“A place of community”: Charlotte Wells on the Edinburgh Filmhouse

The Edinburgh Filmhouse, a linchpin of Scotland’s cinema landscape, went into administration in October 2022. Aftersun director Charlotte Wells, who grew up in the city, talks to us about the cinema’s importance.

Edinburgh FilmhouseIllustration by Peichi Wu
  • Aftersun is in cinemas now and streaming on Mubi.
Charlotte Wells

It’s hard to pinpoint specific memories from the Filmhouse. It’s like trying to pinpoint memories of being in your living room as a kid – you just remember being there, the sense of place and belonging.

The Filmhouse was such an essential part of my growing up in Edinburgh; it was a place of discovery. It was the first place I ever saw a film. I think of browsing through the DVDs, walking past the posters outside, seeing films represented that I didn’t see anywhere else.

When I was about 14, I took part in an Ideas Factory competition where we had to pitch an idea for a short documentary; I pitched one about female footballers and got an opportunity to meet Nick Broomfield, who did a masterclass, and Mark Cousins. Through that, I found a place on the Filmhouse’s Scottish Kids Are Making Movies (SKAMM) initiative. Suddenly I was sitting with kids who were planning Ozu retrospectives at the age of 11 or 12 – I had no connection to those films at that point!

We were sent out with cameras to shoot with. I remember walking around Princes Street Gardens at Christmas when all the festivities were set up. Discovering what it felt like to point the camera wherever you wanted to shoot, and to work collaboratively, was a very early introduction to filmmaking, which was like any artform when I grew up – it was not considered a viable career. SKAMM provided a vision of filmmaking as a possibility. As did walking through the Filmhouse doors every Saturday morning.

It’s hard to shake the last film I saw there: The Souvenir Part II (2021). It had such a close resemblance to Aftersun, which I was then working on. Seeing it at the Filmhouse – especially since I now no longer have the opportunity to present Aftersun there – seemed like a culmination of all these experiences I had there throughout childhood. It felt representative of having made a film, and of the impact that the city and the cinema had had. It felt so close to home in such a painful way. I sat there watching it with tortured agony and joy.

The Filmhouse just felt like a place of community. I’m sure that’s true of other places, but it felt like a significant place in Edinburgh. In some ways it was a victim of its own success – its willingness to screen independent and foreign-language films broadened the reach of those films, thus making the Filmhouse less unique.

At the cinemas I go to, audiences are being drawn in by really specific programming. Cinemas being differentiated in what they offer, whether that’s repertory screenings and retrospectives or a mix of old and new, is important. The programming I’m most drawn to connects the past with the present.

I feel a desire to see the Filmhouse exactly as it was before, but clearly that’s not sustainable. More than seeing it revived in its Lothian Road location, I’d like to see it reborn anywhere in Edinburgh as long as it serves as a place of community and discovery. Wherever the Filmhouse is, it will be important that it draws in a diverse audience – including younger people – and provides access in a front-footed way, being as relevant as possible while focusing on the kinds of films it always has.

Charlotte Wells was talking to Arjun Sajip.

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