Volunteer-led and not for profit cinemas are a significant sub-sector of the UK's film exhibition network, bringing film culture to communities that have no local cinema and allowing greater access to specialised film forms for those who find the commercial offer lacking.
Many of these groups are members of Cinema For All, an organisation who support community cinema exhibition in many ways on a year round, ongoing basis, as well as through a series of targeted initiatives. As Katherine Sellar, Chair of the Board of Trustees, has said in this year's annual report:
"Up and down the country more people are taking cinema into their own hands and bringing film to their communities"
The report identified around 1000 such groups in the UK in 2015/2016.
"For some, it is the only way for people in their area to go to the cinema at all. For others, it is a way to bring their passion for specialist film to a wider audience".
My first solo cinema project started in 2014, this was to develop the back room of a much loved Leeds bar and restaurant into the Little Reliance Cinema, which is still going strong.
This year I have set up Film Fringe to act an intermediary creative and brokering partner for new cinema initiatives in Leeds where I live, and to hold one-off film events in ever more places.
With the help of my friend Alice Miller, Film Fringe has screened films in several venues this year, including Left Bank Leeds, Headingley Heart Centre, Wharf Chambers and Leeds College of Art. We had some brief adventures in Salford in the summer and are planning even more activity for 2017!
This year Film Fringe has joined Cinema For All, which currently has 716 members. It was exciting to be going to this event during what has been a special year for Cinema For All; 2016 is the year in which they celebrated their 70th anniversary.
The conference was held at (and around) the Showroom cinema in Sheffield. Proceedings kicked off on Friday night with a screening of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and film critic and exhibition programmer Ashley Clark was in attendance, drawing attention to the BFI’s Black Star season currently happening in venues across the UK. This was followed by a bit of a party.
I was working at the Leeds International Film Festival that night, so couldn't get to the opening do. (The festival celebrated its 30th Anniversary this year, holding events in 30 different venues in and around Leeds - one of these was Mill Hill Chapel, a temporary venue where I was looking after a screening of a 1968 BBC adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come To You).
The next day however I was up bright and early and off on the train to Sheffield for two packed days of film screenings, panel discussions and social events.... and thankfully, bottomless flasks of coffee and sandwiches too.
After the morning's welcome speeches, there were different activities choose from. I decided to spend the first session of the day watching an advance screening of the new Pablo Larraín film Neruda. I absolutely loved his earlier film No! when it was out (and have enjoyed every film I've seen with Gael García Bernal in).
This one did not disappoint; it is noirish and beautiful, it tells the story of an episode in the life of a Chilean cultural icon, poet and politician Pablo Neruda.
Larraín's tale is a woozy and historically uncertain biopic in which Bernal plays a fictitious police officer Óscar Peluchonneau, who develops an imaginary dialogue with Neruda as he hunts the fugitive poet into exile. Both Picasso and General Augusto Pinochet appear briefly in this story, the latter running a concentration camp in the desert, a warning of things to come.
Coming out of this atmospheric screening and into the bright lights of the Showroom at lunchtime was disorienting, but straight away I got talking to Manchester and Salford Film Society who shared with me some details their most recent programme of screenings taking place at their regular venue, Altrincham Little Theatre. They also told me about a wonderful German film residential retreat they are organising at a Manchester Hotel and Conference centre they are running next year - contact them for details of this.
According to the archive record at Salford's Working Class Movement Library, this particular film society actually predates the founding of Cinema for All (formerly the British Federation of Film Societies). Their first screening took place in November 1930, when they were a 'Worker's' film society.
This small but important historical detail gets to the heart of why many community cinemas exist and one compelling thing that I wanted to explore by attending this conference is where and how the history of this 'movement' is archived and by whom, as well as how current activity is being recorded and shared.
The Federation of Workers Film Societies was founded in Great Britain in 1929, the film societies it represented screened films from Soviet Russia and avant garde or experimental films to their members.
The majority of films at this time being screened to a paying audience in the commercial cinemas were from Hollywood (sound familiar?) and films that took a political stance on, for example, British royalty, the state of British Empire holdings or the scandal of inter racial relationships, could be subject to censorship in the UK *.
It's great to be able to have an opportunity to talk to people who have this connection with the early days of film clubs and societies.
After a bit of socialising over lunch, I joined the panel discussions in the afternoon.
'The Champions' session included three presentations and a discussion. First we heard from Amanda Randell from Screen St Ives and Julia Vickers from Bracknell Film Society, both well established film clubs that are filling a gap in their communities and presenting films on a minimum of a monthy basis to a paying audience. The Bracknell group have records of their activities going back to 1959 which are archived at their local records office, while Amanda mentioned the benefits of having a volunteer member with bookbinding skills to archive their posters etc.
Then Scalarama and Small Cinema Liverpool organiser Michael Pierce delivered his spirited presentation on some of his own cinema champions, which included Jonas Mekas, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Ben Barenholtz, Amos Vogel, Verena von Stackelberg, Jessie Maple, and Lani Jo Leigh, who owns and runs The Clinton Street Theater Portland, Orgeon, famous for hosting neverending screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Michael Pierce is also one half of Cinema Nation, who create and promote innovative cinema projects as well as organising the annual Scalarama festival. They recently ran 'I want to be a cinema' training workshops and have started an initiative called 58% to promote films made by women.
"Film's independent sector is a nation"
said Michael, as he reflected on his choice of name. He also raised the idea that community cinema equated with indigenous people who have become "surrounded" but are fighting back. Whenever a cinema is closed or demolished it brings out the protesters onto the streets, he pointed out, and also mentioned the ongoing Ritzy living wage campaign in Brixton. Access to cinema is for many a political concern.
I also hope that somebody somewhere is doing the research on how much the activities of film and film societies contribute to film industry income year on year, because as another member of Cinema for All at the conference pointed out, "it isn't pence".
After the break there was a choice - go to see Life, Animated or sit in on another panel 'The Vanguard' - I decided on the panel and was happy that I did so, as it was inspiring to hear from new groups such as Nottingham Alternative Film Network, pop-up group In-Situ and Deptford Cinema about how they engage their audiences (for example by cooking for them) and on the recent good fortune the latter group has had in getting Glenda Jackson on board with their campaign to retain their space!
The 47th Film Society of the Year awards took place on saturday night, which meant festivities and another party. Thanks to Film Hub North I had a place to stay for the night, so I jumped on my bike after this session to drop off my bag and change. At 6pm we assembled back at the Showroom with a complimentary bag of popcorn each in time to hear Deborah Parker introduce the guests of honour and start the popular ceremony.
Awards for the Best New Society, Best Film Programme, Best Student Cinema etc were presented by Danny Leigh. Some categories had up to 10 film societies shortlisted.
Film Fringe picked up a 'distinction' for Best Single Event, which was for a screening in July which I have written about here.
Film Society of the Year went to Deptford Cinema, a community led and not for profit venue for film and arts in Lewisham, providing an affordable place to watch films in a London borough that previously had no cinema at all.
The Roebuck Cup for lifelong service to the Film Society movement was awarded to Marjorie Ainsworth, who has been a member of the aforementioned Manchester and Salford since 1939.
There is a full list of the 2016 winners here.
A bit of gossiping and eating and even dancing back at the Workstation rounded off what had been a fab day.
Back at the conference early the next morning, panel #4 'The Originators' was all about the Scottish community cinema experience, chaired by Morvern Cunningham whose enthusiasm for the topics being discussed partially dissolved our collective hangover.
First we heard about a grassroots project supported by Cinema For All, which has been running in certain areas in Scotland this year. The Grow Your Own Cinema project aimed to develop skills within community groups to hold screenings for themselves and link them together to form a new network.
Matt Kitson then talked about the joys and difficulties of setting up his project Driftwood Cinema, a mobile cinema service for Dumfries and Galloway, that has been designed for the reality of rural life. His model revolves around the logistics of lending portable equipment as well as film programming for and with community groups, his presentation was inspiring and full of brilliant achievements.
There were also talks from Tony Stewart on film education projects happening in libraries in Edinburgh and Marc David Jacobs who gave an informative talk on the history of Edinburgh Film Guild, which claims to be the world's oldest continually running film society, starting in 1929.
After the break for lunch, there was time for another film before I had to be back in Leeds.
Sonita is a brilliant documentary and is one I'd be looking to screen myself except that The Hyde Park Picture House have it in their programme on 26th and 27th November, so instead I'll just direct you to those two screenings and leave it on my list of future films, for now.
The film's subject matter is urgent. A teenage Afghani girl uses rap music to protest against child marriage, an issue that is affecting her own future choices. In the film she and film maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami form a brave and confrontational partnership to thoroughly challenge a culture that disapproves of women even singing, let alone posting rap videos on YouTube.
After the screening all who were present shared ideas about how we could contextualise this film in our own local areas, and which partner organisations could help us as exhibitors to reach the people who would really connect with the issues.
If there's one thing I took away from this conference it is just how much open mindedness and support exists among the members of Cinema For All and it is important that we feel connected to something bigger, as there is an ever-present threat of burn out when running these voluntary organisations. It is always also a fantastic act of kindness when one group organises an event like this for others to enjoy and I really appreciated all the hard work that went into making it such an enjoyable weekend!
* If you are interested in the history of the Workers' Film Movement in Europe, a good place to start is Bert Hogenkamp's book:
Deadly Parallels: Film and the Left in Britain 1929-39 (Lawrence and Whishart, 1986).