With the cost-of-living crisis, energy prices hiked, and our rapidly changing government, there has been much instability throughout most of 2022. The question of art and culture in terms of its longevity and value within our current society has been raised a concerning amount of times this year, and the news of Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen all going into administration has galvanised those invested in Scotland’s film community to campaign and fight to keep cultural institutions alive.
Filmmakers Mark Cousins and Paul Sng are both actively involved in the Save the Filmhouse campaign, having organised vigils and petitions to raise awareness. Mark and Paul took some time out of their projects and campaign to speak with SNACK about their motives and hopes for the campaign, as well as outlining the void that would be left by the Filmhouse closing its doors.
With the Filmhouse boarded up, it was fantastic to see that you are both behind a campaign to save it, whatever form that might take. Can you explain a little about the campaign?
Paul: Well, it’s still taking shape, really, I don’t think we quite know exactly what it is. Other than that it’s to save the Filmhouse, but not just to save it as it was – if it comes back it needs to be something that’s more inclusive, something edgier, something that reaches young people, people of colour, and is more accessible to people with disabilities. Also, it’s not about that building, which isn’t really fit for purpose as a modern day cinema. Does it have to be on Lothian Road? Could it be in Leith? Could it be somewhere else? So, the campaign is still taking shape at this stage.
Mark: I think for me, the thing in this interim phase is [that] whilst the Filmhouse has gone under for a while, and hopefully it will return, you have to keep the flame alive. The campaign is about showing the desire for it, the need for it, if anything, by increasing the desire for it. I always remember what happened with BBC 6 Music: when it was threatened there was a big campaign for it. And when it came back, the listenership went up quite a lot. I think the campaign is about visibility and saying that this is needed. For some people it will be just very nostalgic to reopen it, nostalgic for bricks and mortar things. But it must be rethought for the 21st century.
A very basic question, but as for your motives in being involved in this campaign, what would you both like to see come from this?
Mark: The main aim is the politicians are listening, that Creative Scotland are listening, and therefore the pressure needs to be kept applied on those people.
Paul: As a call to action, it’s showing that there is a love and an appetite, but in the meantime, what else can there be? Surely there is the appetite for arthouse cinema, films that are not brand new films, because they are more difficult to access.
Mark: Yeah, that’s true. As we know, over the years when the Filmhouse started, the world was a different place, and now Vue and Cineworld show Hindi films and Tamil films, and French films and Spanish films, and classic films and restored films. So there’s been a lot of shifting sands and a lot of people can get stuff on Amazon Prime etc. But what the Filmhouse did so uniquely was emphasise deep and wide programming; there was a depth to it – none of these people would do a real series on Arab cinema, for example, or specific types of activist documentary. So, there’s still a lot of ground, deep, wide ground, in film culture that only the Filmhouse would do. I really welcome Cineworld’s interest in Hindi and Tamil cinema, I think that’s fantastic for the culture. But it’s that deep stuff, and it’s harder to put that deep stuff on a stop gap, isn’t it? A lot of my friends are telling me that nearly all the great young directors coming out of Egypt are female. That’s classic Filmhouse stuff, and that takes time. So I’m in this campaign as a fan of the Filmhouse. I’m prepared to wait a few months, go on a kind of abstinence of the sort of stuff that we got from the Filmhouse, until a new idea, a new model for what that should be can come along, and then let’s give it laldy, let’s all lend our shoulders to that wheel and get all the key figures in film culture who are ready to help – that’s when we all apply pressure to a new model that really works.
Paul: Yeah, a lot is coming out now about the problems there have been for years. But I don’t think it’s worth getting into a blame-assigning exercise about the previous board, though I think there needs to be an awareness to the public that if it is to come back, the people at the CMI [Centre for the Moving Image, the charitable organisation involved with funding the Filmhouse and other venues] responsible for it – we all know who I’m talking about – are nowhere near it. In the public’s perception, they might think, ‘they ran it into the ground once, how come it’s coming back?’ And I think that’s not quite clear enough yet.
Mark: I think it’s necessary that they have to start with a new top level, and are reduced to top level as well – it has to be a discussion about the future. There are lots of examples where ambitious thinking considers what a film building is and can maximise the culture, but minimise the running cost in some ways. It’s happening everywhere with some success, and we need to think internationally.
And what’s the situation with the EIFF at this moment? From what I can gather, it can be salvaged?
Mark: I think it will happen next year. It’ll be umbrellaed for a year or two under another organisation, which can receive funds in order to donate to the Filmhouse so it can run. The Film Festival was in a transition phase anyway and I think that last year’s was a rather successful step into a direction of artistic credibility. What I’m hearing – I’m no insider exactly – is that it’ll definitely go along in an umbrella form for one or two years, until a more permanent solution can be found.
With your petition I see you’ve almost attained your goal, with just under 23,000 signatures. There’s obviously a real desire for something positive to come from this campaign. The government has to address it in Parliament, which is something, right?
Paul: At the first meeting there were people from Screen Scotland there, people from Edinburgh Council and someone from the Scottish Government. I think they are listening.
Mark: I feel a sense of depression, or a sort of inevitability about it, or something. There needs to be a new plan, a new model, that will lighten the burden, and it’ll really make a Filmhouse that will exist for another 50 years.
And with the concern around heating venues, the Filmhouse is not the only one that has an uncertain future with the upcoming months. Do you feel the weight on your shoulders in terms of not taking this lying down?
Paul: It’s a campaign that from the very beginning doesn’t have a hierarchy – people take it in turn to chair and the notes are shared publicly. Mark and I are both filmmakers. And that’s what we do; we make films and we both have three or four projects on the go. We don’t have time to run it. But it’s not too much trouble to initially start a petition and get a few people together, and then lend your voice to it and make introductions to other people. So, the pressure is on the film community, I suppose.
Mark: Yeah, I agree with that. I feel a wee bit of pressure because over the years I feel I’ve got so much from films, particularly inspiration about making other films. And to think that young people won’t have the same opportunities to see really unusual stuff. I’m also very lucky that I’ve travelled a lot with my work, and I’ve seen film culture buildings all around the world, so I feel I’ve had the opportunity to learn from other experiences. If I can bring some of that learning to the conversation, then I’ll be very pleased to do so.
What other projects have you ongoing at the moment? Mark, I recently received news about a project in collaboration with the Fruitmarket, Like A Huge Scotland.
Yes, I made a film about the rise of fascism, and I was in Italy last week on the day that the new far-right Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, was announced. I’m showing my film that night, and she appears in it. It’s quite a timely film about the rise of fascism and the far right. As you know, it’s happening in several places. And then I’ve got a film about Alfred Hitchcock coming out in a few months as well.
Paul: Timing’s everything with political films, isn’t it? G. K. Chesterton wrote ‘coincidences are spiritual puns,’ and I think sometimes there’s something going on beyond what we’ve worked out. I’m working on a film about a photographer called Tish Murtha that we’re editing at the moment and will be coming out at some point at a film festival next year. I’m also working on a film about Irvine Welsh that we’ve shot, which will probably go into the edit in January. The other two projects are kind of in development and too early to discuss, I don’t want to curse them!
To find out more about the efforts to save the Filmhouse, check out the Twitter campaign.