Film festivals as a space for community and radical change

Scotland has a thriving film festival scene, and it's at its best when it functions as a communal and political space. Programmers like Xuanlin Tham and Sanne Jehoul are among those unleashing this collective and radical potential of film festivals

Feature by Anahit Behrooz | 04 Mar 2024
  • Foragers at Take One Action

There was a point in the depths of the pandemic, somewhere between the shuttering of public spaces and the sudden emergence of Netflix Party on everyone’s browser extensions, when the idea of cinema transformed from a private experience to something communal. We might go to the cinema alone, we might sit there in silence, but suddenly, co-existing in a room full of strangers and a film became, if not the whole point of the art form, then a very great part of it. In practicality, nothing much had changed except our imaginations, but through its sudden absence, the collective potential of cinema – the shared experience of both time and space, its ability to form connections – suddenly came to the fore.

How can cinema, not just the physical building but the medium itself, function as a community space? In this regard, Scotland’s film festivals are doing perhaps some of the most ground-breaking work, examining how the art form can provide a space for conversation, interdisciplinary work, and radical change.

Over the past two years, curator Xuanlin Tham has taken this very approach to Take One Action, Scotland and the UK’s biggest global action film festival, expanding the scope of what a film festival can be through their interdisciplinary approach. Take One Action has always been, true to its name, based on the relationship between cinema and action, encouraging viewers to build connections between the social and political issues depicted on screen and their own political agency. Under Tham’s tenure, film programming has become just one aspect of the festival’s remarkable multi-arts curatorial approach, with poetry, dance and performance art used to build a much-needed space within Scotland for conversations and actions around social justice.

In Tham's 2022 programme, themed around ‘land’ in all its myriad political, ecological, and social significances, they programmed Jumana Manna’s moving image work Foragers in cinema and art spaces across Scotland. The film was curated alongside a performance by Scottish-Palestinian writer, singer and actor Amira Al-Shanti, whose spoken word piece explored the same ideas of belonging and land explored in the film, as well as a traditional dabke dance performance by Palestinian dance troupe Zarif-AtToul-AsSamer.

Sanne Jehoul at Glasgow Short Film Festival 2023. Image credit: Ingird Mur.

Playing out together in the same room, the arresting political resonances of the film – positioning the foraging of wild plants in Occupied Palestine as a crucible through which to examine the violence of colonialism and extraction – found expression through other forms of Palestinian creative resistance. Rather than imagining film exhibition as a series of contained screenings, Tham’s distinctly political act of curation positioned film as part of an ongoing discourse of cultural solidarity, allowing the audience to linger together within the physical and emotional space of the screening and build a continuity between the film and their own political lives.

This kind of interdisciplinary programming is also a hallmark of Glasgow Short Film Festival. The upcoming edition is Festival Programmer Sanne Jehoul’s tenth and final year at GSFF, and during her tenure, she has helped the festival craft out spaces for togetherness – even in the midst of GSFF’s lockdown and online programmes. 

This year Jehoul is behind the timely Towards Liberation, a strand that brings together archive, documentary and fictional short films from across the globe to examine threads around imprisonment, imperialism, representation and resistance. Included in the strand is a programme of Palestinian shorts, which will be followed by a live performance by British-Palestinian musician and sound artist Kareem Samara, whose joining of traditional and contemporary genres explores threads of decolonial possibilities and diasporic identity. This isn’t programming as empty political gesture. Half the ticket sales from the Palestine shorts screening will be donated to Medical Aid for Palestinians. Jehoul will also be taking some of GSFF's short films out of the cinema space and into HMP & YOI Polmont, the largest young offender's institution in Scotland, allowing the young inmates to engage with the ideas of this year's programme.

Other indie film festivals, such as Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival at Hawick in the Scottish Borders and Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, just across the Scottish border, are similarly exploring interdisciplinary events programming as a way of creating a communal space within the festival. The former, under the curatorial direction of Rachel Disbury and Michael Pattison, features a programme of artist residencies – titled The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil – that engages and collaborates with local communities to explore the social, ecological and colonial histories of the festival town of Hawick. This year’s festival at Berwick, meanwhile, introduces The Burr of Berwick, a new social space and screening library featuring discussions of the day’s programming open to the public and an archive of radical cinema with frequent ‘watch together’ screenings. 

In an arts ecosystem under increasing suffocation – cuts to the arts budget always threatened, ever looming; the slow death of long-standing institutions such as the Filmhouse; and the near-death of ones like the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which has returned from the brink but at a much-diminished scale – these unexpected, innovative curatorial approaches break cinema out of its margins, giving it an ongoing life beyond the few hours it lives on the screen.

Glasgow Short Film Festival, 20-24 Mar,
Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, 7-10 Mar,
Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, 2-5 May,
Take One Action, 2024 date TBC,