A look at Scotland's thriving small film festivals scene

In Scotland, barely a week goes by without a film festival bringing interesting cinema to our shores. We speak to some of the people who help deliver these festivals to discover how they're creating film spaces that are both ambitious and inclusive

Article by Eleanor Capaldi | 10 Sep 2018
  • Africa in Motion 2017

Out of Scotland’s creative landscape emerges a film festival scene that will be familiar to Skinny readers. There are, of course, the biggies: Glasgow Film Festival and Edinburgh International Film Festival. With their red carpets, inventive pop-up locations and star power, these two behemoths cast a large shadow over the scene, but behind the flashbulbs are a collective of smaller festivals no less vital to Scottish film culture, bringing inclusive artistry from around the globe here, and they want you to be a part of it too.

These small festivals are plentiful. Over the next few months, sitting in your local arts centre cafe, you’ll find a plethora of festival brochures with which you’ll need to start honing your scheduling skills. Between now and Christmas you can choose from Africa in Motion to World of Film, Take One Action to Document, French Film Festival to Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival, and Scotland Loves Anime to SQIFF, and that’s not even close to the full scale of the scene. How can so many festivals co-exist in such a small nation, you might ask? Part of the explanation lies in what they do differently from their more sprawling counterparts.

The heaven-sent Africa in Motion (AiM), for example, eschews hierarchy from its film curation. “We want Africa in Motion to be an inclusive space for programming and selecting African cinema,” explains Justine Atkinson, AiM’s project director. The festival brings African cinema to the people of Edinburgh and Glasgow by working collectively and collaboratively, directly involving the communities the festival is representing. Atkinson explains: “Each month the community group, refugee centres, integration networks, make suggestions about themes or genres they’re particularly interested in seeing on screen. These could include films with a female focus, Nollywood or films in a specific language.” Having been sent a selection of films, the community focus group get to decide what is shown. This kind of process translates to a broader, even unexpected, selection that speaks to audiences in a way that most festivals hope to.

Reaching beyond festival HQ is an element of festival programming that many of this cohort of small festivals do well. Human rights film festival Document have ventured into distributing videotheques across Glasgow, while the similarly socially conscious Take One Action has found multiple homes for their festivals in Aberdeen and Inverness as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow. AiM, too, takes its films outside Scotland's largest cities, holding a mini-festival in Paisley. Ten minutes by train to Glasgow Central may not sound an insurmountable distance, but when there is no local independent cinema in your town there is also no easily accessible forum in which to engage with world cinema. AiM reached out to local BAME groups, providing opportunities to curate. “It was extremely important for bringing African cinema, which wouldn’t otherwise be seen, to communities living in Paisley,” says Atkinson.

Enabling a community to be involved in their own representation is vital, and something the organisers of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF) know well. Helen Wright, the co-founder and coordinator at SQIFF, explains why representation is important: “There are films with ‘queer’ themes shown in mainstream festivals and cinemas, but these tend to represent cis gay men, white people, most recently cashing in on the trend of representing trans people but without involving them in the production and/or exploiting them.” This poor representation on screen spirals, and perpetuates the reluctance of LGBTQIA people becoming filmmakers. In programming terms, this results in a tired, narrow view of LGBTQIA stories.

Wright continues: “There are a very large number of queer films out there and you need queer people themselves to be programming them as well as making them to properly cater for a range of LGBTQIA communities.” With this in mind, SQIFF is 100% organised, programmed, and delivered by LGBTQIA identifying individuals.

Recognising that LGBTQIA audiences are just as likely to have either physical and/or financial needs as straight audiences, the festival goes to great lengths to prioritise and provide ways for D/deaf and disabled access and representation. “We make accessibility a central point of the Festival rather than an extra or afterthought (or a non-thought),” says Wright.

SQIFF does this in several ways, including, crucially, a sliding ticket price scale. There is a guideline provided for the various price brackets (pay £8, £6, £4, £2 or £0) and no proof of a person’s situation is asked for. When SQIFF implemented this method, the festival saw a box office increase of 69%. “This is very similar to a ‘pay what you can afford’ scheme,” explains Wright, “and is typical of more grassroots and community film and arts events.”

The choice to screen most films with English language captions for D/deaf and hard of hearing access sets SQIFF apart too. It might be expensive for small festivals, even with funding, but as Wright notes “it is absolutely the correct choice and a necessary, as well as [an] exciting one.” When festivals with smaller resources can reinvent the standard for accessibility, as Wright points out, “there should be a question asked over why more big, funded film festivals don’t implement and address things like this.”

Glasgow Short Film Festival (GSFF) director Matt Lloyd credits SQIFF with leading the way on this. “Since our inception as the screening series The Magic Lantern, we’ve always foregrounded the work of women filmmakers, and in recent years we’ve aimed to improve the diversity of our programme and to provide greater access to screenings. That said, it would be unfair of me not to credit SQIFF as an inspiration in this respect. SQIFF has blazed a trail for greater access and diversity in Scottish film culture.”

Existing as a smaller festival doesn’t need to mean small ambitions. “We’ve always aimed to have as international a reach as possible,” says Lloyd of the GSFF programme. “We established an international competition first, then a Scottish competition. This meant that we built a reputation overseas, attracting filmmakers and talent spotters to the festival, giving us a foundation from which to promote Scottish talent.” In its 11 year run, GSFF has consistently encouraged filmmakers and programmers to look north.

As a form, the short film can be overlooked. Where once it was a matter, of course, to see a news bulletin and a few shorts before the feature, the convention has been mostly lost to wistful history. However, it is a hugely active and creative filmmaking scene, and intriguing to watch. Not least for catching filmmakers in their early days as they determine their style and voice. “Short film is such a nebulous concept, it can include fiction, animation, documentary, artists’ moving image,” Lloyd explains. “As such it affords endless options for curation and can appeal to many different audiences. At its best, it is experimenting with form and suggesting new directions for cinema, but it can also provide a platform for discussion of a range of subjects.”

With the particular artistic buzz of Glasgow, it may make seamless sense that it’s the place where short films in all their incarnations can thrive. Lloyd elaborates: “There is a range of risk-taking visual arts and music audiences here. We’re never sure who’ll turn up to our events.” Alongside the ambitious audiences are the arts centres, studios and venues, such as the Glasgow Women's Library, Glad Café, Kinning Park Complex, Transmission, and of course the CCA. “Our main venue,” Wright says, “who offer open source programming, which means we don’t have to pay a hire fee. [The CCA] are incredibly supportive and accommodating, which makes a big difference to what we can achieve.”

Atkinson adds: “There are so many other small festivals and arts organisations that there is a great network of support, and space and scope to collaborate across the city.” As Scotland’s small film festivals shoulder together to share in their thriving scene, inclusive programming and honest commitment to their respective audiences are key. Which means another canvas bag full of programmes and pencil at the ready...

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