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The healing power of cinema

Owen Evans & Graeme Harper

Published online: 26 Mar 2021

As the world continues to reel from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, as borders are sealed, and quarantines are imposed on travellers, it remains hard to envisage a time when the multiple fractures might heal. Let alone how they might be healed. There is much talk of a ‘new normal’, and what that might look like, especially when so many activities we have perhaps always taken for granted might not be possible for some time yet, if ever again in quite the same way.

And so, with that in mind, what does the future hold for cinema, in terms both of the production of films and the possibility of watching films on a big screen again? As The Guardian’s Steve Rose reported in December 2020, a number of large blockbusters produced by Warners and planned for 2021 release are likely to be released primarily on streaming services, all of which have benefited significantly from the pandemic. No matter that the concept of the home movie has been with us for some time now, it feels as if that concept has been redefined by COVID, with trips to the cinema no longer possible. What if there are no cinemas left for us to visit in the future? Will the big studios even worry any longer about box office returns if large numbers of people now have access to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and so on? As for the traditional low-budget arthouse fare so beloved of the film festival circuit, it too may need time to recover. The reimagining of festivals online can only partially mitigate the loss of opportunities to gather in person and celebrate, and propose, the type of art cinema one might not otherwise encounter or be aware of. Is this truly, as Rose pessimistically ponders, ‘the end of cinema as we know it’ (Rose 2020)?

Rose places responsibility on us, the audience, to make sure that this does not happen. Nevertheless, one wonders too how much unease many people might feel about returning to cinema venues and gathering in large numbers, should large numbers of cinemas survive. Even extensive vaccination programmes might not remove the need for social distancing or mask-wearing, at least not in the short-term, as the virus becomes an endemic disease, which could lead to local outbreaks for a decade or more as some UK public health experts have warned. As much as we have missed the chance to go to the cinema, to the theatre and concerts, or to attend sporting events – all of which will become possible again in time – might we have to learn how to come together in larger groups safely first, before such mass gatherings become something normal, and desirable, once again, so engrained has the need to take care around others become?

Perhaps. Culture in these forms will draw us back, however, because we have missed them so. But perhaps Rose is right to worry a little too, inasmuch as the cinemas may be the most at risk of closure of all cultural venues, precisely because the aura of watching a film in a traditional cinema is very different from watching live music, theatre or sport. And besides, we have indeed had to learn to consume films in other ways now. That has become the norm for so many of us.

This is where the grass-roots film societies and cinema clubs, the importance of which has already been a feature of our recent editorials, really will come into their own. In the UK, Cinema for All has been supporting community-led cinema since the 1940s, and the organisation could really be seen as crucial in the coming years, especially if commercial cinema chains are severely damaged by the economic impact of the pandemic. A large number of community cinema groups responded nimbly to the damage wrought by the coronavirus on screening opportunities and came up with innovative ways of keeping people connected through film. Former Film Society of the Year winners the Leigh Film Society, a group of volunteers in Greater Manchester whose passion for cinema is allied to their grass-roots activism and support for various vulnerable groups within the local area, sprang into action with its ‘Orange Bags of Cinema Sunshine’ initiative, delivering DVDs to individuals and families, especially from minority groups, at risk of severe social isolation during the initial national lockdown in 2020 and who had no access to digital streaming platforms. Meanwhile, up in the Scottish Borders in Selkirk, the Rowlands Film Club moved its regular meetings online to continue to support young people, who had been significantly affected by the pandemic with schools closed. This is but two examples of the ideas community cinema groups came up with to keep people connected through film.

There has been understandable concern about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, and so such community-led cinema initiatives feel all the more vital in seeking to mitigate the worst affects. But when things do eventually ease, such grass-roots groups will surely acquire even greater significance not only potentially in rebooting cinema-going, as long as they still have access to venues for their screenings, but also in helping to heal the wounds more generally within their communities. For such groups are founded on the ‘collective effervescence’ of bringing people together to share a cultural experience, in the manner Emile Durkheim believed fundamental to festivals when originally coining the phrase. At grass-roots screenings, it is often as much about the chats before and after the screening as the film itself: these are truly communal experiences that also intersect with the sense of civic pride and heritage that such gatherings can evoke. As the ‘Creative Health’ report of the All-Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing underlines, ‘casual social contact at local level is central to building trust. Arts engagement, which often involves casual social contact at a local level, is regularly cited as a forum for building trust’ (APPGAHW 2017, 79). Community cinema provides the ideal space for such therapeutic interactions, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. For that reason, such groups could help rebuild the confidence of people feeling safe to gather in larger numbers again.

Community cultural festivals have recently been posited as significant generators of wellbeing benefits (Brownett 2018; Brownett and Evans 2020) for the way they bring local people together to celebrate arts and culture, finding common ground often outside the ‘temples of culture’ (Larson 1997). This selfsame role can, and will, be played by community-led cinema in the future, especially if the pandemic has laid waste to what some might see as the ‘elite’ cultural venues such as theatres and galleries, whose futures remain very uncertain. Moreover, many of these film groups and societies curate progressive, rich and diverse film programmes, from mainstream to much more arthouse fare from across the world. So there is every chance that new generations of (community) cinemagoers might be exposed to the kinds of films they might never have considered seeing before COVID-19 was a thing.

Of course, we hope that cinemas of all shapes and sizes will survive the pandemic intact, catering to diverse audiences. Nevertheless, it may take a while before mainstream film production returns to anything approaching normal, so the commercial cinemas might struggle to fill their programmes with the sorts of films that might encourage mainstream audiences back into large enclosed spaces in sufficient numbers to break even. But the open-mindedness of so many of the volunteer community-led cinema programmers and curators, whose operations are not as beholden to income generation, might be able both to fill the void and to help rebuild audiences with diverse cinematic programmes, and thereby stimulate an appetite for all types of film.

After living through so much anxiety and uncertainty over the past twelve months, it feels good to find reasons to be cheerful again.

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