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This Way and That Way

Richard Warden, Film Curator for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, received a bursary to attend This Way Up: Exhibition Innovation, the conference we hosted with our colleagues from Film Hub North and North West Central at Tyneside Cinema on 2 & 3 December 2014. He tells us what he got from the experience…

Is there a wrong way to show a film? Technical concerns aside, what makes for a successful screening? At This Way Up: Exhibition Innovation, the challenging and liberating answer appeared to be, ‘whatever works’.

Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema, a venue that manages to be both charming and efficient, was the setting for a series of presentations, moderated discussions and informal conversations. Conference delegates ranged from volunteer neighbourhood cinema programmers to national funding body representatives. All in attendance seemed to embrace the need for adventurousness and generous information exchange – refreshing for a sector too often mired in convention and competition. 

The 8th edition of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SMHAFF) took place in October 2014. The event has a history of showing material in arthouse cinemas and alternative spaces, and nearly all of its screenings are followed by discussions, but the festival is keen to add even more value to its cinematic offerings while exploring new exhibition approaches. Clearly, This Way Up was the place to be for timely inspiration.

Indicative of the invigorating spirit of the conference was a set of “Opening Provocations”, with the most challenging (for someone in my position, at least!) was “anyone can be a programmer”. All of the subsequent sessions I attended allowed for a welcome edginess, from “The cinema difference: Why the collective experience still draws audiences” and “Your eyeballs in my pockets: Who controls what we exhibit?” through “We’re all supergeeks now: Highly-engaged audiences and their effect on cinema-going culture” to “The Audience is already the programmer + Ignore your gut instincts: Intelligence-led decision-making”.

An impressive variety of suggestions on programming, presentation and publicity was offered by the two-day event. Just as helpful was the hothouse environment. I often found myself scrawling notes on what SMHAFF might try out, with many prompted by the creative atmosphere as well as by ideas emerging from front of the cinema or from audience questions. Whatever notions pass muster when planning our 2015 edition, attendance at This Way Up will have positively impacted upon this year’s event. There were just too many promising ideas flying around for the conference not to have such an influence.

Two particularly resonant propositions for me were the importance of forging links with young people (our “audiences of the future”, as was noted more than once) and the value of contextualising films before they start as well as afterwards. SMHAFF’s film programme could afford to do more on these fronts, and it was instructive to be reminded of that.

The presence of many astute and passionate cinephiles meant that networking often took the form of comparing notes. Among many who contributed to my experience in this way were Justine Atkinson of Africa in Motion, Amber Cropp and James Vickery from Bristol’s Cube Microplex, and Michael Pierce of Cinema Nation. With SMHAFF being a social justice festival, I was particularly interested in the political engagement detailed by Simon Bateson and Mat Fleming, representing Take One Action Film Festival and Star and Shadow Cinema respectively. Both Simon and Mat have developed approaches that inspire reverberations beyond their screenings. And it’s always a treat to meet someone for the first time from ‘back home’ (as in, Scotland) at such events. This was the case for me with Mark Jenkins, whose valuable work at West Side Cinema in Orkney was already on my radar.

Two of the main benefits of attendance at a gathering such as This Way Up are commiseration and celebration – the former because innovative exhibition can be difficult, and the latter because it’s often valuable and fulfilling work. What one finds out in such company is that there’s no right way or wrong way to screen a film. There’s only this way and that way until you get it right… and it’s worth sharing when you do.

Photos by Damien Wootten

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