builds on Ian Goode’s previous work on the topic, during which he received letters from people who remembered going to the film shows organised by the Guild’s travelling operators, or later on by trained local volunteers, in village halls around the region. Embracing cinema memory as a form of enquiry in its own right, rather than a straightforward data source, the current project is nurturing creative writing that takes these non-theatrical cinema experiences as a possible subject.

Between the closure of the North Star and the opening of Mareel, various venues were used for screenings, including the Garrison Theatre

Between the closure of the North Star and the opening of Mareel, various venues were used for screenings, including the Garrison Theatre

Plenty going on

Plenty going on

Cinema memory is a thriving research area, in the overlap between memory studies and historical spectatorship/audience studies. Scholars in this field reference Jackie Stacey and Annette Kuhn, whose pioneering works continue to influence methodology and to generate research questions. A special issue of the journal Memory Studies [unfortunately paywalled, except for the introduction] published in January 2017 includes accounts of ongoing research projects using oral histories in South Africa, Texas, the Czech Republic, Italy, and the UK, making the case for the specific contribution that cinema-focused memory studies can make to the broader field. The heightened sensory and affective stimulus of film, and the social aspects of cinemagoing, can conspire to make cinemagoing a memorable experience, which then serves as an anchor for other personal or cultural memories. The resulting interviews, letters, or narratives are very rich texts, open to re-interpretation as they recede into the past. Reframing the autobiographical as explicitly ‘creative’, in the way that the Major Minor Cinema project is doing, adds another layer of complexity to any presumed evidentiary reading of these memories. It places subjective experience at the centre and postpones the moment of academic interpretation, allowing the owner of the memory to process it and express it in their own way.

In order to support this process, the Major Minor Cinema project have arranged creative writing workshops and pop-up screenings. Both are liable to awaken a more experiential connection to cinema memories, and to do memory work through these intuitive responses. The screening at Hillswick Hall was one such event, showing a programme of cartoon, newsreel and feature (Scott of the Antarctic), all on 16mm, as would have been the case at a Film Guild screening. This partial restaging (no hard wooden forms to sit on, nor the coldness of a damp hall in a winter night) was possible because the hall still exists and is still a public hall; because the Film Club still has and can operate 16mm projectors; because it is possible to buy old films on eBay; because there is a film festival supporting and advertising the event, but also a variety of local media from radio to noticeboards. The conditions of possibility of this re-enacted screening are radically different from those of its predecessor 70 years ago, but a mix of institutional support, individual initiative and community organising plays a part in both.

Historical re-enactment is the bread and butter of immersive cinema. All sorts of exhibitors, from early cinema festivals to Secret Cinema extravaganzas, draw on the novelty or nostalgia of anachronistic exhibition practices. Organisations that work with dementia patients have noticed that cinema – not just the films, but also other approximations of classical cinemagoing – can have a mild therapeutic effect. Projects like BBC RemArc or the GFT’s Movie Memories are part of a much-needed effort to improve quality of life for people with dementia. Research conducted by Ana Salzberg (Dundee), Jenna Breckenridge (Edinburgh), Thilo Kroll (UC Dublin) and Gavin Wylie (Dundee) found that care home residents enjoyed a series of screenings of classic musicals, which triggered pleasurable memories of a favourite actor or a cinema date, and also provided a context in which to connect with others. The researchers emphasised that this wellbeing effect in the present is as important as any connection to the past that the films can provide.

An engagement with cinema history, however, requires an approach to the past that goes beyond nostalgic and therapeutic uses of memory. It needs to be more open and unfinished than the former, and more dialectical than the latter. Last year, researchers at De Montfort University experimented with an immersive 1960s cinema screening as a means of communicating and sharing their research, and a connected project at UCL is also using re-enactment to disseminate results from a wide-ranging cinema memories project. In Shetland, the re-staging has a different purpose, as it takes place halfway through the project rather than at the end. The screening served as a public introduction to the community for the project’s researchers, as people were invited to keep an eye out for them and tell them their memories of the Guild, but it also demonstrated some of the existing knowledge of how a show would have been like. This is an exploratory sort of knowledge sharing, as people can respond to this reconstruction by validating, expanding, or challenging the story of the Film Guild that is being put forward. It also creates some minimum common ground for those of us who never went to a Guild screening.

It was at this point that the experience of this re-enactment bifurcates, between those for whom it evokes memories and those for whom it is new information to take in. I had already spent the day in the archives piecing together a scattered understanding of cinema practices in the area. At the screening, instead, I tested the boundaries of my empathy by trying to imagine what it would have been like to go to a screening like this, here in Hillswick in the 1950s, and came up with nothing: I am not from there and then, I am not them. This failure of my own imagination makes the creative writing all the more important, as reading can be much more ‘immersive’ than any hyperrealistic simulation. Hear, for instance, Alison Miller read her short story commission for the project, an Orkney tale of teenage cinemagoing and furtive excitement set during World War II.

Creative writing offers an elegant solution to the epistemological abyss of memory studies. It is a truth that does not claim primacy nor exclusivity; a way to tell the past that assumes there are multiple perspectives, but does not make a postmodern fuss.

While I’m thinking this, on screen Captain Scott and his companions are freezing to death. The film is a re-telling of a classic tragedy from history, full of details that no-one can have known, crystallised as facts through its many versions. Jingoistic as it may be, the struggle against the elements is still compelling to watch, the music soars, and everybody sits tight. The reel changeovers are smooth and the picture is very steady, although the print is hopelessly faded to pink, and covered in dirt and scratches. It ends, the lights go up, and trays of cakes and biscuits are brought in from the kitchen. All over the room, conversation blossoms, and the fate of the Antarctic explorers becomes – if you forgive the pun – an ice breaker. Then there are cups to wash, equipment to pack, the screen to fold down, emails to be collected and festival brochures distributed. The next day the Hall hosts a fish auction.


Special thanks to Sarah Neely, Ealasaid Munro, Ian Goode, and Nalini Paul for allowing me to join their research trip for a bit. Thanks also to Roseanne Watt, Ryan Sandison, Stuart and Kathy Hubbard for providing information and explaining things to me. Any errors are my own and I would be grateful for corrections or comments.

Circuits of Cinema

Last month I attended the ‘Circuits of Cinema‘ conference at Ryerson University in Toronto. The conference was impeccably hosted by Paul Moore and Jessica Whitehead, with an excellent team of student volunteers. It was part of the research project of the same name, and also doubled as the annual meeting of the HoMER (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition and Reception) Network. As with any conference, I could only be at one panel at a time, so my notes can only reflect one perspective of a rich and varied event (you can browse the abstracts by location and timeline on this Prospect visualisation). Luckily it was possible to catch up with the presenters you had missed over generous lunch and coffee breaks, the all-day workshop on Quantum GIS, and at a superb after-hours programme which included the premiere of an oral history project with some of the pioneers of Canadian distribution, many of whom attended the screening; and a memorable visit to the Elgin Theatre and Winter Gardens. You may get other glimpses of the conference’s topics under the #Circuits2017 hashtag.

These social aspects are part of individual and collective scholarship, which is why the difficulties that most researchers from the Global South face to travel to conferences are an obstacle to our full participation in any field. The acknowledgement by Paul of those missing voices was an important gesture that should be amplified in future conferences. Also very important is the decision by the organisers to programme plenary panels including emerging scholars, rather than ‘big name’ keynotes. This is important because it makes people more visible to one another, which is one of the roles of a research network. In that sense HoMER is thriving. But there is one of its old objectives that comes back time and again as a horizon to hope for: data integration. With the loss of Karel Dibbets, we lost one of the main champions for the development of common standards and shared datasets for cinema history, and it’s natural to want to take stock.

While Karel’s project, Cinema Context, will continue to develop and to lead the way as a hub for comparative cinema history, I think it is also important to recognise that research in the field is blooming in all sorts of other ways. There has always been a methodological eclecticism in this field that allows people to follow their curiosity, and the disparate nature of our projects is a strength rather than a problem to solve. The platforms for sharing datasets have existed for many years now, but the fact that we have been slow to use them suggests that it is not a priority for everyone, and I think that’s fine.

Perhaps the biggest dataset used by a HoMER researcher is the Kinomatics dataset of global movie times, but unfortunately that is not licensed to be shared. Deb Verhoeven, however, opened the conference with new work on a different, smaller dataset on gender in the Australian film industry. This is an example of where empirical analysis of a relatively modest dataset can generate new insights into how domination actually works. That men dominate the film industry is a trivial observation, but the precise mechanisms through which they maintain this control need to be understood in order to be fought, whether through policy or direct action. Verhoeven gives substance to the concept of network domination, which needs to be brought into play alongside more established notions of hierarchical power and hegemony – but it takes a very skilled data wrangler to spot and name these patterns. It takes a feminist to identify these specific forms of male domination; it takes some theory.

The ‘Gender Offender’ visualisation, using Gephi to show connections between producers and other creatives in Australian film production. By Deb Verhoeven with Stuart Palmer (click on the image to go to Deb’s analysis).

Similarly, studying distribution demands data, but it also demands a certain literacy to make sense of it. Distribution is an ideal arena for modest, grounded theorising. This has been one of the tenets of new cinema history, and so it was not surprising to see this approach articulated with particular clarity in one of the plenary sessions dedicated to more established scholars: Judith Thissen, Keff Klenotic, Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, conference organiser Paul Moore, and Project Arclight‘s Eric Hoyt all had their own ways of weaving historical understanding between the particular and the emergent. The conference also marked the retirement of Richard Maltby, who named New Cinema History and has written and edited some of its key texts. Richard’s recent work on Hollywood’s constant engagement with monopoly law is another example of this multi-level approach. Operating in the high spheres of politics as well as on the fine print of a provincial renter’s agreements, film distribution demands a structural view. However, it is easy to imagine this structure to be more solid, logical and efficient than it actually is. It is made of many overlapping patterns and localised interactions, and the kind of data required to be able to see this is not necessarily “big”. Instead, it might be more useful to have deliberate slices of data collection, used comparatively (I tried to do this when studying early distribution in Scotland, by looking at programming on two single dates across Scotland). In her presentation, for instance, Andrea Cominsky used a sample of 120 films across two seasons in ten exchange areas, allowing her to discuss the granular nuances of film selling during the classical period. This challenges the assumption of rigidity of the run-zone-clearance system, showing that less prestigious films could bypass first-run houses and premiere elsewhere.

One potential problem with film distribution research that places emphasis on systematic data collection is that it excludes most of the more informal types of circulation, and it risks privileging the types of research that are mostly available in Global North countries with reliable government records and digitised newspapers. The risk of overplaying data compatibility is to underplay, for instance, the story of film recycling in Iran as told by Kaveh Askari, where the paperwork indicates a destruction date for films at the end of their distribution, but the reality was that of prints continuing to circulate with a magnetic dubbed track pasted on top of the optical soundtrack, in a local enterprise that grew into its own production studios (and continued to recycle music). Or the story of the circulation of Cantinflas films in Brazil through RKO (as researched by Nilo Couret), or the active role of French distribution monopolies in blocking the circulation of African cinema (researched by Nikolaus Perneczky). The fact that indigenous communities in Brazil are exchanging DVD recordings of their rituals (as Samuel Leal showed) would be invisible from a data perspective.

Cara Caddoo argued that the first African-American distribution outfit, the Lincoln Film Company, were rebuffed in their efforts to market film independently as the kind of ‘hustling’ that was already untenable in the late 1910s. There’s certainly a lot of hustling in today’s film landscape, from crowdfunding indie producers to scrappy new festivals and trendy ‘start-ups’, as well as the vast informal/pirate sector. But the forces of consolidation are always closing in. Witness the missed opportunity of digital cinema, which instead of removing the access constraints posed by the materiality of a film print that cannot be in two places at once, replaced them with digital locks and arcane ways to maintain exclusivity. Leo Rubinkowski traced the emergence of ‘end-to-end facilitators’ in the exhibition industry, that is, companies concerned with the delivery of digital content to screens. Through Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition’s command of 70% of the US theatrical market, satellite delivery of DCPs to proprietary hardware has become the industry standard. However, as Rubinkowski argues, this model doesn’t serve the needs of the independent market, which cannot justify the costs for a smaller release. While there are smaller companies serving that market, the general trend is towards a standardisation of the theatrical film market, with a handful of companies becoming gatekeepers. Ian Robinson’s work on event cinema, Carter Moulton’s work on opening weekends, and Charlotte Orzel’s paper on ‘branded premium experiences’ now constituting almost half of the box office at multiplexes, all show that mainstream commercial exhibition isn’t giving up its love of exclusivity and tight grip on audience choice.

Toronto's Cineforum, holding out against premium branded experiences.

Toronto’s Cineforum, holding out against premium branded experiences.

On the other hand, non-theatrical exhibition was represented by a wild array of historical and contemporary practices. Nora Stone talked about the ITV Community Cinema, which toured PBS documentaries, pointing out that while commercial media counts on the market to increase diversity, public TV does it as part of its remit. In her talk about left-wing film distribution, Tanya Goldman pointed out that, while mainstream cinema distribution consolidated its corporate hierarchies, alternative left-wing film distribution was a collaborative process. The ideal of counter-cinema thus involved both content and context, using politically charged spaces and activating relationships between local organisations and global struggles in a practical way, through propaganda and fundraising. Diane Wei Lewis also talked about Japan’s Prokino (the Proletarian Film League), which took this grassroots approach to filmmaking and exhibition as “everyday interventions”, using first an underground mobile unit and then a network of local organisers. Politics aside, this has interesting parallels with the Highlands and Islands Film Guild, or the National Film Board of Canada, which also combined mobile units and fixed outposts, feeling that the latter allowed for a closer connection with the community.

It is a complex ecosystem, except that that metaphor suggests some kind of symbiotic harmony. There is interdependence, to be sure, but there is also domination. Not all networks are the same. It is hard to think of a historical example in which systematised data collection hasn’t led to an entrenchment of power and exclusion – and yet any emancipatory theory worth its salt has to be able to grasp and act on patterns. So in an academic world dominated by too much comparison, by constant rating and ranking, by shrinking research budgets given to fewer, bigger projects, I am glad cinema history retains its obscure nooks and crannies, its Luddite corners, its little ad-hoc datasets and its irreducibility. I’m glad too for the patient work of formatting data, cleaning spreadsheets, running stats, plotting graphs and maps to find out where all those anomalies fit in or stick out (or where, as Laura Isabel Serna reminded us in the last plenary, the margins constitute the centre). And I’m especially grateful for these opportunities to plug into other people’s curiosity, to weave this web knot by knot whether offline or on – opportunities that I certainly don’t take for granted.

Conference delegates at the Winter Gardens (photo: Paul Moore)


On Saturday 18 February 2017, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, the eighteen students enrolled in the Film Exhibition and Curation Masters at the University of Edinburgh presented “MOVE: A pop-up audio visual experience”. The event was part of coursework in their Applied Learning module. But it was not mere homework – it was an ambitious and inventive evening, taking more risks than any of the other pop-up screenings in the ‘Special Events’ strand. Instead of starting from a well-known feature film title and arranging the space and ancillary events around its plot and theme, the curators here started with a concept (move!) and experimented with its expression in and around film. Or rather – they dealt with the realities of putting on a show, collectively, over the holidays, on a tight budget, and with a big change of plans halfway through. As a learning experience, this is invaluable. I have had the pleasure to read some of the reflections produced by the students, which are nuanced and thoughtful and full of rich connections between the curatorial and film theory and their concrete project.

I had a chance to chat with about half of the group after their final lecture. They asked me to give collective rather than individual attribution to their remarks, and I have also paraphrased for clarity.

The Space

“This was one of the biggest challenges of the project, because we started with the idea that it was going to be happening at Waverley station, it was going to be a very different event. Then midway through the winter holidays that place fell through. and we had to completely reconfigure the way we thought, what this thing is, what the audience is going to do, what we are going to do, and Joytown found us”

One of the attractions of the event was its setting. Joytown is a new venue in a very old building. It is not, however, one of those obvious pieces of Victorian Heritage; it is, and has always been, an unassuming warehousey block where the attraction is inside. It is located on the North-Eastern edge of Glasgow’s city centre, a corner of the city that was badly mangled by the construction of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road in 1971. In the late 19th century, the Cowcaddens area had been notorious for its slum housing as well as its abundance of cheap music halls, theatres, and circuses. The building opened in the 1890s as part of the vast Olympia Hall, leased and transformed over the years by various entertainers who put on Wild West shows, pantomime, and variety. Most famously, it became the Scottish Zoo and Variety Circus in 1897, when legendary showman E. H. Bostock not only brought in exotic animals, but also the latest novelty – moving images.

Joytown Street View

After the First World War,  the building was put to various unglamorous uses, and languished for a while. In the 1990s, that corner of Cowcaddens was re-developed as ‘Chinatown’, with the opening of shops and restaurants to serve the Chinese community. The ground floor of the building now houses the Chinatown restaurant, a large cash-and-carry business and a seafood merchant. On the first floor, until last year, was Reardon’s Snooker centre. This is the part that is now being re-invented as Joytown, one of its old names. At the moment, however, it is a very austere space, to say the least.

“We started to believe in it when we saw the space. We had been taken aback by the change but also when we saw the pictures, we didn’t have a good feeling about that space, because it didn’t look like a space where you would have an exhibition. There was a lot of work to do to change it into something more welcoming to an audience […] It felt like a very big and empty space, so we had the challenge to visually fill it with our messages and the screen.”

The night before the screening there had been a clubnight at the venue so the curators had their work cut out. “We carried a lot of tables”… “we cleaned a lot on our hands and knees”… “Oh, the broken hoover!” The tables were set up cabaret-style. The decorations committee “used their own craft skills to make paintings, to make table decorations”: On each table there was a little battery-operated tealight and a bottle with the flag of an European country painted on it. There was also a programme with the film information and a postcard – a random, vintage postcard, on which the audience was invited to write their thoughts. The amount of collective effort put into the encounter with the audience was visible, and each element seemed to carry a different nuance of the overall sense of the event.

“I did some of my own research because I thought it would be a nice marketing tool. It used to be this massive entertainment complex and had the first zoo in Glasgow… there’s some weird history in that building. Films had been screened there since 1898, so we wanted to use that lineage. It underwent the history of many British cinemas, it was turned into a bingo hall and fell into disrepair, so we felt like ‘cinema is coming back, to where it once was’. I really enjoyed looking at that history.”

Having been used in various combinations of variety theatre, menagerie/zoo, fairground, cinema, skating rink and ballroom, that distant past of pictures and dancing is most appealing for a new life with, well, pictures and dancing. I knew about this history before coming to the event, and my experience was tinted by a yearning to find a connection to that past, to see a spark from their carbon arc projector shining through the century. For the less informed visitor, however, only the more recent history of the building is visible – emblazoned in its snooker livery and football score boards. It was up to the curators to tell a story about the space, as one of the various stories being told.


When the students first visited the venue, owner Paul introduced them to the history of the building. While he knows about the older entertainment venue part of the story, he has been more keen to emphasise the Chinatown location. This was however seen to be somewhat incongruous with the film programme’s European focus. “He had this idea of putting up Chinese decorations. There were a few elements here and there but we didn’t want this to be at the heart of the exhibition because it would clash with our programme.” Furthermore, the notion of Chinatown did not seem to be particularly compelling for Glasgow residents, as the area is very small and does not have the same significance as in other parts of the world.

This difference in ideas did not get in the way of other aspects of the collaboration with the venue. The owner was on hand to arrange supply of drinks, staff the bar, sort out electrics and tech set-up, and book a DJ for the after-party. When the planned caterers fell through, he also offered “the local knowledge of where we could get the food”. This collaboration was acknowledged with gratitude, and it was also not one-way only. Apart from all the cleaning and tidying, the curators feel like their event has had a lasting impact on the venue.

“He was refurbishing at the same time, so in a way our event also shaped the place. He kept the paintings, he kept quite a few elements of our event so now it’s part of the identity of that space. We were building our event while he was building the space.”

One of those decisions that may have left an imprint on the configuration of the venue was the decision to curtain off a section at the back of the venue as a separate screening room. Here, a different programme of films was shown, including a mash-up of scenes of movement and travel from various movies. A few beach chairs offered a change of posture.

“We had this idea of two screens quite early on, which was another way to break the space up, to give another point of interest towards the back of the venue, and we felt like it gave our idea a bit more texture, to have this other gallery-type of exhibition and then the more cinema-type at the front […] We tried to play on the theme of discovery, people discovering the space without us telling them what to expect. People had to bump into this. It’s exciting when you find something in a space that not everyone knows about, this Secret Cinema notion. A mystery space, this extra layer that a few people knew about and then word of mouth spread it.”

A smoke machine was used in this space, drawing inspiration from the steam that billows around the first film of the programme, the Lumière Brothers’ Arrival of A Train to La Ciotat (1896). That ‘train steam’ had the double effect of making the projector beam visible, and evoking the smoke-filled atmosphere of an old cinema. If it wasn’t for the beach chairs this would be like a little nickelodeon, even if it was intended more like a black-box gallery projection room. I saw the same kind of partition used a few weeks later, when Glasgow Short Film Festival used Joytown as a ‘VR Palace’. This shows how MOVE!’s resourceful solution to make the vast open-plan space more interesting was noted and adopted, potentially informing future uses of the venue.

The programme

“It was more than just the films being screened, it was an event happening around us. The way we relayed this on social media was as ‘a cabaret event with film as its main act’, which I think is a nice way to frame it.”

The film component of the evening included ten short films in two sections. The order of the films was carefully planned for variety and balance, with each section featuring some animation, some dance, and some archive material. The programme was shaped equally by concept and necessity. Budget and time set boundaries as to what films could be included. “We were sourcing quite close to the event […] Especially the short films, it was about what we could get and then making it fit into the whole programme”. The challenge produced an inventive, surprising programme, enriched by live music, dance, and words. Two abstract films by Margaret Tait, chosen with advice from Tait expert Dr Sarah Neely, filled the room with colour and joyful music. This found a contemporary echo in the playful Latvian short Choir Tour (Edmunds Jansons, 2012), a crowd favourite. Two very different traditions of experimental film shifted the tone: First was Lithuania’s Ecce Homo (Vidmantas Baciulis, 1972), a once-supressed record of a theatre avant-garde with earnest liberatory politics; then, Enrico Cocozza’s Masquerade (1953) represented that bizarre mid-century moment when Scottish amateur cinema was equal parts bourgeois parlour game and Freudian adventure. Orgesticulanismus (Mathieu Labaye, 2008) was an incredible animation that re-imagined the joy of movement from the perspective of someone who has lost their physical mobility. Another animation and a dance video completed the two sets.


At the heart of each half, however, was a 15 minute compilation of archive footage from the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. The students had edited this, showcasing the new kinds of skills that the role of a moving image curator may entail in the era of Audiovisualcy. The band Sink accompanied the archive films with their delicate extemporising on accordion, violin and soprano saxophone. Their involvement came about through their previous work with producer Shona Thomson, who is a guest tutor on the MSc and mentored the students through the project. Shona has extensive experience producing live cinema events, especially working with archive film and live music. Last year she produced a Scotland-wide tour of the 1926 animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed, with live accompaniment by Sink.


For the last film, two dancers performed in front of their screen, only their silhouettes visible against the bright colours. This spatial arrangement was unrehearsed, and the curators recognised that “the dancers were difficult to see [but] because where the projector was, the dancers went over the screen a bit, it was a nice relationship between the dancers and the films being screened.” While I could indeed barely see them from where I was sitting, their presence somehow grounded the evening’s theme with the corporeality of their movement: Liveness made tangible as a shadow on the screen. I was moved by the emergence of something new in that unrehearsed intersection between film, music, and bodies in movement.

“This constellation, with the music part, the dance part, the archive mixes we created for the event, is never going to happen again, so that makes it live and – we hate this word – a unique kind of thing. But I think it worked really well. Looking at the feedback, most people loved it; a few sceptics were looking at the dancers as being maybe too much distraction from the basic idea of accompanying archive film with live music. But I think everyone agreed that the music worked really well and it gave it this variety aesthetic and was also very spontaneous.”

Another aspect of cinema liveness that is easily taken for granted is the spoken word that precedes the films. Here the research and argument that underpin the programme are offered to the audience. The two presenters were confident and professional (though they say it is their first time), neither pompous nor patronising. Taking the introductions as a serious part of the programme, rather than a throwaway couple of lines, sets a good example for all film exhibitors. The Lithuanian film, which was perhaps the most challenging for the audience, was contextualised with an informative, poetic and passionate introduction, and the voice-over was translated live. This not only added to the sense of discovering a gem that we would have not found otherwise (brought back from the vaults of a national film archive), but also shows that the lack of subtitles is not a good enough reason not to screen something.

The audience

 “We didn’t expect people to stay sitting for the whole time, and most of them didn’t move from their seats.”

The change of venue from Waverley Station to Joytown entailed a complete rethink of the audience and of the behaviour expected of them. “When it was going to be in Waverley, it was the intention that it would be on a big screen and people would be walking through, there wasn’t going to be any seating. We imagined an audience that would be there for fifteen minutes, watch it and then move on. So when it became Joytown suddenly we had an evening when people were going to come in and sit down, and watch something.”

This image of the transient audience metamorphosed into an idea of a somewhat mobile audience. Rather than being set up in rows, seating was around tables, and the offer of a free drink and availability of a couple of food options were intended to encourage people to move around the space. The fragmented nature of the programme also provided more ‘exit points’ for anyone wanting a change of scene, and this was reassuring for the programmers, as it took some pressure off the main selection: “Because we were not so confident that our main screen would attract so much attention, that people might get distracted, we wanted to have other things on the side”. However, people had other ideas: “The main programme was really successful, people were captivated by the main exhibition.” Hence, that mobile audience didn’t really materialise on the night. The lights were kept on during the archive films, while the band played. When the lights went down, however, it was interesting to observe how people interpreted this a command to be quiet and watch the film.


P1050757 This was interpreted by some of the curators as a result of conventional expectations: “I think it’s the habit…  You buy a ticket to see something and people don’t think of getting up, because you have the screen, something’s on, and even live music, what else do you want? I think people were happy to sit down and enjoy the show in a relatively passive way.” At the same time, there are also things that could have been done differently: “For people to move around more, we could’ve spaced the tables more […] it could have been longer, there could’ve been more time, longer breaks, longer pauses. We could also have offered more of an incentive for people to get up, like more food […] the realities of having to organise the event meant some of those extra things fell through.”

In other aspects, however, audience response was closer to that envisioned. People ‘got’ the theme and enjoyed making connections between the films. The breadth of the topic created space for thinking, and there was an invitation to share those thoughts on assorted vintage postcards which allowed for a more personal, less tick-box approach to feedback.

“The postcards gave us so many things to reflect on. I was struck by how many different interpretations they had about what we were trying to say with the programme, but how they were all floating around the same kind of idea of unity and connection across borders and barriers. I think we did somehow create some clear message that people picked up on, but that was almost accidental. We felt like it was a bit random what we were doing and it was all driven by necessity and circumstance”

The gap between the raucous, mercenary Joytown of a hundred years ago and the thought-provoking experience offered that night is unbridgeable. This is not a zoo nor a carnival. However, this is still a space for thrills. An interesting observation is that the novelty of the space contributed to the audience’s willingness to engage with an unexpected, experimental programme:

“Because this venue is not a traditional theatrical screening venue, I feel like the people are happy to sit there to receive something that is new […] If we had screened the whole programme in a traditional theatre, it wouldn’t have worked, the effect wouldn’t have been as good. The mix of live music, the bar – it is a new experience. People were taking pictures of the space, as well […] as somewhere they hadn’t been before, that was really exciting, and then running these different films to them in this completely new space”.

Towards the end of our conversation, the group tell me that their tutor, Susan Kemp, described the event as ‘a happening’, and they have come to identify with that label. In its situated activation of a curated programme, its one-night-only alchemy, MOVE was perhaps more purposeful than a traditional ‘happening’. However, it embraced the openness of the moment, it allowed meaning to emerge in the gaps between things. MOVE was full of experimentation and discovery, it challenged its creators as much as it rewarded its audiences, and it’s difficult to imagine a more successful learning experience for these emerging curators.


Post-script: The first published version of this post implied that only a mash-up loop was shown in the partitioned space, and therefore missed the connection to the Lumière film. I am grateful to Noemi who contacted me with additional information and corrected this imprecision.


Thank you to the students who shared their time and reflections with me: Noemi Lemoine Blanchard, Camilla Baier, Rachel Pronger, Lennard Kroeger-Petersen, Guangyun Liu, Katy Wale, James McLaren, Paulina Drėgvaitė, Federico D’Accinni, Richard Tanner, Amy Lea.

Thank you to Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars, directors of the MSc.

Other people’s fandoms

One of the peculiar things about conducting research on certain forms of film exhibition is that I end up watching lots of films that I would not have chosen to watch otherwise. I choose my viewing according to place, rather than title. This makes for an eclectic viewing experience, especially when applied to the intensified frame of a film festival.

Glasgow Film Festival was on last month, and I did not go to any theatrical screenings or watch any of the main programme strands. Instead I went to several of the ‘special events’. This strand has been gaining strength year on year, and it has developed a certain character, with recurring features. Like last year’s Where You’re Meant to Be (Paul Fegan, 2016), this year one of the most popular events was Lost in France (Niall McCann, 2017), screened in a music venue and accompanied with a live gig. There was again an excellent event, MOVE!, organised by the MSc students in Film Exhibition and Curation in Edinburgh (I hope to write more about this in another post). But six of the ten ‘special events’ were not new releases at all, nor part of a retrospective strand. Instead, over the last few years Glasgow has developed a successful stream of ‘eventified’ repertory films. Part of this strategy is what Lesley-Ann Dickson has called ‘spatio-textual programming’, so that a match is sought between film and screening location; live performances or audience activities add further value (Dickson 2014: 150). So, for instance:

  • Dirty Dancing was shown in the Oran Mor’s ballroom, preceded by a tribute dance act and a slice of watermelon;
  • The Thing was screened at -5C in an indoor ski slope, after a themed pub quiz;
  • The Princess Bride was a family event featuring a treasure hunt and a fencing demonstration;
  • and perhaps most successfully, the offbeat vampire thriller The Lost Boys was screened at an amusement park

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All these are fairly mainstream 1980s productions that have acquired varying levels of cult afterlife. What counts as ‘cult’ depends on who you ask, but two common denominators of cult film watching are repeat viewing and ritualistic practices (Mathjis and Sexton 2011: 3). These ways of engagement serve to create a sense of community stretching over time for a relatively small but committed audience. For those outside that sphere, the appeal may not be obvious: had I not been doing this for work, I would not have parted with £14 to watch any of them. I was only vaguely aware of most of these films before booking the tickets, so it was rather surprising to see how much they meant to other people. Festival programmers know what they’re doing by putting on event screenings that encourage the ‘active celebration’ element of cult cinema. Many of the events were sold out long in advance. But what was most interesting was the distinctive character of each of these crowds, and how they differed from my own assumptions about cult audiences.

I must be clear that my project is not an audience research one, but I continued to think about these topics while sitting in a lecture last week by my colleague Dr Becky Bartlett, who was covering the ‘Fandom’ week in our Understanding Audiences course. In her lecture, Becky showed a clip from Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009), in which the makers of Troll 2 (the aforementioned ‘worst’ movie) try to promote a revival of the film through different spaces associated with genre and exploitation films. They are first overwhelmed by the hundreds of adoring fans that turn out for a DIY screening in a New York basement, but find only blank stares at sci-fi and horror festivals.

While there are people who see themselves as cult cinema fans, most cult fandom is more specific. At Glasgow, there were quite distinct audiences, behaving in particular ways, for the films I saw. Almost only women for Dirty Dancing, more mixed and younger audiences in friendship groups for The Thing and The Lost Boys, mainly straight-presenting couples for Secretary, and parents with children for The Princess Bride. The more mainstream acceptability of the festival context makes these good sites for the ‘cult’ to grow, as people attend with their friends and partners. At the Princes Bride screening, for instance, the process of deliberate cultural reproduction was quite evident. Adults were using the opportunity to socialise with one another, but also to introduce their children to a favourite film – or to re-introduce it as a collective experience rather than a DVD at home.

The most rewarding forms of audience activity at these events, then, depend on familiarity with the film, and recognise people’s existing investment in it. The audiences for Dirty Dancing and Lost Boys cheered, whooped, and shouted out key snippets of memorised dialogue. (An obvious observation that is still worth making is that the availability of alcohol before and after some of the screenings had an observable effect on audience participation.) Decor and activities before the screening also set the tone to be more playful and participatory. But that effort is mostly lost on uninitiated viewers, like me. I felt out of my depth most of the time. At The Lost Boys, I missed out on the stage-setting details scattered around the amusement part or on the significance of the location itself. My attempt to dress up as a cool 1980s vampire was half-hearted. In comparison, there were a few hundred people who had absolutely made an effort. The line between cosplay and an 80s-inspired Friday night outfit was blurred, much more than with the rather coy interpretations of S&M to be found at the screening of Secretary. On the one hand, there is not a huge style gap between 1980s vampire bad-boy and modern ‘ironic mullet’ hipster. On the other, these lighthearted cosplayers were comfortable in a fannish persona but hardly defined by their fan identities. Again, Lesley-Ann Dickson has written about Glasgow Film Festival audiences in much more detail and has outlined GFF’s approach to event programming (Dickson forthcoming). What I want to note is how successful the Festival has been in attracting both cult and novelty/nostalgia audiences who may not be interested in the contemporary arthouse core programme.

From the perspective of my own research on pop-up cinema, the fact that restricted and ritualised exhibition is so strongly associated with cult spectatorship is important. It places the pop-up as both a unique experience and a repeat viewing. The intensity of cult viewing is different from the immersion of the cinephile festivalgoer, so the time-limited nature of the event works differently in both cases. I’m aware I’m only scratching the surface here, so your comments are very welcome.

More images from these events can be found on the Festival’s Flicker page.


Dickson, Lesley-Ann. Forthcoming. ‘Screening Spaces: Spatio-Textual Programming & Alternative Modes of Spectatorship at Film Festivals’, in Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy (eds) Live Cinema: Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury.
Dickson, Lesley-Ann. 2014. ‘Film Festival and Cinema Audiences: A Study of Exhibition Practice and Audience Reception at Glasgow Film Festival’. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
Mathjis, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. 2011. Cult Cinema. Malden, Mass: John Wiley.