Up and down the country, there are groups of women bringing the best of underground and alternative cinema to the attention of audiences, just for the love of it.
It can take a while to find your film tribe. For some, that identity is linked to an appreciation of films outside of the mainstream. Female and non-binary voices often go unheard in mainstream film programming, but there is an emerging community of grassroots film programmers breaking through that celluloid glass ceiling and reclaiming screening space. These women are bringing the best of underground and alternative cinema to the attention of audiences, using their knowledge and expertise to programme their own regular, or even irregular, screenings and festivals, and give a voice to lesser known filmmakers and pioneers of the art form.
One of those groups forging an alternative path is Leeds-based Film Fringe. Together, Alice Miller and Laura Ager have built a strong reputation for programming independent films outside of the norm and have a loyal following. They are shining a light in the undiscovered dark corners of the cinema narrative, sharing films from artists who usually go under the radar or have been forgotten by the mainstream. Leeds has a well-established annual International Film Festival, but part of Laura’s motivation for Film Fringe was to expand the focus on independent and challenging film beyond the two weeks of the festival.
Although they have an interest in radical activism and political documentary, the films they programme are varied and often surprising, “You don’t have to go to the most obscure corners of cinema to find things which have been forgotten or overlooked,” explains Alice. Alice also programmes film events for She’s A Rebel, with pop-up screenings that have a clear female focus and celebrate cinema by female outsiders and anti-heroines. All fuelled by a desire to see radical women’s work on screen. Screenings have included films from Ida Lupino, Agnès Varda, Kathryn Bigelow and Czech director Věra Chytilová.
“Alice has got a real thing about seeking out films that were sidelined or ignored at the time of release,” says Laura. “When Alice joined, Film Fringe suddenly broadened out quite rapidly,” Laura continues. “There’s a whole raft of films which people won’t have the opportunity to see otherwise.” Laura has also programmed for other settings, including the recent Now You See Me strand at Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax, which looked at the changing face of women in film and showcased the work of directors Carol Morley and Sally Potter.
Screenings from a Film Fringe and She’s a Rebel perspective feel fresh and open, often using offbeat venues, like the small back room of a pub or converted churches and community spaces. The venue is important, but there are other considerations too, including access to equipment. Says Alice, “Lots of bars and spaces have their own sound system and projectors, so I tend to gravitate towards them for an easy life!”
Screening films outside of conventional cinemas can be a minefield, but help and support is available through national schemes such as Cinema For All. If you plan to show a film to a paying audience, you must obtain a licence. But finding out who owns the screening rights can sometimes be tricky, distribution rights perplexing, and getting hold of a copy of something more obscure takes research and patience. Then there’s the problem of films that are out of print or require specialist projection equipment. Choosing the right films is essential. Says Alice, “I’d like to think that I can introduce a well chosen film to people in a way that excites them, even if they’ve never heard of it,” she says. For Laura, it is also about engaging an audience in a citywide conversation. “Try to reach your audience about your screening and make sure they know why they should want to come and see it,” says Laura.
This spirit of openness and spontaneity is why she and Alice spend two or three months every year co-ordinating the city’s contribution to Scalarama, an annual pop-up film festival and celebration of DIY cinema, during which anyone can put on a film. Taking place throughout September, the movement was inspired by London’s Scala cinema, the legendary repertory cinema that closed in 1993. The Scala programmed films ‘outside the straitjacket of normal cinema’ and championed diversity and eclecticism, making room for all. The national festival builds on that ethos of inclusion, with events around the country.
In Leeds, Scalarama makes a point of showcasing the varied film and arts community the area has produced. Last year’s programme boasted events in 17 venues across Leeds and beyond, taking in the atmosphere of slightly left-field settings such as the shop floor of well-known independent store Jumbo Records, and community-run radio station Chapel FM. There was also a strand dedicated to celebrating women’s animation. As part of Scalarama, Laura and Alice have forged valuable connections with like-minded individuals across Leeds. There is a real sense of camaraderie amongst the small groups of people screening films, with women often championing other women and their fantastic work.
There is a national focus on bringing more work by women to the screen through organisations like Birds Eye View and its Reclaim The Frame scheme, which takes films by and starring women to venues around the country. Leading women in the industry are using their expertise to push forward female film into the mainstream. But their work is complemented and strengthened by the grassroots efforts that you see as part of this underground network of passionate film fans determined to see cinema engage and motivate people to act. It feels like a sea-change.
The kind of DIY cinema movement championed by groups like Film Fringe and She’s a Rebel is a fantastic way to enjoy new and challenging films that you might not uncover yourself. This is a group of people who love films and see the value that they bring to people’s lives, getting together to make things happen in their communities. They are creating a movement, and it comes from the heart.
The Scalarama film festival takes place across the country each September. More information can be found on the website: www.scalarama.com