BY Rafa Sales Ross in Opinion | 24 NOV 22

What Recent Independent Cinema Closures Mean for Scotland

Rafa Sales Ross, a former employee of the now-closed Belmont Filmhouse in Aberdeen, describes what's at stake with public funding cuts across film and culture

BY Rafa Sales Ross in Opinion | 24 NOV 22

My connecting flight from Rio landed in Aberdeen on a rainy Tuesday evening in 2018. By Wednesday lunchtime – still dazed from jetlag, but craving the familiarity of that dark, reality-suspended cocoon – I had found my way to the city’s only independent cinema, the Belmont Filmhouse. Nestled in a charming, cobbled street in the city centre, the Belmont originally opened in 1896 as a trades hall. Two years later, it hosted an early film screening of footage of Queen Victoria at Balmoral and, by 1910, it had been converted into a permanent cinema. Over the course of the subsequent century, the cinema closed and reopened several times until, in 2014, the lease was taken over by the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI) – the non-profit organization behind the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the world’s oldest continually running film festival, and the Edinburgh Filmhouse.

In the years since that gloomy Wednesday, I went from being a regular cinemagoer to a member of staff at the Belmont, joining its team in 2021 to manage community engagement and learning. The people I crossed paths with over the years became my allies in shaping what the cinema should represent for the local community. I listened to their stories and told them mine, discovering in the process that an overeager Latina immigrant and a retired ironmonger from the shores of Peterhead were not so very different once they were inside the old granite building they both loved.

Belmont Filmhouse
Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons 

During my time at the Belmont, I made it my priority to ensure the cinema was as welcoming a place to others as it felt to me, providing a much-needed cultural and social lifeline to those facing isolation. As a team, we worked on increasing captioned and audio-described screenings, with BSL interpreters onsite for all live events. In partnership with local LGBTQ+ charity Four Pillars, we launched the Queer Film Club, which saw a support worker in attendance at every screening to offer advice on accessing mental health and healthcare services. Likewise, our team consulted social workers to guide senior members of the community on how to access benefits that would ensure they could heat their homes as the UK’s cost-of-living crisis took hold.

It was at the Belmont that, only a few weeks after coming out as trans during one of the youth meetings held at the cinema, a young person first introduced themselves publicly by their chosen name at a screening they had programmed. It was also at the Belmont that a Deaf father was able to watch a film with his daughter for the first time in 32 years. And, after another screening, a queer person left a note to say that the few hours they’d spent at the Belmont had given them the strength to return home, where they lived in painful suppression of their true self.

With the recent collapse of CMI leading to the closure of the Belmont and Edinburgh Filmhouses, both cities have lost more than a cultural venue: they’ve lost a vital community space where audiences were treated with compassion as collaborators. As cinema conglomerates frantically adjust to the dire economic reality of the industry, accessibility and inclusion become less of a priority, depriving sectors of the population of the cinemagoing experience. Even more worryingly, the closure of the cinemas has brought to the fore the struggles of other Scottish arts organisations.

Modern One Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Modern One, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Less than a week after the cinemas closed their doors, The Art Newspaper published a dossier on the fragile state of Scottish museums. Lucy Casot, the chief executive of Museums Galleries Scotland, claimed the current art sector crisis is “the biggest threat that people have seen to their organisations for more than 30 years.” Public funding has not matched the rapid inflation levels, an issue aggravated by the ever-urgent cost of living crisis. Museums and galleries in Edinburgh might not be able to open their doors this winter, said the director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland, John Leighton.

Two weeks after the CMI news, another blow came as DanceBase, Scotland’s national centre for dance, announced it was laying off a large part of its staff in a drastic attempt to cut costs and avoid permanent closure. The measure was taken due to a “perfect storm of inflation, increased energy bills, decreasing ticket sales and static public funding.”

Since then, other cinemas have followed Filmhouse and Belmont Filmhouse’s dire fate, with the Premiere Cinema in Cardiff and The Light House cinema in Wolverhampton ceasing operations in the past month. “Consider this another huge warning,” said Darryl Griffiths, one of Light House’s former employees, on Twitter. With the loss of public funding, independent, community-focused art spaces risk being driven towards a painful extinction, withering away, one pained farewell at a time.

Main image: Nathan Coley, There Will Be No Miracles Here, 2007–09. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Rafa Sales Ross is a Brazilian film journalist and programmer, currently living in Scotland.