Watching from the audience’s perspective

Helen Rana

What differentiates ‘Beyond the Multiplex’ from many other studies into film audiences is the way that it puts viewers right at the heart of our research.  Having interviewed 200 people individually, we are now holding 16 focus groups across the country to find out how viewers actually engage with specialised films.  Instead of analysing how a film has been put together by a producer, director or editor, we are studying how people make sense of what’s on the screen in front of them.

Showing focus group participants clips from four non-mainstream films – two British and two foreign – we have asked for their immediate responses to them.  It’s becoming evident that what people are seeing, hearing and understanding depends largely on their own life experiences. For instance, if a person watching I, Daniel Blake has ever spent time in a Job Centre, they tend to view the frustration of becoming entangled in an inflexible state benefits system through the memories of their own times in that situation.

They have also discussed the feeling that characters on-screen seem to exist and converse in ‘real-time’, with all the inarticulacies, awkwardness and difficulties of everyday life left in, instead of being edited out as they might be in a Hollywood blockbuster.  The chance to view seemingly authentic people in believable situations has enabled some participants to ‘almost imagine myself there’, while others said that the extra effort required to focus was like real life –  too hard, unappealing, not the relaxing, easy entertainment you would go to the cinema for.

This kind of disengagement is also providing interesting insights.  Someone faced with a touching farewell scene in Call Me By Your Name explained that he had seen too many similar departures at train stations to concentrate on the action.  But the lingering camera made it possible for him to admire the train itself instead.  Another viewer who felt uncomfortable about watching same-sex relationships was still able to enjoy the Yorkshire countryside pictured in God’s Own Country.  A similar point has been made in most of the focus groups we’ve held so far – that independent films give viewers more space to spend time in a scene, to look around at the landscape, or the train leaving the station, or to empathise with a character, rather than being obliged to focus on one specific element.  This is heightened by the way these films often lack an all-pervading musical score intended to compel your attention and emotional reactions into one particular direction, thus opening up diverse opportunities to gain pleasure from the same film in different ways.

Many of our participants have commented on the joy of seeing other countries, cultures and ways of life depicted on screen, which open up their eyes to the unknown or make them think about, or even challenge, their own knowledge and opinions.  Loveless stimulates discussions around work, love, marriage, family and the level to which each of these impacts on the others – do companies really have the right to dictate their employees’ marital status in Russia?  On the other hand, some clips have confirmed viewers’ preconceptions about certain kinds of film, one laughing as he calls Happy End a ‘typically French film’.

Some focus group members have said these are reasons why they enjoy watching non-mainstream films.  Others would normally avoid these kinds of films, either through personal preference or, more frequently, because they haven’t got the time to travel to a cinema which shows this kind of fare.  Although it is now easy to access films on DVD or online, several people have said that viewing them on a big screen in a darkened cinema as part of a larger audience provides a totally separate experience from watching them at home in the midst of other everyday distractions.  Cinema viewing creates concentration, immersion, imagination and reflection.

The focus groups are continuing.  So far these discussions have raised several intriguing themes: the lack of opportunity for people to watch non-mainstream films in a local cinema; the space that specialised films offer to engage with and move around inside a film, layering your own memories and ideas onto the characters, locations and narratives; and the realisation that people do not necessarily consume a film exactly as it is placed before them, but one comprised of the director’s cut intermingled with their own worldviews.  Could the creators of The Eagle Huntress, a documentary about a teenage girl in Kazakhstan defying her society’s gender conventions, really have expected it to transport someone in the audience back to the years she once spent in the Australian outback, stirring an urgent longing to return?