Looking Back on Two Years of The Cinema Of Ideas

Posted on June 5, 2023 by Catharine Des Forges, Selina Robertson

Categories: The Cinema of Ideas

In this blog, ICO Director Catharine Des Forges and Selina Robertson, ICO’s Senior Programmer (Projects), look back on two years of The Cinema of Ideas, an innovative online platform for collaborative screenings and events.

The original Cinema of Ideas has its antecedents over 15 years ago before the days of streaming and widespread podcasting. We wanted to create a space for conversations about cinema and make it inclusive for everyone. We did a number of live events that were then turned into podcasts, they were hosted at the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) and free of charge. We had an idealistic desire to engage with everyone and anyone. Even then, the ICO ideal audience member was someone who perhaps wouldn’t feel they belonged in other spaces, but we wanted to make sure they were welcome here. We also loved ideas and visionaries, we loved cinema full stop, and in all its forms, we wanted to talk about ideas, not with any endpoint in mind, but just to have a fulfilling conversation. Our first guests and panellists included the writer Ali Smith, filmmakers Bille Eltringham and George Amponsah and cultural critic Gaylene Gould. The ICO was young in those days and so were we! We had a lot of energy, passion and enthusiasm for change.

A virtual cinema

Fast forward to March 2020 and COVID. A lot of people were confined to their bedrooms and logged onto this new (to us) online technology called Zoom. Cinemas were ordered to shut. When we could no longer deliver touring programmes and distribute films physically, how could we stay in touch with audiences? What could we do to support venues and amplify all those voices and films given scant space elsewhere? How to keep hold of the spirit of collectivity and togetherness without being physically communal?

Our thoughts returned to The Cinema of Ideas — to the pleasures and purposes of cinema in all its forms. We decided to relaunch it as a virtual platform, one which we promoted and supported centrally but also one which could be an additional programming platform for our partner venues across the country. Many of the venues we worked with did not have the capacity during lockdown to research and deliver their specialised film programming work. We realised that this was where we could step in to support venues, keep connected with audiences and develop new audiences through new forms of engagement with digital film culture. We also knew that audiences wanted to support their local cinemas during this difficult time and we built in functionality so that audiences could donate to their partner venue of choice.

Black Lives Matter and #MeToo as well as the ravages of COVID were also a call to arms for arts organisations like ourselves to reflect on how to best share our space, amplify a range of voices, and aim for equitable access rather than gatekeep privilege. We worked with critical friends on our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy and these wider conversations were also useful in developing our Emerging Curators programme, which was one of the central tenets of The Cinema of Ideas.

A grey image with large text at the top which reads ICO The Cinema of Ideas. Underneath on the left is a picture of a person holding a film camera to their eye. On the right, text reads: Archival Resistance: Rastafari Women in Britain. Online Panel + Film Screening. 7pm, 26 August 2021.
The branding for the first event in this new iteration of The Cinema of Ideas

In those early days, we were learning (like everyone else) to master the particular digital platforms and maintain communality and functionality in our over-screened world. We were very fortunate to have our capable Marketing team with us from the start. Sami, our Marketing Officer, a technical calm wizard who performed miracles and Patrick, our Marketing Manager who worked with Modern Activity, our design friends from the early days of the ICO, to devise the brand that might make sense to those who needed to hear it. We know that film can nourish and transform us and in that particular moment, we knew that people needed nourishment, support and a feeling of collectivism.

Nothing but eclectic

The programme went live in June 2021 after about six months of intense discussion and planning. We decided that we wanted the programming to reflect the space of a cinematheque. As we darted across histories of filmmaking, movements, themes, forms, ideas, countries and filmmakers, we used to say, ‘It’s nothing but eclectic!’ Selina was responsible for managing the first year’s programme and Catharine took over in July 2022. Our colleague Duncan managed the Emerging Curators programme and worked with those curators, supporting them as they developed their ideas and programmes. We collaborated with some very special people and re-connected with some old friends too, including George Clark who unlocked the ICO’s archive for us, and Simon Ward who moderated three brilliant discussions with Tony Rayns (more on that later!). We were delighted to be able to work with artist-filmmaker and curator Sarah Wood again in a new film commission: Projectionism, a short essay film about cinema and collective memory, which saw contributions of memories from hundreds of cinema workers, makers, thinkers and audience members.

Two people sit in a room with a large bookcase behind them. The person on the left has grey hair, light skin, glasses, and wears a black jumper. The person on the right has grey hair, light skin and wears a red shirt. In between them is a framed film poster for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his past lives.
Simon Ward (left) and Tony Rayns (right) in discussion

More highlights include Mel, June and Jan from the Black Film Bulletin gifting us with their programme The Gaze, a revelatory collection of rarely-screened short films by British filmmakers from the African-Caribbean diaspora. When film historian, curator and critic Pam Hutchinson pitched us the idea for a season titled Working-Class Heroines of 1980s cinema we were hooked. What a pleasure to re-visit Scrubbers (dir. Mai Zetterling, 1982) and Letter to Brezhnev (dir. Chris Bernard, 1985) with fresh eyes, together with Pamela’s fantastic contextualisation and conversations with invited guests. Our collaboration with Rastafarian historian and curator Dr Aleema Gray (which began in 2020 on our Second Sight tour), was especially meaningful because of the work that we did together (with June Givanni and Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm) to re-centre the late D. Elmina Davis and her ground-breaking film Omega Rising Women of Rastafari (1988). Omega Rising was subsequently bought by Criterion to stream on their channel and the BFI’s upcoming Film on Film Festival will be presenting the film on 16mm in June.

We also worked with some new friends including filmmakers Fronza Woods, Margaret Salmon, Lizzie Thynne, an exciting grouping of women filmmakers from Nepal, former programmer of the Scala cinema Jane Giles, environmental authors Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese and the disability rights activist Dr Amy Kavanagh as part of emerging curator Louise M. Milson’s Visibly Animated. We also hosted some fabulous filmmakers such as the iconic Terence Davies, which was such a privilege.

Five people on a video call.
Roundtable discussion as part of Fragments: Burmese Identities In Between. From left to right: Saeed Taji Farouky, Ma Chinthe, Saul Chan Htoo Sang, Yasmin Ullah, Lamin Oo

We were always spurred on by our enthusiasm and passion for cinema, for holding space for conversations and those things not always valued or given space by the commercial industry. We delighted in the experience of watching a short film performance lecture from writer and curator Jemma Desai. Pearl Fedele examined, through the lens of Burmese cinema, how identities and experiences are shattered and reformed through crisis. Xavier Alexandre Pillai brought us up-to-date as they focused on how film fits into the evolving conversation about cultural restitution. We held a live darning session for Jo Reid’s Stitched Up: Protest and the Garment Industry season and learned how to cook delicious Ukrainian food as part of emerging curator Kateryna Pavlyuk’s Feast From the East programme.

Some of our most unexpectedly popular and fruitful strands were the live-streamed conversations with industry curators and programmers, most are not well-known in the wider world but some are legendary within the exhibition sector such as the film programmer, curator, critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns. We were also grateful to welcome Criterion curator, film programmer and writer Ashley Clark and Kim Yutani, Director of Programming at the Sundance Film Festival.

Three people sit around a wooden circular table in a room with white walls. The person on the left has dark hair in a bun and wears a peach blouse. In the middle is a person with short brown hair and light skin, wearing a white blouse. On the right is a person with grey hair and glasses and wearing a suit.
A ‘dinner-table’ discussion on Eastern European food and film, with Alissa Timoshkina (left), Kateryna Pavlyuk (centre) and Dr. Rory Finnin (right).

Our audience responses were phenomenal. We thought we might share one of our favourites here:

“I absolutely love The Cinema of Ideas series – I won’t miss one now, if I can help it. I love the value of it, that it is a transient event. I have loved the content – the live Margaret Salmon Q&A, the Fronza Woods interview and I am really looking forward to Scrubbers. These are films I had never heard of before they landed in my inbox and they have been some of the most enriching, life-affirming films I have seen. As a single woman, I am anxious to go out to the cinema alone at night and these COI offerings feel like a special event, something I can eat a pizza with and they feel culturally significant. Thank you! I have a friend who is a film archivist at the Pacific Film Archive and he wants to watch every one too but is sad when they are only available in the UK. I guess that is about rights but I wanted you to know you are appreciated far and wide!”

“Really enjoy online events as not always feasible to attend in person. Love to hear about all areas of cinema, from the technical/craft side through to production, distribution, film criticism & film culture. It’s so much more inclusive if audiences can access online wherever they are in the world & opens up opportunities for contributors worldwide as well.”

“It’s fantastic to have access to this kind of thought-provoking content while living in a rural area.”

“Revelatory and all-too-rarely-seen films and a sensitive, thrilling and moving interview. More like this, please!”

An online archive

As a legacy of the project, we created an archive of the work that we did. As much as possible, we commissioned new writing and that material is available to read on The Cinema of Ideas website, together with recordings of the Q&As. We were conscious that some people could not watch the films, and so the writing offers wider access and cultural exchanges.

As always we owe a great debt to the BFI who supported The Cinema of Ideas with funding from the National Lottery and allowed us to experiment, innovate and be bold — long-term success is not always measured in terms of immediate numbers or clicks, but for all those people who found nourishment in this work, we are so grateful. Now we are back in the cinema, and so for now, The Cinema of Ideas has to come to an end in this iteration. But just like the original space, conceived in a very different time, it is still there, waiting for that moment when it’s really needed.

Watch all our recordings from The Cinema of Ideas here

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