Investing in People Before Buildings: The Case of Filmhouse Edinburgh

by: , February 17, 2021

© Photo by Karen Zhao

Edinburgh is famous for both its beauty, natural and architectural, and its arts and festivals. Each summer, pre-pandemic, the city was home to the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, alongside Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh International Television Festival, and the world’s oldest continually running film festival, established in 1947: the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF). Edinburgh also has numerous film screening venues, including independent cinemas: Filmhouse, Dominion, and Cameo Picturehouse; several multiplexes such as a Cineworld, a couple of Vue locations, and a handful of Odeon cinemas scattered around; plenty of other spaces that screen film, ranging from the Grassmarket Community Project, which won the UKs Community Cinema of the Year in 2019 to the Scotsman Picturehouse, a luxurious cinema which is part of a hotel. Furthermore, as a truly cinematic city, much filming takes place there. Architecture and cinema unite in plans for a proposed £60,000,000 new cinema building called New Filmhouse for the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), Scotland’s film charity which combines the current Filmhouse and EIFF, and also has a base at the Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen.

The timing of the proposal is significant: we are currently in the midst of a huge health and economic crisis and many may rightly wonder why such a large sum should be spent on a cinema. I argue that the moving image has very much proven its worth once again in recent times as it has kept many of us entertained during lockdowns, ‘while the sciences are trying to create a vaccine and therapeutics for COVID-19, the arts are playing a positive role in maintaining our mental health and wellbeing. Arts, humanities, and sciences go hand in hand for a life worth living’. (Dawson 2020a) In addition, the context of Brexit, the loss of the Erasmus scheme, and cuts to foreign language provision at both school and Higher Education levels mean that the UK is further distancing itself from other European languages and cultures. What does all of this have to do with independent cinemas? They are one of the few spaces to enjoy European cinema in the UK, beyond home film streaming services such as Netflix and MUBI. Unfortunately, unlike several of our European neighbours, many in the UK view foreign language film as pretentious and independent cinemas have a role to play in changing that. However, in order to do so, independent cinemas and similar arts organisations must consider best practice for access, equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), and here lies the issue with the proposed New Filmhouse.

After a four-month public consultation from March 2020, the Centre for the Moving Image submitted a full planning application for the proposed Festival Square building to Edinburgh City Council’s Planning Department in December 2020. On 3 January 2021, Robert Munro, Lecturer in Film and Media at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, tweeted a link to an article by Brian Ferguson in The Scotsman, with the headline ‘Former Edinburgh film festival chief brands new £60m building ‘misguided.’ A former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) has cast doubt on the viability of its proposed new £60 million building based in the city’s cultural quarter’. In it, Hannah McGill, who was the Artistic Director of EIFF for four years, says the new complex has long been management’s ‘preoccupation’ and states the new development is like ‘bringing umbrellas to a drought’ because of issues with the global film industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Ferguson 2020)

Munro’s link to the article was accompanied by his tweet, Interesting food for thought here, though I don’t wholly agree. Wld be interesting to dig into figures on screens/pop more. Certainly ppl in central Scotland attend cinema the most in the UK (joint with London). So, COVID excepting, the appetite is there.’ Filmmaker, Drew Travers responded to Munro: ‘I think the plans for this new Filmhouse is awesome and exciting. Where I take issue is with Filmhouse themselves saying how this will be accessible to all. I’m sure, physically it will. But I, as straight, white, working class Scot have never felt comfortable or fully accepted in the Filmhouse environment. Either by fellow patrons or staff. So I wonder how others from minority backgrounds would feel. I hope this new building could change that, but I doubt that given that it would be same management/board etc. And I know this isn’t what you or the article were discussing so apologies for that’.

While access, equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) was not the concern of that particular article, it is of mine here. It is interesting that exclusion was the first thing that came to a filmmaker’s mind in relation to Filmhouse. Munro responded to Travers, ‘No, but that’s very insightful and I’ve felt that way in the past too. And I know it is something that folks at the Filmhouse think about. @Dr_LeanneDawson wrote something great on this topic a few months back’, followed by a link to my article, ‘Culture in Crisis: A Guide to Access, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion in Festivals, Arts, and Culture. Specifically for People with Disabilities, People who are Working-Class/in Poverty, and Parents/Carers’. (Dawson 2020a) Having been alerted to the mention of my name and work, I responded, ‘Thanks for sharing, Robert. And Drew, I agree that it’s not a very welcoming space for many reasons. There’s a real issue when too much focus is placed on building new glossy buildings rather than the people within them. It’s just like what’s happened with universities…’

As a Senior Lecturer in both Film Studies and German Studies in Edinburgh, my research considers LGBTQI+ and working-class representation onscreen and inclusion at arts events offscreen, including film festivals. I am a lesbian, and a mother, who was raised working-class and in poverty, so I am incredibly aware how exclusionary many independent cinemas and similar arts spaces are. My professional experience of film organisations includes a former role as Chair of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, mentoring LGBTQI+ young people in film curation for Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh, an invited jury member for international queer film festival, MIX Copenhagen in 2019, and I have ‘worked’ (for free) with Filmhouse, both curating and presenting seasons of European cinema, and hosting one-off events, there. Having received £190,000 of Arts and Humanities Research Council funding for a current project exploring working-class queer representation in British film and television, and how working-class audiences are welcomed (or not) into a range of film festivals and events, it is my duty to speak up about culture that is often inaccessible to many working-class people and /or those in poverty, especially when that culture is publicly funded. When I won AHRC funding, I told an academic colleague how ambiguous I felt about it, because of how that large sum could help people in the real world. She replied about paying off a mortgage and I responded that I was thinking about food banks. This sums up the privilege in the arts and academia, and is something I continually strive to change.

Places like independent cinemas need to shake their reputation of being pretentious and exclusionary and I wonder how a glossy new building will succeed in doing so? This article, like much of my work, aims to kick open the doors to arts, culture, and knowledge to make supposed high culture, indeed all culture, available to whoever enjoys it. But to know if you enjoy something you need to try it, meaning cultural organisations must be accessible and welcoming to all. In line with this, I am interested in centring people, and corresponding access and EDI policy, over places – especially expensive new buildings – which would be built when there will likely be numerous empty buildings within a short radius, due to the closure or permanent shift online of many businesses due to Covid-19 lockdowns. We need to know how the proposed new building will be used and what policy will be in place to ensure those most in need and most deserving, and not just the current Filmhouse regulars, will be at the heart of the project. Here, I expand my thoughts from the aforementioned rapid-fire tweet to consider the proposed project in relation to access, equality, diversity, and inclusion matters at the old and New Filmhouse.

Places and Spaces/Buildings

The Filmhouse cinema is currently located at 88 Lothian Road, a busy central Edinburgh street. The building is a former church, which the Filmhouse took over in 1976 and began screening in two years later. A third screen was added to the space in 1997. There is also a smaller screen used by Edinburgh Film Guild and a popular café bar. In the current space, the foyer includes the box office and sells DVDs, film magazines etc. Events go beyond screenings: it hosts various film festivals and a film quiz, collaborates with local schools and universities and so on. The proposed space is also in the city centre, on the same street as the current building, mere metres away at Festival Square, a large public square that is underutilised outside of festival times or when the big screen was in use there. 177 documents associated with the new building are on the Edinburgh Council planning application page, showing the new site includes six cinema screens with the five main underground screens offering a total capacity of 828, compared to 455 in the current location. This is in addition to something called ‘The Centre’ with almost 400 additional seats. The plans also include necessities like the box office, a green room, and projection rooms. There is lots of office space, an ‘innovation lab’, a café bar, a restaurant, terraces, and a shop. Festival Square is already home to a Sheraton Hotel, food and drink establishments, other businesses, and sculptures by Remco de Fouw. A walk through Covid 19 testing site has been added to the area during the ongoing pandemic. Across the road from Festival Square is Usher Hall, a concert space, as well as numerous restaurants, bars, and takeaways. Behind Festival Square is the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. This demonstrates that the area already has the things the new building wants to introduce: a cinema, commercial meeting spaces, cafes and restaurants, and this is relevant throughout my argument about EDI.

According to Ken Hay, CEO of the Centre for the Moving Image, ‘we want the New Filmhouse to be the catalyst that transforms Festival Square so that it becomes a used and exciting public space. This new building itself will generate a lot of life in the Square, and we will design the Square to be welcoming and work collaboratively with our neighbours, the City Council, and key cultural partners in managing the use of the Square for the benefit of the people of Edinburgh’. Sandy Begbie, Chair of the Centre for the Moving Image, adds, ‘Edinburgh is home to internationally recognised landmark museums, galleries, concert halls and theatres—each celebrates their respective artforms. The New Filmhouse is a fitting addition to these—a celebration of film, the most popular artform of the 20th and 21st centuries’. (Edinburgh International Film Festival website)

The building is, in the sketches and a walk-through video available online, truly beautiful: large, airy, and with stunning views of the city. Aside from the fact some of these are things a cinema—i.e. a dark, windowless room—does not need, what I really want to know is how I, as a mother, a lesbian, a woman raised in poverty, will be made to feel in the new building, and how my retired-cleaner mother who hates watching films with subtitles and is uncomfortable in certain arts spaces will be made to feel; how my Black nephew will be made to feel; how my trans friends will be made to feel; whether friends and I can take our children for a movie and some of the parents can pull a snack out of their bags for their kids—because of taste or financial reasons—without being chastised in the café; whether emerging filmmakers will be supported to show their work; whether it will be a space for everyone or simply even more space for those who often take up too much of it in society—i.e. privileged wealthy white people. Edinburgh has been a building site for far too long, whether for tram routes or the new St James Quarter, and if there is to be more lengthy building work, residents will want some reassurance that it will be worth it for all of them.

My list of questions grew when I read architect Richard Murphy’s claim that ‘this isn’t just a building for the citizens of Edinburgh or for Scotland. It’s about making a cinema building which is known around the world. Can you think of another contemporary cinema building as prominent and distinctive as this one?’. (Ferguson 2020) We have to consider how public space is used and who typically benefits from an independent cinema. While the central, Festival Square, Lothian Road location ensures it is on several bus routes for people to travel to and from the cinema relatively cheaply, it is quite clear that Edinburgh already has so many cinemas and screening spaces, while other towns are in need of a cinema, or indeed any cultural/arts space. The closure of cinemas in towns over the decades—the cinema in my small hometown in North East England stopped operating decades ago, while I was still in school, and was turned into a car showroom—was accompanied by the shift to out-of-town multiplexes, often at retail parks and shopping malls, which are more accessible to those with a car, less easy to access on public transport, and follows a pattern from the USA. (Dawson 2020a) Of course any form of transport to get there means additional expense for a trip to the cinema. Talk about the New Filmhouse needs to shout local accessibility, rather than global posturing.

There are instances when creating something in a public space specifically for certain groups is necessary, such as monuments, museums, community centres etc., which are especially needed for, by, and about persecuted people and groups such as Jewish people, BIPOC, LGBTQI+ people and so on. The public has, however, shown less favour towards wealthy white people dominating public space and public money in recent times, particularly since the Black Lives Matter movement took even greater hold in 2020, when several statues of those involved in the slave trade were torn down by the general public, and the numerous times the Conservative government gave contracts to ‘cronies’ i.e. their friends and funders. A building such as an independent cinema is a space dedicated, primarily, to wealthy white people, as arthouse cinema is considered to be ‘high culture’, and those with knowledge of it are considered to have ‘cultural capital’.

Theorist Pierre Bourdieu breaks capital down into: cultural (in three forms: embodied; objectified; and institutionalised, including accent and education); economic (includes income, wealth, inheritance, and assets), which is also necessary to engage in much ‘high culture’; social (connections; group membership; networks), which is, again, often needed to be part of the in-group with places like Filmhouse; and Symbolic, which is the form that capital takes once recognised as legitimate, and therefore converted to power which can help to achieve a higher social-status in society. (1984; 1987) Again, privilege leads to more privilege. Bourdieu relates these to ‘habitus’, which are norms, values, habits and inclinations within a social class or group (1977) and a ‘field’ (1984) is a competitive space with its own rules and patterns of behaviour, where those whose habitus and capital are desired will be privileged. In arthouse film, independent cinemas, and other spaces of high culture, it is white middle-class+ who dominate the field. The New Filmhouse must, therefore, be fully justified as middle-class+ people need to take up less public, arts, and high cultural space, rather than more.

Independent cinemas ‘are often intimidating to those without certain cultural capital or the confidence to appropriate the space, which means that many individuals and groups continue to feel excluded’. (Dawson 2020b) The proposed building was described in a Guardian article from March 2020 as a ‘21st-century temple for film’ (Ferguson 2020) but we need to be sure this is a temple welcoming of everyone, regardless of how religiously they view arthouse cinema, how willing they are to genuflect, or how much they can afford to pay in tithes. This temple talk already has me uneasy, because of the issues with idolisation, exclusivity, and finances in film, especially independent cinema. As with ivory towers, independent cinemas need to become less exclusive and more serving of broad local communities.

Furthermore, a very clear trend in recent years has been a privileging of places over people. For example, in neoliberal, fee-paying universities we have seen the attempt to lure students with glossy new buildings, which often lead to significant debt, while members of staff are made redundant to cut costs, as if the building (too often packaged under ‘the student experience’) is more important in the education of students than the people who teach within it. Meanwhile, many well-known arts venues and cinemas have been called out for their mistreatment of staff, for matters including underpayment, racism, or sexual harassment.

While an Edinburgh resident now, I spent years living in Manchester as a student and, throughout my three degrees, watched changes to the campus that made it unrecognisable in parts. There is a picture of me at my PhD graduation with building works behind me, next door to where the graduation ceremony took place, and a big sign on the fence stating ‘investing in students’. It should have read ‘investing in buildings’. Newcastle University recently spent a lot of money on building work, giving my nephew’s MA dissertation supervisor office space in a newly refurbished building, only to let the supervisor go, mid-way through the dissertation supervision, citing the Covid pandemic as the reason for not renewing her fixed-term contract. That building money may have been better spent on staff continuity and student learning. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated further issues with expensive buildings e.g. students moving (back) to universities to pay for, often expensive, private, accommodation packages, even though much teaching has been online. This is not to blame individual universities, but rather consider the neo-liberal, fee-paying context in which they are forced to operate. So, we need to be careful, in academia and the arts alike, when the focus is on the building itself, rather than those who will use it.

Working with Filmhouse and Other Independent Cinemas

Independent cinemas often have a reputation for not being the most accessible and welcoming spaces. I wrote guidelines on access and inclusion in independent cinemas and film festivals for the Independent Cinema Office. The introduction to my ICO blog post ‘Welcoming People who are Working-Class and/or In Poverty’ (Dawson 2020b) states:

As a student, I borrowed and devoured nouvelle vague films alone in front of a DVD player, rather than watching them when they were screened—often in conjunction with courses I studied as part of my degree—at the local independent cinema.

Why? Because independent cinemas did not feel like a welcoming space for me, someone born into poverty, and often made to feel as if I lacked the correct way of speaking, the right cultural knowledge, and the behavioural norms of my middle-class peers to appropriate such a space.

Now, as a Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, I work with cinemas and festivals in various capacities and feel much more at home in them, but have friends and family for whom such spaces are not simply not welcoming, but actively hostile.

This must change: independent cinemas, film festivals, and so on must be more mindful of working-class audiences and colleagues.

While Manchester’s Cornerhouse cinema, itself now incorporated into a glossy, and very popular, new building called Home, inspired my opening paragraph to the ICO blog, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse is one of the key places I had in mind when writing it. While I have watched great films (and some terrible ones) there and hung out with friends, food, and drinks, in the café bar, I have also ‘worked’ for and with them many times, for free. And I have not always felt welcome at Filmhouse, even as an academic in Film Studies.

I curated and introduced seasons of European cinema to be screened at Filmhouse in conjunction with a second-year university course, Introduction to European Cinema, which I convened and taught at the University of Edinburgh. The Filmhouse screenings, which students had to pay to attend, were not to be assessed as part of the course, but rather to broaden students’ – and the general public’s – knowledge about a specific national cinema, filmmaker, film movement, or suchlike. And, of course, to entertain. Filmhouse requested I, in conjunction with university colleagues teaching sections of the course, offer them four possible film titles per week and they would aim to get one of those to screen. These four films per week equalled presenting Filmhouse with over forty film titles per year each year and, as these films were for cinema customers, they could not be repeated each year as films on the corresponding university course are with each new cohort of students.

I spent time curating films for Filmhouse, liaising with Filmhouse about films and screenings, liaising with staff and students on the course about Filmhouse films, publicising films on social media accounts I created especially, as well as re-watching the Filmhouse film each week—a film that was not an assessed or integral part of the course, and which I did not teach at the University—in order to be able to create an introduction that I delivered live at the start of each film on a Wednesday evening. I also had to travel to Filmhouse in order to deliver each introduction. On a couple of occasions I had to take the train from Durham to Edinburgh and back again, in my own time and at my expense, specifically to do so. My role for Filmhouse was not included in my university workload and instead I had to play catch up with the rest of the day job in my own time. This is an example of how labour within the arts is exploited.

In exchange for my labour, I received a free cinema ticket for the film I introduced each Wednesday evening, because I needed to access the specific cinema screen to introduce it. However, having just watched the film in the proceeding days in order to write an introduction for it, seeing it again was not appealing and I was not allowed to donate my ticket/seat. While I have a good salary as an academic, there are many others working in film who do not and should be offered a fee as default. Furthermore, I was only able to do the introductions as I, at that stage, had no caring responsibilities, which is also a matter of access and inclusion. Despite no longer being that little girl in poverty told that she did not belong in certain spaces, and instead being someone whose knowledge and name added value, my concern about how independent cinemas and the arts are not only unwelcoming to those less privileged, but also exploitative, grew. This is not an issue with individual staff members. I know several brilliant and wonderful people who have worked at Filmhouse over the years and, as is often the case in the arts, many of them are overqualified for the roles they have, because they very much want to work in film exhibition and curation. This problem with exploitation in the arts is broad.

Later, some PhD students in Film Studies took on one or two of the introductions at Filmhouse as a CV addition, although still without payment or suchlike. And I absolutely understand the issues here of students working for free. On one occasion a student got caught in roadworks while heading into Edinburgh centre by bus, a journey kindly made especially to introduce the film. Unable to get through to anyone at the cinema to alert them, she arrived late after the film had started. I received an e mail expressing disappointment from Filmhouse, which I can understand, and I apologised, while making clear that the labour is voluntary and sometimes things may happen, such as illness. The course and collaboration, which had already been through two other academics (a fixed-term teaching fellow and another lesbian lecturer) in the two years I had been in Edinburgh, was instead taken off me and handed to a straight white male middle-class colleague. Profit and/or focus on a certain exclusive reputation over a consideration of people (including inclusion and wellbeing) is an issue with many arts venues and organisations, which need to work with people, not just have people work for them, too often for free. I want to see more mutuality and reciprocity in the arts.

Meanwhile, I was doing what I considered more valuable work, also as a volunteer, through choice, elsewhere: as a member of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, which, as an identity-based festival that is also mindful of people who are D/deaf and with disabilities, was so much more than just a trip to the cinema. As the Introduction to European Cinema course at the university had a pause for ‘reading week’ each February and many students would not be around, I offered my time to ensure continuity of the Filmhouse’s European Cinema screenings. Incredibly aware that well thought-out collaborations can be mutually beneficial, increasing audience numbers and improving organisational reputations, I suggested a European Cinema and SQIFF event: a screening of a queer European film, followed by a panel discussion. Filmhouse did not want a SQIFF collaboration, expressing their concerns that it did not fit the European Cinema screenings, and instead asked me to curate and introduce a film for that week without the SQIFF involvement and without a Q&A. There was some back and forth and it was not until I told them that the SQIFF element opened up avenues for funding, and that I was considering a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and inviting the star of several of his films for the Q&A, that Filmhouse suddenly changed their mind about the collaboration and would make time for all of it.

On the Filmhouse website, the Head of Programing, Rod White says ‘we host many festivals across the year … that are programmed externally by those events’ own teams. We don’t hand over that trust lightly; they have had to prove themselves’. I would like to see the Filmhouse evolve to hand over the trust more easily to a wider range of programmers, for festivals and other events. A focus on certain aspects of reputation (like McGill’s aforementioned talk of management’s ‘preoccupation’ with a new building), on prestige (the high culture ‘temple’), profit, and so on over a consideration of people damages the reputations of arts venues for many, including working-class people, people with disabilities, BIPOC and so on. A charity needs to be more welcoming and supportive and to give and take; loosening the reigns while opening their wallet would make for a more inclusive and popular cinema than any expensive new building ever could.

People and Places: Access, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion

People who are D/deaf and/or with Disabilities

Filmhouse currently have their access measures listed on their website: ‘Filmhouse is committed to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion: Equality—staff, working partners and audiences treated equally regardless of membership or minority group. Diversity—celebrate, respect and value difference. Inclusion—bring people together whether as artists. Arts organisations, audiences or communities’. In this section, I will consider their current access measures alongside some examples of best, or better, practice, to outline how the Filmhouse could become more accessible and inclusive, as a matter of urgency, long before any work on a new building begins.

This starts at the top. Chair of the Board for CMI, Begbie is a Group HR director and was appointed Chief Transformation Officer at Tesco Bank in 2019. Prior to this he had senior roles at Standard Life. He accepted the award of CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to business and social inclusion (I am always puzzled when those who work in social inclusion accept a Commander of the British Empire from the antithesis of social inclusion: royalty). Out of the ten board members, three have qualified in law, with one of them, like Begbie, enjoying a senior role at Standard Life. The board is 90 percent white. I propose that more diversity here, including people who are vocally queer, with disabilities, and a range of other protected characteristics, would significantly help the Filmhouse, old and New.

For people with disabilities, the Filmhouse webpage currently makes clear that their main entrance, the Box Office, café bar, and an accessible toilet are located on ground floor level and can be reached via a ramp and an electronically-assisted door, and that cinema one is on the first floor, accessible by passenger lift, while cinemas two and three alongside a second accessible toilet are accessible by platform lift. They also draw attention to the fact that the café bar’s chairs are moveable. While attention has been paid to how people using wheelchairs, for example, will enter the building, there are very limited spaces for wheelchairs within each screening room: cinema one has ‘two wheelchair spaces at the front of the cinema’, while cinemas two and three each have ‘one wheelchair space at the back of the cinema’ and potential customers are told, ‘book your wheelchair seat in advance to avoid disappointment’, therefore causing issues with people using wheelchairs who want a spontaneous trip to the cinema. Likewise, guide dogs and hearing dogs are welcome, but owners are asked to book their ticket in advance so they can be allocated appropriate seating. While Filmhouse also offer a free ticket to those with disabilities who need to bring a carer/companion, so do all other cinemas that accept the CEA card, and Filmhouse is clearly unwelcoming and inaccessible for a group of two or more people using wheelchairs attending a screening together. Less prestigious and wealthy screening spaces and festivals do significantly better than this and it is disappointing that something that could easily be rectified in the current space, by making more room for audience members using wheelchairs, is not being addressed and instead an expensive new space is being presented as the solution. Access and inclusion is, after all, often more about care and consideration than a large budget. (Dawson 2020a)

The Filmhouse website states that ‘in all three screens we’re now able to provide audio description (if available, via infra-red headsets) for those who are sight-impaired. We’re also able to show, whenever the necessary files are available, on-screen captions for customers who are deaf or hard of hearing’. They repeat a few lines down ‘these screenings are dependent on the availability of the materials provided to us by the film distribution companies’. This focus on availability is disappointing, considering the number of smaller film events with little to no budget that ensure all films are captioned. As Nosheen Khwaja, co-founder of Glasgow-based GLITCH, a QTIBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) film festival states, ‘we had been at mainstream film conferences where the subject of subtitling English language films was laughed at from someone high up in the field of mainstream tech, from a time, money, and technical point of view. Access should be built into a budget … Coming from an activist background we make things work and push boundaries with limited resources. We were the first non-disabled film festival to subtitle our entire programme in 2015. We undertook this ourselves whilst preparing for the festival. It was a feat of endurance as subtitling is a time-consuming task’. (Dawson 2020a) By way of example, other queer film festivals such as Wotever DIY Film Festival in London, Leeds Queer Film Festival (LQFF), and SQIFF in Glasgow are some of the recent queer film festivals with small or no budgets that foreground accessibility for people with disabilities and who are D/eaf, with some of these also sharing resources and collaborating in a way that other events and organisations should take notice of. It is ‘not just coincidence that Wotever, LQFF, and GLITCH are run either exclusively or mostly by people who are working-class, many of whom are BIPoC’ (Dawson 2020a) because they are seeing to be inclusive. Furthermore, Matchbox Cineclub, also based in Glasgow, is an independent exhibitor of cult films, for which they won a National Lottery Award in 2020 in the Art/Culture/Film category thanks to their SDH/captions for D/deaf audiences. They also create subtitles for others and work widely to provide them for other film festivals and events in Scotland and beyond.

While the caption work should be done earlier in the process, rather than by organisations, festivals, or cinemas that want to screen film in an accessible way, I wonder why Filmhouse cannot take on some of this labour in-house for films without captions available, instead of letting down D/deaf audiences? How will an expensive new building make this situation better? I also wonder why space for more wheelchairs cannot be made right now, for when the current building reopens post-lockdown? Inclusion begins with a will to make things accessible.

Parents and Carers

The Filmhouse website also makes accessibility for parents and carers clear: ‘parents, carers and guardians: all our public areas are accessible by lift for visitors using pushchairs and prams, and Baby Change facilities are available in the accessible toilets by the Café Bar and by Cinema 2, as well as in the Ladies toilets by Cinema 1’. While it is important such facilities are available, with no changing available in the men’s toilets they are reinforcing the gendered dimension of childcare, where much of the labour already falls on women. Filmhouse say they ‘provide storage for buggies and prams during performances for some screenings’, without clarifying which ones and why. As anyone who has looked after babies and toddlers will know, it can be a hard getting out of the front door some days, so some will not want to make the effort to travel to Filmhouse without knowing there will be space for a pushchair once there.

The section continues, ‘it is Filmhouse policy not to allow any children under the age of 3 years old to any screening, with the exception of Filmhouse Junior screenings, films which are specifically for children, and For Crying Out Loud (Carer and Baby) screenings’. This leaves a question hanging about access for people who may make a noise in other screenings, not only children, but, for example, people with autism, who have been asked to leave other establishments in the past because of noise. Here, there could be a wider range of screenings in which noise is permitted, with each one making clear whether young children are permitted to alert adults with sensory issues in advance.

We need to also consider how those with parenting and caring responsibilities can make use of Filmhouse with and without their children because:

an absence of childcare keeps a barrier to many film, arts, and cultural events firmly in place. It is important to highlight that childcare is often bound to socio-economic privilege and the finances to pay a nanny/childminder/babysitter/nursery. For those who struggle to meet childcare costs in order to be able to undertake paid work or those for whom childcare costs are prohibitive to working (and who therefore never/rarely get a break from parenting and caring duties), employing someone to look after children in order to take some leisure time is simply not an option. Only the relatively wealthy can afford childcare in addition to the cost of a regular cinema ticket (plus transport etc.), rather than simply watching a film at home. (Dawson 2020a)

To be truly accessible is freely to offer safe, registered childcare on site. No crèche appears on the plans for the new building, which look corporate, rather than community-minded. On the other side of the city centre, the Scottish Parliament does things very differently by providing a free crèche for up to four hours at a time for visitors. While I have not yet used it, I know of parents going there pre-Covid to get work done as well as simply having a break and a drink in the café while on maternity leave or parenting alone. The New Filmhouse crèche would not have to operate completely free, but could instead function on a sliding scale, from free to the regular hourly cost of a crèche in Edinburgh.

There is also a gendered dimension to this when we consider the often unfair division of caring responsibilities and, as I make clear on my Independent Cinema Office blog post, there is an issue with the intersection of women doing most of the parenting and women who are working-class/in poverty often lacking the money to pay for childcare to be able to enjoy social activities without taking children along, but ‘working class women deserve better!’. (Dawson 2020b) I continue ‘to be truly accessible is to consider options for all children as well as childcare. This helps working-class families and families in poverty two-fold: by ensuring parents and carers have some time to enjoy culture for themselves beyond the home, and to give children in more deprived situations access to a wide range of age-appropriate film, which not only entertains but also shows them that cultural spaces and events like independent cinemas and festivals are for them, now and in the future’. (Dawson 2020b)

Filmhouse could consult with charity, Raising Films, which supports parents in the screen industries, and get one of their Ribbons, which indicates good practice to parents and carers. Raising films co-founder, filmmaker Hope Dickson Leach says, ‘Raising Films have been sharing stories about film festivals that are inclusive to parents … our Raising Films Ribbons … are a good way to see what efforts are being made to be inclusive to parents and carers … many of our recommendations require no resources but just thought and attention’. (Dawson 2020a; for more information, see: This advice about access and inclusion for parents and carers could be sought for the current building, and further improved upon for the new one.

LGBTQI+ Audiences

A Deal with the Universe (Jason Barker, 2018), an outstanding documentary about a trans man’s journey to get pregnant is the last film I introduced at the Filmhouse, in May 2019, when nine months pregnant. I was approached by Pecadillo Pictures and I agreed, after asking if it was ok with the director for a cis lesbian to host, because I adore the film. However, while it is imperative to include trans identities in films shown, both onscreen and in the filmmaking team, cinemas also need to consider how trans audience members will be made to feel in the building. There were trans and non-binary people in the audience for the screening, including some I knew, but the facilities were not as welcoming as they could be. There is a ‘ladies toilet’ and a ‘men’s toilet’, while other screening locations embrace gender neutral toilet policies. It seems the only gender-neutral toilet space is the disabled/nappy changing toilet, therefore grouping people with disabilities, parents and their young children, and trans and non-binary people together to fight for space. I have written previously about being told to breastfeed in the only accessible toilet of a café with an arts space as its sister venue, directly in front of another customer who was using a wheelchair. (Dawson 2020a) It is imperative that spaces such as Filmhouse become more accommodating to the above groups. It is not enough to show LGBTQI+ films, the space absolutely must be welcoming to LGBTQI+ people.

I was told in the past that queer films do not sell, but proved that not to be true even when working on the aforementioned European Cinema seasons e.g. when I curated Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), it was moved to a larger cinema because of high ticket sales and I looked into the audience to see several bears as I delivered my introduction. In order to further establish a queer film culture in Edinburgh, I was mentor for a group of LGBTQI+ young people programming LGBTQI+ film for another independent cinema in Edinburgh, Cameo, just up the road from Filmhouse, for a season called Out at the Cameo, which aimed to increase LGBTQI+ visibility and attract more LGBTQI+ audiences. It is important that spaces such as independent cinemas and art galleries are open to events and trying new things without a fixation on always making a profit or tightly controlling their brand and it is also important that they see the importance of events beyond their direct needs. Although SQIFF operates between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the former is the hub where the main festival occurs, and organisations like CMI should be doing all they can to support the creation of, and offer a home to, an Edinburgh-based LGBTQI+ film festival. I recall hosting a screening of My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) at Eden Court, Inverness as part of a travelling SQIFF series. Although the audience could have watched the film at home for free, they turned up because they wanted to be part of a live event, a queer space, and the resulting interaction. Indeed one audience member, isolated from queer community on one of Scotland’s islands, had undertaken an almost ten hour round-trip for the event. Edinburgh has some great LGBTQI+ culture, but desperately needs more, including film-based events.

Head of Programming for Filmhouse, Rod White, says ‘our primary concern is for the audience, and matching our programme to the needs of those demanding a more diverse, varied and thoughtful international cinema than might be the norm at the multiplex … With somewhere between 600 and 900 films newly released into cinemas annually, there is certainly a job to be done sorting the ‘wheat from the chaff’, as it were … We watch 400+ new films every year (some of the 600-99 just simply do not need to be watched…) for consideration for our programme.’ Of course there are differences between an independent cinema and a multiplex, but the Filmhouse could perhaps focus on attracting a wider range of audiences. For some, the film events is about people over glossy places or the most cutting-edge programming.

BIPOC Audiences

Even with my white privilege, I notice that Filmhouse is often a rather white space. This is not unique to the cinema, but also many cultural spaces in Edinburgh. Fringe of Colour is a brilliant initiative that began by collating BIPOC events and offering free tickets at the Festival. In August 2020, the team launched Fringe of Colour Films, a month-long online arts festival by and for BIPOC. Edinburgh needs events like this and I wonder how much attention Filmhouse paid to it. While Filmhouse is one of the spaces that hosts some of the Edinburgh-based screenings for the Africa in Motion film festival, there is so much more they could do to welcome audiences, especially considering that BIPOC, as well as those with disabilities, are more likely to be in poverty because of systemic racism and ableism.

People who are Working-Class and/or In Poverty

Disability; maternity; age; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy; race; religion and belief; sex; and sexual orientation are protected characteristics in the U.K., but class or socio-economic position are not and are often not given much thought in certain ‘high culture’ arts spaces.

Filmhouse boast about their rather exclusionary demographics on their ‘sponsorship’ webpage:

Since 1978, Filmhouse has been Scotland’s leading arthouse cinema, celebrating world cinema in all its brilliance and diversity. Attracting 500,000 visitors each year, sponsorship of Filmhouse offers a unique opportunity to align yourself with one of Scotland’s top cultural venues and target our socially active and culturally aware audience.

WHO WILL YOU REACH? • 14% of our audience are aged under 35, 15% aged 35-44, 19% aged 45-55, and 52% aged 55+ • 25% City Prosperity (high status city dwellers living in central locations and pursuing careers with high rewards), 25% Rental Hubs (educated young people privately renting in urban neighbourhoods), and 12% Prestige Positions (established families in large detached homes living upmarket lifestyles) • 60% female, 40% male • Edinburgh based 84%, elsewhere in Scotland 13%, elsewhere in UK 2%, overseas 1%

The italics (mine) show some of the more problematic aspects of the demographics and make me wonder how this would read if it were boasting about high percentages of other forms of privilege such as whiteness or heterosexuality? It continues:

Partnering with the Filmhouse provides direct association with one of UK’s leading arthouse cinemas and cultural hub, including investment into a national charity which supports a wide range of educational and talent development work for children and young people. Sponsorship packages can include headline sponsorship of the Filmhouse; sponsorship of weekly Filmhouse Junior or special Student screenings; branding at special events and themed seasons; corporate hospitality; branding on print and online marketing; employee involvement; product placement and sampling; and bespoke events. You will also get access as a key Filmhouse partner, alongside the stars and key players in the industry, to the exclusive events at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Italics (again, mine) in this section immediately after the demographic information makes me question which children and young people are being targeted?

While the digital divide and class privilege is creating the greatest gulfs in children’s education as they learn from home during lockdown, what has the charity that runs the Filmhouse been doing for disadvantaged children to allow them access to culture and, with it, opportunities for both knowledge and escapism? Filmhouse had Understanding Cinema programmes, including for some schools in more deprived areas before the pandemic, but instead of scaling this type of initiative up when children need it most and many Filmhouse staff are unable to perform their regular duties, I know of nothing happening during lockdown. Meanwhile community cinema charity, Leigh Film Society, which operates in Leigh, a socio-economically deprived town in Northern England, worked during the 2020 lockdowns with a local refugee and asylum seeker organisation, Everything Human Rights, to take ‘orange bags of cinema sunshine’ to family homes, including donations of unwanted DVDs, redistributed alongside DVD players when necessary, to people without streaming services. (For more info, see Dawson 2020a)

Again, change needs to be seen from the top. When seeking new Board members, the recruitment document stated:

The CMI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity. It is the parent company of three subsidiary companies, Belmont Filmhouse Limited (also a registered charity), Filmhouse Trading Limited and the Edinburgh International Film Festival Limited. It is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee. 2.9 The CMI generates more than half of its income through its trading activities (box office, café bar, sponsorship, individual giving); it is a Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO) of Creative Scotland, and receives grant funding from the City of Edinburgh Council, the BFI, Aberdeen City Council, the Scottish Government through the Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund and Event Scotland. 2.10 The CMI has seen its turnover increase from approximately £3.7m in 2012/13 to almost £6m in 2016/17. In that time the percentage of public funding has remained at approximately 37%, with earned and non-public income rising from £2.4m to £3.9m in that time.

I would like to see more of that money used to serve communities. Tickets for Filmhouse have never been affordable for those in poverty. While there were reductions for concessions such as students and pensioners, and fortnightly £4 Senior Selections screenings for audiences over 60, which includes a discussion of the film afterwards over tea coffee and biscuits, which is a lovely initiative that can also help to combat isolation. When Filmhouse opened after the initial 2020 lockdown, with social distancing, they boasted ‘we have brought in a simpler flat price for all screenings from Monday to Saturday: £11 which includes a £2 donation. Your donation helps us with the immediate challenge of running Filmhouse at a significantly reduced capacity. … We can also claim Gift Aid on in if you are a UK taxpayer’ before they direct people to ‘Learn more about other ways you can support Filmhouse here’. There are many people and places that need a £2 donation more than a charity preparing to build a £60,000,000 new building. There is good news for members, who receive £1.50 off tickets, but membership is another form of privilege: membership means cheaper tickets, although those in poverty cannot afford the cost of membership, which would be a hefty sum out of weekly benefits. A solution to this is sliding scale tickets for all or many screenings, starting at free. (For more information, see Dawson & Loist 2018 and Dawson 2020a)

We need to think more about who pays, and how much, for tickets. I mentioned earlier that I did not feel welcome in my local independent cinema as a student. This was problematic not just on a social level, but also because of my studies: I adored taking courses on French cinema as a student at the University of Manchester, but we were sometimes signposted to watch films at the aforementioned Cornerhouse and not only did the space feel uncomfortable for me, but I needed to work some evenings when films were screened to support myself financially and I did not really want to then spend that hard-earned money on something else for my University course. Instead, I would watch some of the films, when available at the University for free, on a small TV and DVD player combined, in the Language Centre of the University, using headphones.

Universities use collaborations, including those with cinemas, as a selling point—again, the student experience —but to whom are they selling? I inherited the aforementioned collaborative structure between my institution and Filmhouse, where students can watch films recommended and programmed by their course leader in an official partnership, only if they pay for tickets. I do not approve of such heavy additional financial and time commitments as part of study as they further disadvantage students who are working-class and/or in poverty, those who have to work on the specific evening of the screening, those with caring responsibilities, those whose health is prohibitive to attending the screening, and so on.

Such collaborations seem to be created by privileged people, without thought of how those with fewer socio-economic advantages will be able to access an event or service. ‘The demographic of leaders and audiences in the arts needs to change. Working-class people must have the opportunity to employ knowledge and experience, rather than others imposing what they think people who are working-class and/or in poverty need and, often, getting it wrong and alienating audiences’. (Dawson 2020b) While I wrote those about class, the same applies to BIPOC, people with disabilities and so on. It is imperative that the Board and management of the CMI and Filmhouse are as diverse as possible, as soon as possible, if New Filmhouse is to serve everyone in Edinburgh and the surrounding area.

Moving Forward

I adore film and very much want to see the sector thrive, not just survive, post-Covid and related lockdowns. Personally and professionally, I would love Edinburgh, the city in which I live and work, to have another film space, but I also want other places to have a piece of the pie, especially those that do not have any arts or culture spaces and/or low cultural engagement due to lack of access. While a glossy new building will be brilliant for hosting the prestigious Edinburgh International Film Festival and other events, especially during the month of August, when wealthy arts and culture lovers flock to the city from around the world, I am unconvinced that it is Edinburgh that truly needs this new building for the rest of the year, unless some of the more deprived towns surrounding the city also have some time, money, and thought invested into their arts and cultural provision.

It is imperative to see better access and EDI policy and, most importantly, best practice from the existing Filmhouse so we do not see a pushing forward to tomorrow, and a new building, what could be done today. While so much time and money is clearly being spent on plans for the physical space, who is in charge of the vision for the real meaning behind a cinema: the audiences and the filmmakers? While film streaming sites, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and MUBI, have become incredibly successful in recent years, Covid-related lockdowns and the need to consume all film at home rather than in cinemas has meant that many film festivals and other events have also shifted online. While there are positives to this, regarding some forms of accessibility (for more, see Dawson 2020a), we need to be careful that a new hierarchy is not created, post-Covid, with three layers to film and arts access: ‘at the top, those present, socialising and networking; followed by those watching from home, isolated behind a screen (possibly a greater proportion of people with disabilities, people who cannot afford to travel to the festival, those with parenting responsibilities etc.); and, left behind, those who are unable to access either the physical screening space or the film online’. (Dawson 2020b) While the New Filmhouse will be on a central bus route, what about those who cannot afford a cinema ticket let alone a bus one to get there? How will Filmhouse support these people to get to their cinema and how will they both include and welcome them once there? What will it do to welcome people for whom digital access in the home has been better and easier than a trip to the cinema e.g. parents to young children and people with disabilities whose access needs are not met in the building? And what about those on the unfortunate side of the digital divide? I also want to know how BIPOC and LGBTQI+ audiences will be welcomed? How filmmakers and others working in the industry will be supported post-lockdown after many have lost their living and only the most privileged are still able to make a career in the industry? I want to know how often screens will be dedicated to, for example, programmes of films by emerging filmmakers, short films by local talent, and so on? And to know what New Filmhouse will do so very differently to old Filmhouse for those who want to get a foot in the door of the industry? Will there be paid internships and volunteering roles for e.g. long-term unemployed people and stay-at-home mothers who want to gain skills and confidence and get back into paid employment? Will this truly be a community space for everyone in Edinburgh and the surrounds or will it be for middle-class+ people, tourists, and film industry and festival people? In short: New Filmhouse? Yes please. But only if the current Filmhouse shows it is making an effort with access and inclusion for all of the above.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1987), ‘What Makes a Social Class? On the Theoretical and Practical Existence of Groups’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32, pp. 1-17.

Dawson, Leanne. (2020a), ‘Culture in Crisis: A guide to access, equality, diversity, and inclusion in festivals, arts and culture’. MAI Feminism and Visual Culture: Crisis—Connection—Culture: Alternative Responses to COVID-19. accessed 5 February 2021).

Dawson, Leanne. (2020b), ‘Manifesto 05: Welcoming people who are working-class and/or in poverty’, Independent Cinema Office, 6 November, (last accessed 5 February 2021).

Ferguson, Brian (2021), ‘Former Edinburgh film festival chief brands new £60m building ‘misguided’’, The Scotsman, 3 January, (last accessed 5 February 2021).

Ferguson, Brian (2020), ‘Revealed: New plan for ‘temple of film’ in Edinburgh city centre’, The Scotsman, 13 December, (last accessed 5 February 2021).

Fung, Richard (1999), ‘Programming the Public’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 73-93.

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