Screening it for themselves: young DIY British film programmers

Does the cinema space matter to millennials? Yes, and even more so when the films have been selected by their peers. Meet the young people creating their own cinema experiences.

Simran Hans
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Wadjda (2012), screening at the Deptford Cinema in July 2017

Wadjda (2012), screening at the Deptford Cinema in July 2017

“Young people don’t go to indie movies. The arthouse audience is retired!”, filmmaker Olivier Assayas recently told the Financial Times. According to the CEO of independent cinema chain Curzon, the average cinemagoer is over 40 years old.

This seems a pessimistic assessment: the BFI’s most recent statistical yearbook reported that 15-to-24-year-olds made up 29 percent of the UK cinema audience – the largest proportion. Young people are going to the cinema.

Over the past five years, there has been a particular movement by film festivals and independent cinemas to develop participatory programmes for young people. Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Youth Jury, Barbican’s Young Programmers initiative and the BFI’s Future Film Steering Group all offer young people direct input into a festival or venue’s film programme, in the hopes of attracting their peer groups to that venue. After all, who better to capture the interest of the coveted 16-25 age bracket than those in that demographic themselves? As director Christopher Nolan said during last year’s London Film Festival, surveys claiming young people don’t value the cinema experience are, in his words, “complete bollocks”.

Egil Haaskjold Larsen’s 69 Minutes of 86 Days was awarded the top prize by Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Youth Jury

Egil Haaskjold Larsen’s 69 Minutes of 86 Days was awarded the top prize by Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Youth Jury

In 2016, the BFI Film Audience Network set up a Young Programmers Network to sponsor the activity happening across 50-odd youth-led programming groups in operation all over the UK. In 2017, the London Short Film Festival advertised paid roles for pre-selectors aged 18-25, while the Independent Cinema Office recently held their first Young Audiences Screening Day, with training sessions targeted towards venues trying to create focused programmes specifically for young audiences – and cut-price tickets for young programmers wanting to attend.

A recent, exciting example is the Barbican’s Chronic Youth festival, which offered a weekend of “bold, brutal and beautiful coming of age films” chosen by a team of actual young people. Armed with a login for FestivalScope Pro (the VOD platform for industry professionals, home to films that have screened internationally) and a Google spreadsheet, the Barbican’s group of 16 were given six months to curate, market and deliver a film festival at London’s Barbican centre. It’s encouraging to see institutions investing in young voices in this way, providing them with the infrastructure, training and support to equip them with the experience needed for programming jobs – even if these jobs are increasingly rare, and increasingly outsourced to independent curators on the cheap, a problem in itself.

On the other hand, Deptford Cinema, a south London community collective run entirely by volunteers, is proof that film programming doesn’t have to be mediated by institutions. One such volunteer, 21-year-old Amos Levin, tells me that at the cinema “there is no hierarchy, meaning anyone can get involved with programming, marketing, construction, front of house duties etc”. This means that most screenings are individual projects, but he notes that “taking on all aspects of programming by yourself is a nightmare, so volunteers do everything they can to help each other.”

Pariah, chosen as June’s discussion film by the BFI Future Film Steering Group

Pariah, chosen as June’s discussion film by the BFI Future Film Steering Group

Another independent UK outfit is 22-year-old Emily Steele’s Cine-Sister. Steele describes the Manchester-born Cine-Sister as “a film programming organisation focused on promoting films made with female-identifying filmmakers in a leadership role”. Like Levin, Steele’s project required a DIY approach – though without the support of a team during its early stages, she’s had “problems with access to venues due to lack of money or experience, particularly with arts venues and small cinemas”. It seems at least some infrastructure is necessary.

Twenty-three-year-old Alexandra Osben is one of 12 members of the current BFI Future Film Steering Group, a group of 16-25 year-olds that programmes both a weekly screening at the BFI Southbank and a monthly discussion geared towards young audiences following a screening of their choice from the venue’s given programme (Dee Rees’ Pariah was June’s film, plucked from the Southbank’s Unbound: Visions of the black feminine season). Osben explained (by email) that youth-focused programming doesn’t “always mean the most easy-to-understand or least aesthetically innovative”, but rather films sufficiently stimulating to provoke a desire “to discuss with other young people afterwards”.

Millennium Mambo, programmed in the Barbican’s Chronic Youth festival

Millennium Mambo, programmed in the Barbican’s Chronic Youth festival

Hooking their curatorial choices to the theme of ‘youth’, Chronic Youth’s programme was defiantly anti-auteurist, guided instead by the age of the films’ protagonists. Their most compelling curatorial choice was also its most classical: for the festival’s finale, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s 2001 film Millennium Mambo was paired with two of Mia Hansen-Løve’s early shorts. The young programmer responsible, 23-year-old Ross McDonnell, was inspired by Hansen-Løve’s ten Greatest Films of All Time list for Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll, which included Mambo. Seeking out her recommendations after enjoying her 2015 club odyssey Eden, McDonnell saw the links between both filmmakers’ elliptical approaches to the theme of time passing. (Indeed, the parallels between the two films are striking, from their throbbing techno soundtracks to non-linear narratives, and their shared interest in the way the habit of being hungover can breed existential ennui.)

“It [Mambo] doesn’t have a distributor, doesn’t have a sales agent and isn’t on DVD, so the only access anybody has is illegally torrenting it,” says McDonnell. “Our programme offered legal access.” Here in the UK the film premiered at the London Film Festival but has since remained undistributed, although the print is very occasionally brought out for Hou retrospectives (such as the BFI’s own in 2015) and repertory screenings. One such instance was this, with both Mambo and Hansen-Løve’s 2003 debut Après mûre réflexion screened from 35mm prints – subtitled by McDonnell himself.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden – inspired by Millennium Mambo?

Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden – inspired by Millennium Mambo?

According to 22-year-old Grace Barber-Plentie, one third of London-based collective Reel Good Film Club, the UK’s independent programming scene is thriving. “At the moment, there are so many amazing organisations and film clubs who do very similar things to what we do… I don’t think there’s competition because of this; it means we can worry a lot less that if we don’t screen this film, nobody will.”

Barber-Plentie programmes films for her younger self – “I try and think of myself, particularly when I was bored out of my mind at university and looking for something beyond the canon” – as well as what she and her co-programmers think their audience would want to see. Levin, of the Deptford Cinema, likewise leans heavily on his own personal taste, and has programmed, among an impressive variety of features, “a mini-season of contemporary East Asian cinema alongside free monthly screenings in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre.” Steele’s Cine-Sister project is explicitly political: her female-directed programme originated as a sidebar in the 2017 edition of Manchester’s Wonder Women Festival, its launch screening comprising “seven short films that dealt with themes such as gender, race, religion, body and identity using animation, fiction and documentary”.

Despite their disparate interests, there is an underlying ethos that seems to link these fledgling programmers: both the DIY programmers and those supported by institutions emphasised the importance of cinemas. There was a uniformity to the way all of them answered my wildcard question: does the big (public) screen matter, or is going to the movies a pleasure reserved for format nerds?

Vaishnavi Sundar’s short Go Ahead and Take Left screened in the Cine-Sister programme at Manchester’s 2016 Wonder Women Festival

Vaishnavi Sundar’s short Go Ahead and Take Left screened in the Cine-Sister programme at Manchester’s 2016 Wonder Women Festival

Reel Good Film Club’s Barber-Plentie tells me that she “definitely thinks the cinema space matters,” with one caveat. “What I think is really important is breaking down the conceptions that certain audiences – read: people of colour – only go to see certain kinds of films, or that there’s not a market for certain kinds of films.”

Twenty-one-year-old Alex Lancastle, one of this year’s Doc/Fest Youth Jurors, also champions access to a broader range of films – and faith that these films will resonate with cinemagoers who aren’t metropolitan elites. “I’ve always loved being whisked off to some other reality for two hours,” he explains, but chain cinemas don’t always play the films he wants to see. “Not every film comes out on Netflix or Amazon… I’ve had many films slip under my radar due to lack of availability. As long as people are taking films in then that can’t be a bad thing,” he insists.

Levin (who also works for VoD platform Mubi) doesn’t think “the living room environment lessens a good film’s impact” but insists “the cinema space is undoubtedly important”. He describes Deptford – “like all cinemas” – as “a beautiful, emotional assembly point for total strangers” and “a place you go not to consume but to share… Most volunteers have had a hand in building the cinema’s interior,” he adds, meaning that “as well as this sense of community there is also a very clear sense of shared ownership”.

Another of the Barbican’s Young Programmers, 24-year-old Nimmo Ismail, is similarly evangelical about the sanctity of the cinema. “It’s how [movies are] supposed to be experienced, and you can forget that if you watch it on your laptop screen; the sound, the details – [blown up on the big screen] it’s incredible,” she says. “People underestimate that we do want to go to these spaces and watch films.”

Interestingly, these programmers aren’t just advocating for the cinema for the audience’s sake, but factoring in the desires of the filmmakers too. Ismail mentions an admission from filmmaker Stella Scott (whose Reverie played in Chronic Youth’s New Voices of Girlhood shorts programme) that she’d “never seen her film on anything but a really big computer screen” and was “in awe of the spectacle of it” when projected properly. In this sense, this new crop of film programmers is defiantly old-school.

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