Staying True to Your Mission How to Survive For 50 Years
Andi looks at QFT staying true to mission through the lens he knows best.
I moved to Northern Ireland at the end of the summer of 2010. I’d been a few times before I moved but wouldn’t confess to being an expert on the country I now call home. However, I did know three important cultural things before I jumped on the ferry at Stranraer:
I was lucky enough that my first job was at UTV and I managed to get to work with Julian for 12 months. I can confirm he’s as much of a legend as you think.
Sadly, my ears have never been able to tune into the beauty of country music and I’ve spent most of the last decade trying to avoid it. I’ve failed spectacularly on that, but I’d get a 10/10 for effort.
While my ears haven’t managed to love country music, my eyes have fallen in love with the QFT.
The drip feed of information about the QFT that had crossed my path in Newcastle (the Toon, not Down) had conjured up images of a magical place, a throw-back to a golden age of cinema, with an art-deco building, popcorn, torches showing you to an uncomfortable seat and an intermission while the reel was changed over.
I was, of course, completely wrong. Which is why the QFT is still going strong. Let me explain using the lens I know best – marketing.
In my limited time as a QFT visitor (and latterly as someone who has worked helping market the independent film sector in Northern Ireland), I see an institution that has moved with the times. And that’s not just the latest refurb I’m talking about.
The programming at QFT is excellent. I have a friend who takes his wife to see It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas and I loved the scheduling of Die Hard last December – many a middle aged man’s favourite Christmas film.
But I firmly believe that if all the QFT did was show old classics, it would disappear from the Belfast cultural scene.
What the various people who have led QFT over the years have managed to do is keep the programming relevant to a modern audience, whilst tipping their hats to history.
Look at what’s on for the 50th celebrations: a screening of Peterloo, a new Mike Leigh film about a government massacre in Manchester in 1819, that happily sits alongside My Left Foot, Derry Girls and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
To achieve this, an organisation has to have a clear understanding of its mission. It has to know what problem it is solving for its audience and keep solving it. But, the difficult bit is solving them in new and innovative ways, not just using the same trick every time.
Being eclectic isn’t easy.
Eclectic can quickly become random, then clueless in the blink of an eye. What QFT does is stay true to the mission and stay close to the audience, which helps it avoid clueless.
Staying close to the audience is, perhaps, the marginally easier of the two. One thing you discover very quickly is the QFT fan base is passionate about the venue! The membership scheme helps too – having such a committed group of fans provides a good barometer for what’s going on.
This feedback, however, can be a misleading metric. If you only talk to your super fans, that’s one very specific group who might not have similar needs to the rest of the people you’re trying to attract. And, as I’ve already suggested, the QFT needs to stay relevant to attract a new audience and regenerate (to rob a Dr Who term).
But shameless populism isn’t the answer either. With budget cuts and the need to generate more revenue, comes the pressure to schedule bigger films. That, too, would be folly.
There might be a short-term boost in revenue, but what’s the long term damage to the QFT brand? Trying to go head to head with the multiplexes in showing blockbusters would not be a good path to take.
I take my hat off to all the folks who have been involved in QFT over the last 50 years. They’ve created a space that focuses on quality not quantity, debate not dollars and culture not CGI and that is an amazing achievement that deserves to be celebrated.
From what I can tell, it’s been achieved by a commitment to the mission of QFT and love of film as a medium to help change the world, one person at a time.
Happy Birthday Old Friend Jan Carson and QFT
As we approach our 50th Anniversary Night, writer Jan Carson reflects on her 20 year friendship with QFT
QFT turns fifty this month which means I’m celebrating my twentieth year of friendship with this Belfast icon. It would be shameful not to to mark the occasion. We’ve been through so much together. I’ve mentioned this many times before but QFT is the place I retreat to when I want the world to go away and leave me alone for approximately 90 minutes, or two hours max. I’ve arrived atQFT on the verge of tears and cried all the way through the movie. I’ve come in my pyjamas. I’ve snuck in with a bottle of Merlot hidden in my anorak sleeve, (though not lately, now you can legally take your drink in with you). I’ve come with friends. I’ve come alone. I’ve recently brought my niece and nephew for the very first time, and though they squirmed throughout and consumed their own body weight in Haribo, it is my hope that they’ll remember their first visit and still be coming twenty years from now. I’ve made some wonderful memories in QFT.
I recall the night I cried so hard during a screening of My Life Without Me, a complete stranger scooted down the aisle to give me a hug and remind me the movie wasn’t a true story. Also the night, whilst nursing a stinking head cold, I sniffed and snuffled loudly through Holy Motors, pissing everyone off in a three seat radius, until a strange man, came striding across the aisle to offer me a Kleenex. I recall an awkward outing to the original Battle Royale with a very squeamish friend, and the annual repetition of It’s A Wonderful Life, which will always mark the beginning of Christmas proper for me. Magic moments all. More so, the last few years when I’ve been able to host Dementia Friendly Screenings at QFT, catering for a bunch of wonderful people who’d otherwise struggle to access cinema. I also thoroughly enjoyed last year’s wonderful older people’s project, recording short film trailers with local seniors across Northern Ireland, (you haven’t lived ’til you’ve made a Jaws trailer with three octogenarians who’ve never seen Jaws). A lot of my best times have taken place in QFT and, over the years, I have it to thank, for introducing me to most of my favourite film directors: Lynne Ramsey, Wes Anderson, Hal Ashby, PT Anderson and Terence Malick, whom I’ve fallen in and subsequently out of love with whilst sitting at the back of Screen 1.
I literally spend more time in QFT than I do in my living room. (Nb. this sounds like an exaggeration, but having no TV and rarely going home except to sleep, I mostly just pass through my living room in pursuit of some book or other. In fact, last week, I did a quick tally of how many time I’ve sat on my sofa since purchasing my house two years ago, and the answer was eight. Eight times total. I’ve probably sat on the inside seat of Screen One, three rows back on the left hand side, eight times in the last month alone. It is my favourite place to sit). I’m grateful to the various people who’ve worked in QFT over the last twenty years, none of whom have ever made me feel tragic for seeing two films back to back on a Sunday evening, entirely alone. The difference between QFT and the other, more commercial cinemas, isn’t just the programming, (which is fantastic), it’s also the hospitality and genuine welcome offered by everyone who works there.
I first encountered QFT as a nervous undergrad back in 1998. Those were the days of the back alley entry, tickets that looked like raffle tickets and not being able to book online, so sometimes you queued in the rain only to find a film sold out by the time you arrived, sodden and shivering, at the top of the line. Coming from Ballymena where I mostly grew up, between the years of the State, (was ever there a more aptly named cinema?), burning down, and the new multiplex arising from the ashes of the Leisure Centre car park, I had to rely upon the four screen in Antrim for most of my cinema education. It wasn’t what you’d call extensive. Sorry, I lied. During and after the State we also had Spectrum Video too. Spectrum was one of those old school video rental places with an entire wall of moulded plastic shelves. You could tell when a movie was already on loan because it has a little yellow triangle tucked into the sleeve. The Herbie movies were always on loan. They were very popular in Ballymena.
Suffice to say, I arrived at Queen’s in 1998 with a complete understanding of James Bond, Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn and little to no knowledge of anything even vaguely arthouse. Reality Bites was my favourite movie, Steel Magnolias was the most profound thing I’d ever encountered and I’d never even seen Jaws, (still haven’t). Last year, I spent some time chatting to people who’ve also had a lifelong friendship with QFT and almost all of them had similar stories.
Like me, many regulars, encountered cultures and stories beyond their own experience, for the first time in the art house films and carefully programmed world cinema QFT screened. I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am for this service. I became both better informed and more curious about the world beyond Northern Ireland, because of all my wasted evenings at QFT. I encountered ethnic, sexual, socio-political, gender and cultural experiences I’d never come across before, on screen at QFT. I’d like to think these movies made me a more empathetic person for it’s almost impossible to empathise with another’s experience if you’ve never encountered it before. I fell in love with storytelling through the films I saw at QFT. They began conversations with the books I was reading and the people I was starting to meet and slowly, over a decade or more, they began to draw the writer out of me. I don’t know that I’d be so obsessed with story, if I hadn’t had QFT as such a constant resource during my most formative years. I can’t imagine how I’d shape my weeks if it wasn’t there.
And so, I’d like to say happy birthday to a very good friend, one of the oldest friends I have in Belfast. I’d like to express my thanks for all the ways QFT has served me well these last two decades, and served our city well over fifty years. I’d like to wish her fifty more brilliant years and a revival of both Northern Irish cinema going and Northern Irish cinema making. And I’d like to encourage everyone who calls Belfast home to make the most of this incredible resource and -by attending screenings and buying memberships and purchasing drinks at the bar rather than smuggling wine in, in your sleeve- ensure we have QFT for many, many years to come. Happy Birthday old friend, you don’t look a day over 21.
Visit Jan Carson's blog, Jan Carson Writes
QFT's Anniversary Night takes place 16 Oct with Viva Maria! screening and DJ set
Womens voice in the horror genre
Becky Booth, QUB and MA Film, dissects women's voice in the horror genre.
It goes without saying that the horror film genre remains dominated by men in all areas – as in the wider film sector. Of the top 250 grossing films of 2017, 88% had no women directors, and 83% had no women writers (womenandhollywood.com, 2018). Though the horror genre is often overlooked in formal recognition ceremonies, the creative talent of women working in horror cinema cannot be ignored. The first and only woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director was Kathryn Bigelow in 2010, for her political thriller The Hurt Locker (which also won Best Picture). Bigelow also directed the western-vampire cult classic Near Dark in 1987.
In recent years, there has been a surge in platforms devoted to showcasing women in horror cinema, whether that’s behind the camera, in front of it, or writing about the films: from the Women in Horror Film Festival in Georgia, U.S., to female-centric magazines like Suspira, to academic books written solely by women writers and critics, such as The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (Spectacular Optical, 2017). While such platforms are most welcome, and I would argue necessary, there is a definite uncomfortable aspect to—it could be argued—segmenting the work women contribute to horror, or compressing and containing it within a single month of the year, as with the annual women in horror month each February.
There shouldn’t need to be a single month championing women in horror. Women filmmakers should be celebrated, acknowledged and discussed as an integrated part of cultural discourse every single day—not once a year. Similarly, we shouldn’t need festivals, publications and other outlets designed specifically to showcase the talents of women, or any other minority group. Yet, we do. Focused film platforms supporting women in horror do of course provide visibility, further opportunities, and advocate equal opportunities in the wider film industry, but they should be used as a foundation to overcome the systemic gender imbalance in the film industry, to encourage inclusivity across all filmmaking outlets. Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) is an example of this, showcasing independent filmmakers and new talent on a regular basis.
Boasting a curated programme of classic and contemporary cinema, chosen by and for cinephiles, QFT has since 1968 been a cultural hub dedicated to the art of filmmaking. Each year, on average, 70% of films screened are exclusive to QFT, 30% of which are in a foreign language. This provides an important platform for films that would otherwise not receive a theatrical release in Northern Ireland, and further enriches the cultural diversity of the city of Belfast. On top of QFT’s focused film programme is a range of complementary events and activities, often which involve inviting leading filmmakers to talk about their work.
Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway (2018) is very much a product of her relationship with Queen’s University Belfast, and QFT in particular. The first woman in her family to attend university, she studied the Irish language before her love for film took her to New York to study screenwriting. Returning to her beloved Belfast, and of course Queen’s, she continued her to hone her craft and is now a lecturer in creative writing at Queen’s Seamus Heaney Centre. The Devil’s Doorway, co-written by Martin Brennan and Michael B Jackson, is her debut feature film, and the first horror film to be written and directed by a Northern Irish woman.
Set in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, The Devil’s Doorway follows a Vatican-endorsed investigation of a miracle by two priests: a statue of the Virgin Mary is weeping blood at a Catholic home for “immoral” women. The narrative is inspired by accounts of historical abuse in “Magdalene Laundries”, where women who were sex workers, pregnant out of wedlock, or suffering from mental illness were hidden away and sadistically treated by representatives of the Catholic Church. This timely tale weaves further supernatural layers throughout its powerful exploration of religious themes, packaged in a documentary “found footage” style that lends a chilling intimacy and fearlessness to the film. As Clarke herself said:
“I would say that the QFT—as our only long-running arthouse cinema—has been an invaluable supporter of homegrown and developing talent. It has long been the home of the local short film block in the Belfast Festival. I was one of the mentors on the BBC NI Two Minute Masterpiece scheme for emerging female filmmakers and it too was housed in the QFT, before those short films were broadcast on TV. As an independent theatre, the QFT is able to take risks in programming—in fact, it is obliged to—and it is that which allows it to take risks on local filmmakers, new talents, and independent spirits. The opportunities to see indie films and to be seen as an indie film-maker are the things that make the QFT such a vital part of Northern Irish cultural life.”
It is this cultural milieu, specific to QFT, that helped to set in motion and shape Clarke’s place in horror cinema, allowing her, QFT, and the Northern Irish film industry to promote further opportunities for women horror filmmakers. The Devil’s Doorway has been selected for international distribution later this year, and an exclusive screening of this important film will take place at QFT on Friday 19 October. It will be followed by a Q&A session with Clarke and members of the cast and crew. We hope you join us in celebrating women in horror cinema, and staking the film’s cultural place in the genre.
Cinema and the Celebration of Counterculture
Victoria Brown, MA Film and Editor at The Gown looks at indie cinema engaging with a 'younger' generation.
I was sixteen when I first stepped foot into Queen’s Film Theatre and I’ve been in love ever since. I’ve always adored cinema, and throughout my undergraduate English and Film degree and subsequent Film MA at Queens, I have become passionate about it as an academic discipline and a source of countercultural art. However, I am in the minority. Many students at Queens have never even been to the QFT. That is became mainstream cinema, particularly in this age of blockbusters and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is commanding the general population’s attention more so than the cultural independent films show at the QFT, and leads one to ask: why?
Independent and Art House films get a bad name. Ask a random member of the public their opinion on indie and Art House films, and their answer will most likely be that they “aren’t as good as proper films”, or even the classic “they’re a bit pretentious”. The idea of ‘proper’ films amongst the general public seems to equate to a big budget. They seem to be labouring under the impression that films with more money spent on them are automatically better. They can be very dismissive of lower budget indie movies because their aesthetic isn’t as clean cut as that of Hollywood, or big budget British films. Indies and Art House films are often marketed as being for “intelligent” people, which is alienating and off-putting, and therefore reinforces the impression that they are pretentious.
People have become so used to classic cause-and-effect narratives with easy to follow themes and seamless editing, that anything that deviates from them seems like too much to concentrate on. Independent cinema isn’t always aesthetically artistic, of course, but the argument can be made that a fair majority of them are. Many of them value artistic style over story. But on the other hand, independent cinema also often focuses on story over aesthetic. An indie film could be the most heart wrenching, evocative story you’ve ever experienced, but if you are used to the style and colours that often accompany bigger budget films, the visual aesthetic will put you off before you give the story a chance.
People want to be entertained; they don’t want to have to give a film their undivided attention. Generation gaps have a huge impact on the film industry (obviously these are generalities, there are always exceptions to these but for the sake of this argument). The older generation – the over 30s – find it easier to concentrate on something for a long period of time. But the younger generation – 18 to 30 year-olds – have so many different things competing for their attention: fast-paced mainstream cinema, instant access to any information they want, constant new social media material. Film has the unique problem of maintaining an audience’s attention for a particular period of time: you can always set down a book and come back to it when you’re ready, or switch between social media platforms until you wish to go back to one, but in a cinema environment you can’t just turn a film off or pause it whenever you like.
So what can independent and cultural cinemas like the QFT do to extend their reach to the younger generation?
Those in the younger generation are at a crucial point in their lives: their discovering who they are and are developing who they want to be. Perhaps someone is interested in visual aesthetics but doesn’t understand fine art? Cinema is a fantastic alternative. Perhaps someone is interested in politics, social problems or other cultures, but doesn’t know how to experience these kinds of events: cinema! Perhaps they are interested in counterculture, but aren’t sure how to express or develop this interest? The answer, you guessed it, is cinema! The QFT and other independent cinemas screen films that celebrate counterculture, a culture many young people feel connected to but don’t know where to start.
What the QFT needs to do is appeal to this younger demographic by emphasising that they understand what is important to them: an alternative and intimate venue with a prestigious countercultural vibe where they feel important and part of a progressive culture, affordable ticket prices (including the QFT Film Card, which many people don’t know about) and a wide variety of confectionary and alcohol (being able to drink in a cinema instantly makes you more interesting to students), streaming of alternative content such as theatre, which the younger generation may not be able to afford to experience in person, and encourage their diverse choice in films (many members the younger generation actively seek to stand out from the mainstream crowd so this appeals to them). The QFT need to promote these benefits via their social media platforms, as it is the quickest and most effective way of grabbing the younger generation’s attention. The older generation think we want the latest high-tech experience, such as VR or kinetic seats, but what we want, above all, is to feel valued.
Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling Developing the F-Rating
Holly Tarquini, Executive Director of FilmBath, discusses the development of the F-Rating
This feels like a very exciting time in film. Movements such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, Raising Films and the F-Rating are all forcing the industry to look at its hiring policy, behind the camera as well as in front of it.
It’s certainly a very exciting time for QFT too, now celebrating its 50th.
It’s no secret that gender inequality in the film industry is rife. Practices like unequal pay and the underrepresentation of women, both on screen and behind the camera, have been lambasted by actresses including Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett and Geena Davis; there’s even a name for it – the ‘celluloid ceiling’. Until you see the statistics though, you may not realise how heavily the balance is weighted against women.
In 2014 – the year I developed the F-Rating – only two of the top 100 films that came out of Hollywood were directed by women and just 12% had female protagonists. Women filled less than a third of speaking roles and an analysis of 2,000 scripts showed they are generally given less dialogue. Frozen is a great example; released in 2013, it’s the first Disney film to have been directed by a woman and is the story of two sisters yet the male characters still have more talking time than the female characters.
As Director of the FilmBath Festival I wanted to highlight the gender gap and give film fans a way of choosing films that represented some kind of equality. There are fantastic female writers and directors, and amazing stories about women on screen, but they tend to have lower budgets and be given less for promotion, so I invented the F-Rating to sit alongside a movie’s usual age classification.
It is given to any film which is directed and or written by a woman. If a film also stars significant women in their own right then the film receives a Triple F-Rating, the gold standard.
The F- Rating is an extension of the Bechdel Test – made famous by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel to decide whether a work of fiction includes at least two women talking about topics other than men. It’s amazing how many films fail this test!
It’s also about promoting films that tell more diverse stories and more accurately reflect real life because often what we see on the big screen is unrealistic – for example 90% of single parents in the USA are women but on screen 90% are dads. I wanted to give audiences a way to vote with their feet and choose films that support women.
QFT was the very first cinema to adopt the F-Rating to signpost films helmed by women. They have been joined by over 80 other cinemas and film festivals such as the Barbican, the Irish Film Institute and Raindance Festival as well as the largest film website in the world, IMDb who all now use the F-Rating like a Fair-trade stamp – to direct people to films directed and written by women.
I’m also thrilled to be working with Into Film, which has added the F-Rating to its catalogue, and the Into Film Festival so that more young people become aware of the F-Rating and the reasons behind it.
My ambition for the F-Rating is that one day it becomes redundant – that the stories we see on screen are told by women, people of colour, disabled people, LGBT people – people like us and about us.
Holly Tarquini is the Executive Director of FilmBath (previously Bath Film Festival)
On the Threshold of Magic Memories of an Usher
Aislinn Clarke is the director of The Devil's Doorway and also a former QFT usher!
There are two filmic images that I've never been able to shake off. They're completely inseparable in my mind, two parts of a conversation that I once eavesdropped on and that I now transcribe.
One of them is a close-up of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc from 1928. Her eyes glisten. She is wholly vulnerable, yet completely indomitable. The camera studies her like a microscope and she is open to us down to the very soul.
The second is from Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie (1962). Anna Karina sits in the cinema, looking up at the screen, tears roll down her face. She’s completely moved by the image she sees – a face - and we in turn are moved by her – her face.
The image of the movie-goer is well-used in cinema: we see Laura and Alec together, in Brief Encounter, and it doesn't matter what they see; Mia Farrow, at the end of the Purple Rose of Cairo, is so desperate she will watch anything. Vivre Sa Vie is different though. We stay on Anna Karina much too long. We register every reaction that moves across her face. The film off-screen leaves such an impression on her that it is almost visible on her face. It matters what this movie-goer is watching: it's Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Joan of Arc.
I saw both films for the first time in the QFT. I was studying for a degree in Film Studies. I'd shuffled between English and Irish, but Film Studies was really where I always wanted to be. No, a film-set was where I wanted to be, then a cinema, but Film Studies was tantalisingly close. The classes took place in the dark cinema space, the lecturer out of view, dwarfed by the screen: they weren't the focus, the flickering image was. Quentin Crisp called the cinema “the forgetting chamber,” but I remember all of it.
I wrote my dissertation on Godard. The first time I saw Vivre Sa Vie was in Screen 1. I was then part of a cinematic triptych: Joan of Arc, Anna Karina, and us, the audience who complete the trialogue. Anna Karina is Joan of Arc and we are Anna Karina sitting – sometimes crying – in the shadows. It is an image that I would see over and over.
Because I hardly left the QFT, when I was at Queen's. I did an MA in film, then an MA in Scriptwriting, I saw every film that came in and went out. More importantly, I became a cinema ghost, a half presence, that is I became an usher, like Hopper's usherette in New York Movie (1939), threshold figure opening the door between mundanity and dream.My nominal task was ripping tickets, directing people to seats, and cutting my torchlight through the gloom, but, really, the usher and their real job is the answer to Juvenal's question: who watches the watchers? No one more clearly nor more frequently sees the effect the film has on its audience than the usher. You see the film a dozen times, with different audiences, but the faces are almost always the same, if the film is done well: they laugh at the same points, they cry at the same points. The film-maker who wants to put something on screen needs to know how people will react looking at the screen. They need to see things from the usher's angle. Which was something I learned from Godard. Which was something he learned from Dreyer.
Cinema is a conversation, between films and between the film-maker and audience. Roger Ebert called it “an empathy machine” and that's how I think of it. It's how I've thought of it since I looked directly into the eyes of Renée Jeanne Falconetti and Anna Karina. I know how they both feel on both sides of the screen. The film-maker must facilitate that conversation.
That was the thing I wanted to carry into my own work: empathy, an understanding of how the audience would react, a commitment to how sincere the actor can be. I spent years making documentaries: tight focus and close-ups on the truth, real people. It's all in the face. So, of course, my first narrative short was a silent one. It had it's first public screening in the Ulster Hall – the opening short before The Passion of Joan of Arc.
But I am especially happy to be returning to the QFT with my first feature film. On that night, I'll again be Hopper's usherette, there and not there. It seems like the appropriate place to watch the watchers watching my film. Then, afterward, to answer questions, in the room where so many questions were posed to me. I'm looking forward to it. Another night to remember in “the forgetting chamber".
The Queens Film Society The 16 Club
In the run up to QFT50, Mervyn Marshall discusses The 16 Club, a film society officially founded in 1951.
The Queen’s Film Theatre is about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, an astonishing achievement when one considers the turbulence that dogged the city and it’s cinemas during the establishment’s formative years. However, looking back a little further demonstrates a vibrant history of film exhibition at the university, integral to the development of QFT. The Queen’s University of Belfast Film Society, more commonly known by the nickname The 16 Club, was officially founded in 1951, but its origins go back to the early Post-War years. For an annual subscription members were treated to multiple showings per month during university term time with the occasional discussion group or retrospective included. Despite the outdated equipment or the lack of a dedicated theatre, the society continued to grow, even as commercial cinemas began to close across Belfast.
Supported by Queen’s and connected to a network of other Universities across Britain, known as the British Federation of Film Societies, The 16 Club grew into one of the largest in the United Kingdom. By 1965, there were over a thousand members and a waiting list that remained full from season to season. It even had its own Production Unit, which created a handful of short comedies screened across Britain at various festivals.
Another novel element of the society was the accompanying publication, Film News. Designed by Mr. Fred Hill, this short pamphlet provided updates on society news, reprinted features from other film publications and think-pieces from a few articulate members. It is most notable, however, for the detailed and frequently negative reviews of the films featured in its own programme, much to the bafflement of some patrons.
For a society entirely dependant on member subscriptions for operation, audience feedback was frequently sought and the programme was tailored to the ‘changes in public taste… [and] the whims or egocentricity of differing programme secretaries.’ As time went on, the programme became more refined, offering an alternative to what was being shown in other Belfast cinemas. Films were selected based on their perceived quality and artistic reception. Cinematic legends such as Ingmar Bergman, Michael Antonioni and Satyajit Ray were featured heavily from season to season. However, satisfying the tastes of members proved a frequent challenge for the programming committee, led by A. D. Fleck for the first half of the sixties.
Films were not available for society exhibition until distributors made them so, and European cinema was at the height of its relevancy during the decade. As a result, the most desirable films were experiencing a longer commercial life and the programme was met with constant delays and cancellations. One example was Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana, first released in 1961, whose ‘distributors have decided not to release [it] to film societies until the 1963/64 season’ noted in the May 1st 1963 edition of Film News. The following year Michael Cacoyannis’ Electra (1962) was also delayed and replaced with North by Northwest (1959).
This problem persisted across the decade, 1967 was particularly afflicted and the programme was subjected to scrutiny by some members for not including enough ‘film society’ films.’ The eagerness on behalf of the audience to watch the cinema à la mode was a contributing factor towards the opening of the Film Theatre. After all, a dedicated audience had emerged with a cultivated taste, hungry for the ‘best available English-speaking and Foreign language films' interspersed with the odd classic. Entering the commercial market would make the most desirable films available earlier, before the public attention had a chance to wane.
The popularity of the society also coincided with enormous success of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Throughout the decade, the festival had grown in reputation and scope. Events lasted two weeks and took place across the city, including everything from dances to lectures and even cookery classes. By 1967 it was attracting major international talents like Stan Getz and Jimi Hendrix, and acquiring a host of commercial sponsorships, such as Guinness, in the process.
The film programme was chosen by the society’s committee, and were often connected by a common theme, with screenings taking place during the afternoon or at midnight. In an audience survey conducted by The Gown in 1967, film showings came in second favourite only to the concerts. At this point ‘the absence of a purpose-built theatre’ was becoming apparent, with exhibitions being scattered across a number of locations, including the outdated News and Cartoon Cinema on College Square East.
Fatefully, one afternoon, festival director Michael Emmerson met with Michael Barnes, then a lecturer in the Modern History Department, who agreed that the cinema was a ‘long standing need’ and the idea was backed by the university. With support from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Emmerson found a recently converted lecture hall in University Mews, at the back of University Square and for the cost of £4,000 the Queen’s Film Theatre was opened on October 16th, 1968.
The society would exist until 1971, its function was gradually replaced with Associate Screenings. ‘Excluded from the jurisdiction of the licensing authority,’ these members-only showings allowed the cinema to open on Sunday. It also granted them access to films that had been suppressed in the country. A screening of Joseph Strick’s banned adaptation of Ulysses (1967) proved to be a huge success and was followed by I am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968).
Although the void left by the 16 Club has never truly been filled, its spirit is duly preserved in the determination to present a unique and challenging programme of films. Something that has remained a key sentiment of QFT in the years since.
QFT Launches Brochure Archive
Find out the full story behind the Queen's Special Collections/QFT brochure archive.
Special Collections at Queen’s Library was more than happy to help when QFT approached us for advice about making their 50 years-worth of programmes available online. Being somewhat of a film fan, and a librarian, I thought it was an excellent idea. A resource that would in many ways reflect the changing face of Belfast for the past 50 years, and would also ensure the preservation of these documents for future generations.
Our first suggestion was that the physical copies of the programmes should be held in archival storage boxes. Advice about what type of files to request when digitising the programmes was also offered. TIFF, JPEG and PDF files would be required at a dpi of at least 300. In this instance we worked with Mallon Technology to digitise the programmes. In Special Collections we frequently digitise manuscripts, books and maps and publish on our Digital Special Collections & Archives site, which is essentially digital collection management software (ContentDM). Images can be browsed, searched, preserved and published online. Time and money were, of course, a pressure for the project so it was decided that the most efficient way to provide online access to the collection was to host it on our Digital Special Collections & Archives site. An agreed period of my time was bought out so that I could prepare the public interface, upload the images, and create and add metadata for the individual programmes.
We agreed image file names with QFT and supplied them to Mallon Technology staff, who collected and digitised the original documents. Once the scanning was complete I transferred the digital copies from the Mallon server to our own at Queen’s. I was pleased with how smoothly everything was running, the quality of the images was excellent. The vast number of documents, 338 in total (!), did make me question why I hadn’t requested more time to implement the project …
The next step was to set up the collection on the public interface. I wanted the programmes to be fully text searchable. In order for an image to be text searchable it needs to undergo OCR (Optical Character Recognition), this allows the text characters in an image file to be searched. The PDF files we received from Mallon had already undergone OCR but when I uploaded a sample one it was clear this format would be too slow to load online. JPEG images would have to be used. Thankfully ContentDM allows you to generate file transcripts using OCR. I ensured this was set up on the admin side and changed one of the metadata fields to full-text search.
Dictating the order in which the programmes displayed online was harder than I thought. I wanted the digital titles to reflect what the original documents had been called, but title formats changed regularly through the years. Some included additional titles within, some didn’t include dates, and some were fliers or newsletters rather than programmes. Organising by title wouldn’t work but I did ensure titles were descriptive and followed a pattern. In some cases I had to re-name a number of images. I decided the best way to organise the display of the programmes would be by date. Again, one of the metadata fields had to be changed, this time to only allow specific date formats.
Adding metadata for the individual programmes proved to be the most time-consuming part of the project. Technically I could have added less but the librarian gene kicked in, and so I added: Title, Subject, Description, Creator, Publisher, Contributors, Date, Type, Format, Identifier, Source, Language, Rights. The description field was the trickiest. I intended to provide a very brief summary of each programme but I thought what people would want at a quick glance were the titles of the films. At times there could be 30 films in a programme so, all combined, it was quite a bit of typing! Keyboard shortcuts were a life saver.
I’m biased, but I would highly recommend perusing this wonderful resource, whether for leisure or study. It certainly brought me back through the years. I’d forgotten I was such a frequent cinema visitor in the late 90s! The collection runs from 1968 right up to 2017. It’s fascinating to see the changes in QFT, in film taste, and in the format of the programmes themselves. They prove very useful if you’re looking for an old film to watch; one of the best features of the programmes is that they often provide film reviews (sometimes lengthy) and nearly always a summary description.
The site allows you to browse through the collection as a whole. Alternatively, you can search for a name or a film title and a range of programmes will be displayed (provided those films were shown at QFT!). The entire collection or individual programmes can be searched in this way. You can move easily from page to page on the mobile responsive site and zoom into images if required.
Enjoy the trip down memory lane!
Film Hub NI QFT50 Podcast
Hot on the heels of the #QFT50 programme announcement, Film Hub NI have dedicated the third Film Hub NI podcast to the Queen's Film Theatre.
Joining Film Hub NI for this podcast special is Joan Parsons, Head of QFT, and Dr. Sam Manning, who is currently researching the history of QFT for an exhibition as part of the 50th celebrations.
Listen now for a rundown of the highlights of the special QFT50 programme and learn some fascinating facts about the building, people and films who made QFT into the thriving hub of cultural cinema that it is today.
Thanks to producer Stephen Mullan.
QFT50 official press release
A month-long series of exclusive films and events at Queen's Film Theatre.
The internationally renowned Queen’s Film Theatre is set to host a month-long series of films and events to celebrate its golden year this October.
To mark its fiftieth birthday, QFT, which is an independent cinema based at Queen’s University Belfast, will host a range of events including brand new films and old classics. It will also show off its newly refurbished cinema which has now been completed after a £350,000 investment.
The month-long celebrations, funded by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and the BFI’s Audience fund, will also see over thirty special events take place including in-depth Q&As with Mark Kermode, Jim Sheridan and the Derry Girls cast.
QFT50 will kick off on 5 October with the opening of a special exhibition that will showcase a range of artefacts, photographs and memorabilia from the past 50 years, as well as screen a preview of new film First Man starring Ryan Gosling.
President and Vice-Chancellor of Queens University Belfast, Professor Ian Greer said:
“As we begin this month-long programme of events, I am excited and honoured to lead the celebrations which mark 50 years of QFT. At Queen’s University Belfast, we are privileged to have such a unique cultural venue on campus, with vast experience of bringing a high quality film experience to Belfast audiences.
“As well as being a social hub for our students and the wider community in Northern Ireland, QFT brings many positive economic, cultural and social benefits to the local economy.”
Joan Parsons, Head of QFT Belfast said:
“We are so excited to be celebrating the golden year of Queen’s Film Theatre with an amazing programme of events that takes a trip down memory lane and also looks to the future of film.
“The QFT is deeply embedded in the fabric of student life at Queen’s but it has also been an important part of culture in Belfast itself and I am really excited to be able to present this programme of events and welcome old friends and new faces to the QFT in October.
“With more than 30 special events, as well as our regular programme of film screening there is quite literally something for everyone to enjoy and get involved with. We have films, workshops, talk with renowned film experts like Mark Kermode, book launches, Derry Girls and even a French themed disco with tunes provided by DJ David Holmes.
“The celebrations will mark the contribution that the QFT and film has made to Belfast during some very difficult years in the past and is a testament to the power of film that the QFT is thriving today. We thank National Lottery players for supporting us to highlight and share our fascinating 50 year heritage. We hope that after QFT50 we will have welcomed a whole new audience to the QFT.”
Angela Lavin, Senior Grants Officer, Heritage Lottery Fund Northern Ireland said:
“QFT has been part of the fabric of Belfast for 50 years and many people have strong memories of watching the wonderful array of diverse films that have been shown there over the years. We were delighted to invest National Lottery funding to help the QFT to collate, share and celebrate their rich heritage.
Sarah-Jane Meredith, Manager- UK Wide Audiences, BFI said:
"We are delighted to be able to support QFT as it celebrates 50 years of screening films to audiences in Belfast. The QFT50 programme demonstrates an ongoing commitment by the venue to screening the very best in cinema, bringing great cinematic stories to new and existing audiences and re-kindling a love for cinema in lapsed audiences."
Highlights of the QFT50 Programme
Bloodyminded – First ever interactive live feature film broadcast online and at cinemas around the UK. The film will allow audiences to make its own decisions on the morality of war and decide the ending.
Themed 50th birthday celebration night with screening of Viva Marial, followed by a David Holmes DJ set.
Devils Doorway – Gala screening with director Aisling Clarke (former employee of QFT and first ever female-directed horror movie).
Mark Kermode book launch and Q&A.
Derry Girls screening of favourite episodes with Derry Girls cast and crew.
Closing Night Gala - ‘Widows’ by Steve McQueen with special guests to be announced at a later date.
The QFT 50 celebrations are generously supported by National Lottery funding awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and The British Film Institute.
50 Years of Queens Film Theatre
On 16 October 1968, Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) opened in a converted lecture theatre at QUB
In 1968, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) student newspaper The Gown claimed that, other than the university film society, ‘there is virtually no cinema in Belfast that shows any films other than John Wayne or Julie Andrews spectaculars’. History lecturer Michael Barnes and Belfast Festival Director Michael Emmerson filled this lacuna, creating an independent cinema similar to the BFI-funded Regional Film Theatres. On 16 October 1968, Queen’s Film Theatre (QFT) opened in a converted lecture theatre at QUB with a gala premiere of Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965). Later this year the cinema will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a range of screenings, lectures, exhibitions and events.
In its first years of operation, QFT screened a range of international films based on artistic merit rather than on commercial appeal. It quickly became clear that, though an important cultural asset, QFT was not a sound financial proposition. It remained open thanks to new sources of finance and the astute management of long-term administrator Michael Open (1969-74, 1977-2005), whose complaints that QFT received less funding than its UK counterparts often fell on deaf ears.
While QFT’s south Belfast location was largely free from sectarian violence, the Troubles impacted its programming and operations. In 1970, for instance, the Film Theatre Committee reported that a recent run of poor attendance was ‘largely due to the civic unrest in Belfast’ and, in the following year, the cinema decided to withdraw The Battle of Algiers (1966) from its programme. Furthermore, the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council Strike led to two weeks of closure. It did, nevertheless, fare better than many other Belfast cinemas and offered a safe haven during a period of conflict. In 1977, it escaped a series of IRA firebomb attacks which damaged three Belfast cinemas.
One of QFT’s most idiosyncratic features was its gloomy and concealed rear-alleyway entrance which, alongside a lack of geographical mobility during the Troubles, limited visibility and restricted passing trade. In spite of these limitations, it attracted cinephiles from all parts of Belfast. Filmmaker Brian Henry Martin grew up in east Belfast and recalled seeing Jean de Florette in the mid-1980s: ‘I don’t think I’d ever been to south Belfast.… it was quite foreboding going up the alleyway, you thought something terrible was going to happen and you turned around the corner and there was this little bright entrance and in you went to this completely different world’.
The rise of home video led UK cinema audiences to reach their nadir in the mid-1980s. In contrast to national trends, QFT survived and prospered – In 1983, Open reported that despite a lack of funding or capital investment, patrons are ‘frequently astonished at the high quality of the programming and the high levels of audience in spite of the local civil unrest and spartan conditions of the building’. Troubles drama Cal (1984) broke attendance figures and QFT welcomed high-profile visitors such as David Puttnam and Alan Parker. Dolby Sound was introduced in 1986 and a year later new projectors and cinema seats were installed, replacing the uncomfortable lecture-style seating. Prior to this, Open suggested that patrons had to be ‘tolerant as well aesthetically astute to embrace the QFT experience’. The conversion of another lecture theatre in 1988 allowed the cinema to diversify its programming and provide a greater range of specialised films.
In the 1990s, QFT successfully faced the challenge of the new Belfast multiplexes and retained its status for serving residents with the best of contemporary cinema. Yet its facilities still did not match the standards of its programming. This was addressed in the early noughties when an extensive refurbishment introduced a new café/bar and the gloomy entrance was relocated to a more glamorous location facing the university campus.
In recent years, under the leadership of Susan Picken (2008-2017), and now Joan Parsons, QFT has diversified its programme and regularly hosts events such as Cinemagic, the largest film festival for young people in the UK and Ireland. Film critic Mark Kermode appears annually at QFT and described a screening of Jeremy as one of his ‘most profound cinematic experiences’. Furthermore, the introduction of dementia and autism friendly screenings provides a valuable service for groups previously excluded from cinema exhibition.
QFT’s 50th anniversary provides an opportunity to celebrate its achievements and to reflect on the role of cultural cinema in Northern Ireland. Over the past fifty years it has survived a range of challenges including the Troubles, declining cinema attendances, and the rise of home video and on-demand streaming services. It continues to provide a great deal of enjoyment for cinema-goers in Belfast and beyond.
[Source: Sight and Sound 2018, reproduced from Sam Manning's article]