Some of the BTM team were lucky enough to make the journey to the Truck Theatre in Hull, the UK’s City of Culture, for this year’s This Way Up Conference. This Way Up is the UK’s annual film exhibition conference and is particularly important for our project because it draws together many of our partners and stakeholders to discuss the ‘live’ issues that our work is seeking to address.
Within minutes of arriving at the venue I started talking to a representative from Hull Independent Cinema, an organisation that shows specialised films in a range of venues across the city but which lacks a permanent home. I’d heard about the work of HIC during our pilot study, which explored the provision of specialised film in the North, and it was fascinating to get an insight, however brief, into the challenges and opportunities of such a venture. It was a further reminder, too, that this is very much an industry built on passion: a sense that to exhibit cinema is to celebrate and to advocate for the medium.
I went into the keynotes with this sense of the social and cultural value of exhibition in mind, but provocative presentations from Simran Hans, and Jenny Sealey in particular suggested that passion for film had, more than ever, to be married with an ethics of access and participation. Hans largely took aim at the unethical working practices of elements of the exhibition sector in London and highlighted the exploitation of freelance labour, while Sealey was focused specifically on the representation and employment (or lack thereof) of D/deaf people within the wider culture industry. Sealey in particular called on exhibitors to stop showing films where actors ‘crip up’, that is the practice of able bodied actors playing disabled characters.
These provocations set the tone for a conference which was very much about the sector critically reflecting on its values to discuss what constitutes ethical practice in exhibition. The resulting discussions drew out a range of thoughtful engagements from the audience, but its worth singling out Dave Moutrey from HOME in Manchester, who identified the need to avoid a solely metropolitan context in discussions around diversity, ethics, and access. Thinking through questions of provision and cultural value, as our research does, demands engagements with questions of regional inequalities. Indeed, the conference opened with an inspirational presentation about the power of culture in Hull over the last year, a city that is slowly finding the tools to tell a new story about itself but that still faces significant challenges to generate a sustainable and inclusive cultural offer.
It was also fascinating to learn about audience development work from a European perspective. Tarah Judah led a discussion with Boglarka Nagy about some of the ways in which the Elvire Popesco in Bucharest had worked to engage young people in cinematic experiences by generating relationships with them that went beyond the mere consumption of film texts in large spaces. This more holistic, ‘event-driven’ approach to engagement chimed with the experiences of exhibitors closer to home. There seemed, however, to be a mixture of hope and anxiety in the room about cultivating the audiences of tomorrow in the digital age. This was, of course, a theme that recurred throughout the event but it was heartening to hear multiple impassioned and evidence-based defences of the collective cinematic experience circulate alongside a nuanced, non-adversarial take on the widening and increasingly disruptive digital landscape. But Simran Hans probably had her finger on the pulse of the majority of delegates when she described VOD as: ‘[a] good way of widening access that will never replace the sacred space of the cinema.’
These questions of technology and contemporary screen cultures were picked up in day 2 in a fascinating discussion between Anna Kime, Will Massa, and Tara Judah about the future of the archive, with delegates prompting thought provoking dialogues about the ways in which video game cultures resist archival collection, and I was left wondering about the potential of a ‘specialised’ gaming culture. The audience also raised points about the politics of place in relation to archives, and the BFI’s role in stimulating engagements with the local and the regional through mechanisms such as the BFI Player.
Earlier, a very timely and informative discussion of safeguarding at cultural events, led by Melanie Iredale, took place in the main space – this conference is as much about providing delegates with tools for action as it is about allowing the space to reflect critically and collectively and every aspect of exhibition.
Next year we’ll be returning to the conference to present some of our initial work and to draw on a range of perspectives to help shape the research as it develops. My experience of This Way Up ’17 was a reminder that this is exactly the forum for the kinds of challenging and productive dialogues that will give intellectual and practical direction to our work.
David Forrest is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the School of English at the University of Sheffield and Co-Investigator on Beyond the Multiplex.