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Manchester Film Co-op screening at Manchester Museum

Manchester Film Co-op - an antidote to Weapons of Mass Distraction

From their under-the-radar beginnings in a pub in Salford to the current year-round and region-wide programme of events, a group of committed cultural activists by the name of the Manchester Film Co-op have been organising regular film screenings in niches around Manchester for the past two and a half years, and counting. With a focus on documentary films, an under-represented genre in mainstream theatres, the format of Manchester Film Co-op screenings offers audiences greater engagement with the film’s subject than at most community cinemas.

Manchester Film Co-op originally formed as a film club in 2008 when a 5-person team, including a couple of academics from University of Salford, began a series of monthly screenings at The Kings Arms in Salford. They kicked off a season of films around the theme of Revolution with a screening of The Revolution will not be Televised (Kim Bartley, Donnacha O'Briain, Finland, 2003) - a documentary about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the April 2002 Venezuelan coup.

Eight seasons and 36 screenings later, the pressures of their day jobs meant the team lacked sufficient capacity to regain momentum with their dwindling audience and they looked for some new members. At a meeting inviting new organisers on board, newcomers Sarah Redman and Miguel Fernandez-Arias got excited about growing MFCs audience by taking its screenings on a Manchester tour. Sarah explains:

“We decided on a new strategy for screenings from September 2012, to grow our audience by making our film screenings more accessible. We sought to provide Manchester residents with a rare and critical opportunity to view issue-based documentaries or ‘films for action’ in an iconic, independent social space and always with an opportunity for thoughts to be exchanged in a public context.”

They also saw mutual and exponential benefits in inviting partners to collaborate on screenings, believing that they could use the events to raise the profile of topical issues or of the current activities of campaigning groups operating locally. These partners have included: Positive Money, Platform London, Manchester Zapatista Solidarity Group, IF Campaign, FoodCycle, Envirolution, Manchester Friends of the Earth. Ethical Consumer, GM Free GM, 38 Degrees, The Tyndall Centre, Keep Our NHS Public and, most recently, Manchester Greenpeace.

Some MFC screenings were organised strategically to reach out to certain local audiences. A screening of Trashed (Candida Brady, UK, 2012) in Nov 2013 at Urmston Grammar school was partnered by Breathe Clean Air and located to reach local people concerned about pollution from the Peel Group’s plans for Barton Renewable Energy Plant (an incinerator), while a screening of Gaslands II (Josh Fox, USA, 2010) in early 2014 at Eccles Friends Meeting House supported the activities of the nearby Barton Moss Protection Camp (an anti-fracking campaign).

Other venues have included The Eighth Day Cafe (Oxford Road), The Yard Theatre (Hulme), Inspire Café (Levenshulme), Bridge-5 Mill (Ancoats), Antwerp Mansion (Rusholme), Didsbury Parsonage, the International Antony Burgess Foundation and MMU’s new Business building.

MFC even organised a pedal-powered outdoor screening in conjunction with the monthly Critical Mass Bike Ride at the group’s Fallowfield hub at Platt Fields Boathouse. In January 2015 they ventured into museum territory, with a screening of the Yann Arthus-Bertrand documentary Home (France, 2009) in the Living Worlds Gallery at Manchester Museum and a film about Manchester-born revolutionary Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible (Ceri Dingle, Viv Regan, UK, 2009) screened at The People’s History Museum in March as part of Manchester’s Wonder Women month.

Film screenings are almost always followed by a Q&A with invited guests or a discussion. The Manchester Museum screening was followed by an interview with a climate emissions researcher from University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre. A recent screening of Black Ice (Maarten van Rouveroy, UK, 2014) was followed by an interview with one of the now-liberated Arctic 30 - the subject of the documentary, in which intimate details of his experience in Murmansk prison were shared with the audience at the Eighth Day Cafe.

As spokesperson for Manchester Film Co-op, Sarah is clearly on a mission to challenge the dominant industry model. She explains that despite an explosion in the production of political, action-based documentaries following the success of Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, UK, 2002) this genre is still under-represented within commercial cinema exhibition circuits. She illustrates this by comparing Michael Moore’s next feature film Fahrenheit 911 (UK, 2004), the most widely distributed documentary during 2001-2013, being released at only 200 UK cinemas, when One Direction’s concert documentary This Is Us (Morgan Spurlock, UK, 2013) was released at nearly 500 sites.

“The most successful non-concert documentary in 2013 was Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45, which earned £0.2 million – only 2.5% of the £8 million that One Direction’s concert documentary grossed at the box office”

She says that most cinemas show films as “weapons of mass distraction”, helping to keep our attention diverted from our predicament of inevitable systemic collapse.

“Our culture of continued capitalist consumerism is just exacerbating the planetary emergency…and cinema plays its role in helping us ‘escape from’ the challenges we face. We need to engage intelligently with reality.”

The content of popular cinema also reinforces dominant cultural narratives that are pro-war, pro-capitalist and pro-‘cult of the individual’ and which typically do not encourage and rarely even address any sense of collective people power. 

“As consumers we have been conditioned to expect choice, so many operate their lives under the illusion that they have a choice whether or not to engage with the objective reality of the systemic issues we currently face.

"There is a distinct cognitive dissonance going on in which we continue business as usual, even though we know that our consumer-driven paradigm is causing irreversible climate chaos and prolific pollution, while rapidly depleting our finite planetary resources, including the fossil fuels on which this system predominantly depends.”

Individualised consumption, even of political documentaries, also means impacts are only felt in isolation, at the level of the individual. Derrick Jensen (author and radical environmentalist) says:

“Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mind-set have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.

"The solutions presented are to do with personal consumption — taking shorter showers, changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much - living more simply, thus causing less harm, is still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet. Systemic change requires political organisation to confront whole systems and philosophies that challenge dominant models of economics, politics and social organisation.”

The Manchester Film Co-op strategy is to engage the public with films that challenge the status quo and narratives of the mainstream media, on their own terms. It’s a point of view shared by a growing number of exhibitors in the independent film sector. Annual film festivals describing themselves as ‘radical’ have been appearing across the UK, with regular editions in Bristol and Liverpool, bringing committed oppositional cinema to a range of venues.

Cinema Politica in Montreal are leading the way with a workable year-round model for distributing films to grassroots film clubs, now they are part of a global network of film makers, exhibitors and distributors who have united as the Radical Film Network in an attempt to redress the balance of film distribution in favour of independent and community cinema. Sarah has been involved with this international group from the beginning and is quick to reclaim the word radical for her own project from its ambiguous usage in the mass media.

“The establishment media likes to denigrate radicalism as extremism, with all the possible negative connotations.”

Instead, Sarah insists that politically radical cinema is simply inviting audiences to fundamentally question the legitimacy of the established order, “reversing the camera to scrutinise this establishment’s assumption of their “divine right” to privilege and policies that serve themselves rather than the Greater Good, and explore ways in which this establishment extremism can be challenged”.

Sarah sees MFC audiences as participants, empowered towards activism, and she is clear on the priority areas for action.

“Humankind needs to adopt a dramatic paradigm shift towards renewables now we are facing peak oil and mounting climate chaos on a fossil-fuel-powered planet. We need to return to chemical-free localised food production to feed the world as we face peak soil and colony collapse disorder. It’s insane that while the rich countries bin 1/3 of their food, 1 billion go malnourished.

"We are witnessing the legacy of unregulated industrial extraction and production, polluting our air, land and water systems. Instead of implementing circular economics where mineral resources are infinitely conserved, linear profit-driven economic systems instead are unremittingly depleting our finite bank of mineral resources. Looking at our planetary financial systems, the extreme and unsustainable inequality of wealth distribution across the planet shows that greed and corruption have reached new levels.

“With the proliferation of intelligent film-making which helps us grapple with and act upon our systemic issues, surely we need to increase the distribution and exhibition of these films, to match this production?

"If people are watching these films in their private but atomized spaces, any sense of common engagement and purpose is easily drowned out by the ubiquity of business-as-usual messaging, prevalent in corporate media advertising, distracting and disconnecting us from the issues we need to address, regarding the challenging objective conditions of our current global predicament”.

Sarah now has a vision of a Manchester-based Documentary Film Festival, which would showcase the multitude of documentaries currently being ignored by the multiplexes. MFC have become incorporated this year, which will help them to raise funds for running such a festival. They are also excited that a BFI Equipment bid might be accepted this month, which would enable them to up their game and improve on the quality of their screenings.

In the meantime Sarah has embarked on partnering inspirational documentary screenings with established organisations and venues such as BFI Into Film and The Whitworth Gallery, under the name Paradigm Screenings, to see if she can generate and sustain an audience for these independent more-than-profit screenings and diversify her activities beyond the purely voluntary sector.

Manchester Film Co-op screenings and discussions continue to be priced and organised so as to be open to all. Their distinctive screenprint-style posters are made available on their Facebook page for anyone to print off and paste up locally. Sarah quotes the voiceover on Yann Arthus Bertrand’s film Home warning us: “There is no time for pessimism!”


The Alternative?

Action begins with awareness. Manchester Film Co-op offers audiences a self-organised alternative to mainstream media channels, but rather than offering simply a different form of cultural consumption their presentation of the films they select demonstrates a greater value, beyond the box office. To share and clarify thoughts in a public space is to transform social silence into social noise, social cohesion and unity, their audiences are not passive spectators but participants in a collective and locally relevant response to the issues raised by the films.


What’s ‘The Alternative?’
Find out here about the background, purpose and content of ‘The Alternative?’ series of articles on Platform as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform.