Merseyside Film Institute: The Director’s Cut at Bluecoat

Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for contemporary arts, celebrated a small yet significant part of it’s history on October 7th with The Merseyside Film Institute: The Director’s Cut.

The Merseyside Film Institute, or MFI, was a film society and arthouse cinema based at Bluecoat from 1934 to 1992. During this time, the MFI showcased, as Bluecoat describes, ‘an eclectic range of films, old and new, from classics to the latest independent, European, American and World cinema’, drawing in film lovers scattered across Merseyside. To commemorate the MFI’s legacy, Bluecoat hosted an event exploring Liverpool’s independent cinema scene, both the nostalgia for its past and the potential of its future.  

The first half focused on the MFI itself, with introductory talks from former members Gerry Donaldson and Ramsey Campbell, the Liverpool-born horror writer. As both present their anecdotes about the MFI, from the fainting of an audience member during Psycho, to the joy of having an on-site kitchen, it becomes apparent how personal this film society was to those involved. The first panel of the day, consisting of even more former members and frequent visitors, further proves this.

 

One panelist, Norman Killon, recalls being drawn into the MFI due to their frequent showings of Asian cinema and his own fondness for Japanese culture. Another, Colin Dilnot, experienced the MFI long before he moved to Liverpool for a school trip, a screening of the then-banned docudrama Culloden, led by a history teacher with an unconventional syllabus. The screening of an anti-war film was not the only time the MFI became linked to political ideas. As Liverpool has often leaned towards the left, and political frustrations often find their way into film, the former members acknowledged that the cinema’s programs seemed to move, whether consciously or not, in a radical direction.

Nobody was short of stories to tell about the MFI, nor was this restricted to the six panelists. When the floor opened for questions, audience members cited their own memories, particularly those who volunteered at the institute as students. One man cites the MFI as his inspiration for studying film in London, and equally a source of grief upon discovering it’s closure once he returned. Another was grateful to simply get his tea for free. Certainly, this is not the only way that the MFI was student and working-class friendly. As an avid cinema-goer in 2017, I was shocked to discover that an average ticket for an MFI screening cost 3 shillings (around 15p today!)

Bluecoat’s commemoration of the MFI draws to a close with a tour of the institute’s old premises. Former members and visitors recall buying their tickets at the old box office, now one of Bluecoat’s many office spaces, and the collection of film posters displayed on a now-blank wall.  As the tour culminated in Lalligras, a Himalayan arts store that once contained 98 seats, a projector and a silver screen, it was clear how nostalgic it was for older generations to revisit their much beloved cinema.

Although I never had the chance to experience the MFI, being born in 1998, its legacy should be known to all younger generations. The institute’s printed programs, available to view on the third floor archive display, never failed to contain a range of films difficult to find in mainstream cinemas. Yet the MFI also offered authenticity. It’s small theatre, where films were only screened twice, drew in buzzing crowds for a shared viewing experience. Every panelist could recall their favourite MFI screening, from former chief programmer Ken Davies’ experience of Battleship Potemkin with a live pianist, to arts journalist Penny Kiley’s with Raising Arizona.

Sadly, the MFI eventually came to a close due to a combination of reasons, primarily the restrictions of 16mm print and the decline in audience membership. Although film is very much alive in 2017, our consumption of it seems to have altered drastically. The popularity of DVDs, and the even larger popularity of streaming devices such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or illegal websites, means more and more people are abandoning the cinema and opting to watch films on TV screens or laptops, often alone. Whilst this certainly has it’s advantages, particularly for those with disabilities, it would be a shame to let the experience of shared viewing decline completely.

Of course, there are many cinemas today which earn a great deal of revenue, but these are usually chains such as Odeon and Vue. Not only is it difficult to imagine the same community spirit of the MFI in these places, but programs are often limited to the latest big budget Hollywood. Independent cinema, on the other hand, can lead to the discovery of a new favourite film, exposure to foreign cinema and more screenings for unknown, upcoming filmmakers. Not only are your options at mainstream cinema limited, tickets are almost always at extortionate prices. A student ticket for Blade Runner 2049 at the Odeon in Liverpool One costs around £12. In 3D, it goes up to £16.

So, with the loss of the MFI and countless other Liverpool-based cinemas, what do we have available to us now? And what does the future hold for independent cinema? These questions are what Bluecoat’s second panel of the day, chaired by Laura Brown of Empty Spaces Cinema and Liverpool Small Cinema, attempted to answer. The latter organisation is cited early on in the panel as the reason for the resurgence of Liverpool’s film scene several decades after the MFI’s closure. For those who never had the opportunity to visit it, Liverpool Small Cinema was a volunteer-run community venue on Victoria Street, that sadly closed it’s doors in April after 2 years of screenings.

Although this has certainly left a cinema shaped hole in the lives of many film fans, there thankfully remains an array of community cinema projects across Merseyside, some of which made up the rest of the panel. It is important to recognise that these are located not only in the centre Liverpool, but across the whole city district, a point that Mark Howard from Hoylake Community Cinema was quick to make. Hoylake is a town in Wirral, about half an hour away from Liverpool city centre, containing a popular independent cinema with monthly screenings. When the panel were asked whether they felt they were part of a scene, Howard answered no because small towns are rarely included. Cultural scenes shouldn’t just exist in city centres, and the areas surrounding Liverpool should receive equal exposure.

However, even the film projects in the centre often struggle to gain recognition. Another issue raised was that of reaching out to audiences. With significantly less exposure and smaller budgets than mainstream cinemas, it can be difficult for lesser-known film projects to gain an audience. Ambrose Reynolds from the Bombed Out Church, an outdoor venue, describes screening a film in the snow and freezing cold to only three people, which ended with only one admirably dedicated audience member remaining. Yet weather conditions are not the only issue, as licensing restrictions can be an even more powerful force.

Although many cinemas can afford to pay for better licensing, small film clubs like Colin Dilnot’s in Wallasey Central Library usually have to opt for ones that prevent advertising, meaning few people in Liverpool are even aware that these projects are happening. There are equally issues with distribution. Joan Burnett, a film programmer for Pride, describes the extortionate amounts one distribution company required to screen a film (£600 for one screening, £800 for two and £1,000 for three). In some cases, films simply aren’t available. When attempting to make a deal to secure a screening of The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson, which documents a vital part of the trans rights movement, Burnett was told it would not be possible as the film was exclusive to Netflix.

These are just a few of the problems that the independent cinema world faces. Behind the scenes, there are clashes with distributors and even filmmakers themselves, volunteers working hard to promote their venues and a significant lack of government funding. Although organisations, such as the ones featured on Bluecoat’s panel, are dedicating their time to combat these issues and keep the cinema scene alive, they cannot do it alone.  

If you would like to encourage independent cinema in Liverpool, simply attending a screening once in awhile could help existing film projects stay afloat! There is plenty to do in the city centre that isn’t too far from campus, including Liverpool’s most prominent arthouse cinema FACT. One to look out for is Liverpool Film Night showcasing short films from up and coming, local filmmakers.

Also consider joining the recently-launched Kinematic Film Club, providing monthly screenings at Make. North Docks, starting on October 19th with An American Werewolf in London. If you’re a music fan, or simply looking for a livelier cinematic experience, Liverpool Philharmonic offers an array of films with live orchestras including Back to the Future in December and Vertigo in May.

Empty Spaces Cinema from the Bluecoat event is a brilliant film project hosting screenings in a variety of venues across the city. For the upcoming Liverpool IrishFestival, Empty Spaces have dedicated a full day to showing Irish films in the Handyman Supermarket, and only at £3-4 each. Also from the event and one to keep an eye on are Bombed Out Church. Due to maintenance issues the church’s film screenings are currently on pause, but keep checking back as they promise to return soon!

If you’re willing to make the trip outside of the city centre, Hoylake Community Cinema – another from last Saturday’s panel – has some fantastic screenings on offer, including Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic thriller To Catch a Thief at the end of this month. My own recommendation would be their February screening of the haunting sci-fi Under the Skin, a film that demands your full attention.

Waterloo’s Plaza Cinema is another excuse to venture out of the centre, particularly for their Halloween screening of Nosferatu (with live piano!) on October 22nd – check out their ‘Coming Soon’ section for more details. If Christmas is your prefered holiday, Woolton Picture House, a half an hour bus journey from the centre, has a vast collection of screenings with something for everyone, from Die Hard to Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The MFI has certainly taught the city a lot about cinema and the world of film, but perhaps the most important lesson we can take away is not to take projects like theirs for granted. Next time you want to see the latest release or are looking for a way to spend the day, consider doing so at one of the many brilliant independent cinemas that Liverpool, and Merseyside in general, have to offer.

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