Who: Passengerfilms was founded by Amy Cutler, a PhD student in Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is currently run by her along with several other volunteer PhD students: Mia Hunt, Liz Haines, Rupert Griffiths, Miranda Ward, and Liberty Rowley.
What: Monthly themed film and discussion nights taking place in large public venues in central locations.
Why: PASSENGERFILMS aims to show the diversity and relevance of geographical approaches. For this reason, it avoids a pedagogical model of having a single speaker talking to what is seen as a ‘civilian’ audience. As a principle we prefer to have several speakers presenting from different angles on any one night. Our audience is made up of interested parties of various kinds, and the drinks breaks are also vital to allow people to circulate, meet each other, and discuss. The film society exists to inform and engage with the public but also to encourage collaboration and the exchange of ideas between film-going communities, film exhibiting communities, academic and non-academic communities in geography, and relevant projects and organisations.
Where: We prefer lively, social spaces, where the boundaries between audience and speaker are more flexible, and where we can avoid the time restrictions in commercial cinemas. Our regular venue is the beautiful Roxy Bar & Screen in London Bridge, with its Chesterfield sofas and film-based drinks offers, although we are occasionally to be found at other venues, including the Hackney Picturehouse, St. John on Bethnal Green, Shortwave Cinema, the Horse Hospital, the Screen @ Rada, Tooting Broadway Market and the Centre for Creative Collaboration.
Images: Architecture screening as part of the London Short Film Festival, Hackney Picturehouse (left) and Panel of speakers and film-makers at the London Short Film Festival screening, Hackney Picturehouse (right)
Passengerfilms (‘the car-crash of geography and cinema’) is a cultural enterprise, founded and run by volunteer PhD students, which aims to bring hot topics from cultural geography to the film-going public in London. Interactive monthly events combine feature screenings and short films with brief think tanks, drinks and networking, and talks and Q&As by guest researchers and filmmakers.
Cultural geography is not very well known as a discipline, but it has a unique contribution to make to discussions about film, landscape, place, and politics. Passengerfilms’s on-going programme aims to bring together the previously separate conversations going on inside and outside of the academy about geography. It also brings geographers into the exciting new cultural developments in community cinema, ‘event-based cinema’, site-specific events, and non-commercial film exhibition.
Our nights are arranged into seasons. At the start of this year, for instance, we ran a season of five screenings around ideas of urban space, in collaboration with UCL Urban Lab and the Bartlett School of Architecture. The season model allows for a more sophisticated look at the ideas involved; it also allows us to build and maintain particular audiences, and create more constructive and substantial on-going discussions. Seasons will often involve the participation of particular venues, institutions, archives, arts organisations and research groups, although we occasionally run one-off collaborations as well (for instance, tying in a screening to an academic book launch.) Collaborators outside of the University of London have included Open Cinema (the cinema for the homeless, to whom all our proceedings went on the night), The Old London Underground Company, UCL Urban Lab, The UK Green Film Festival, The London Short Film Festival, Scala Forever, Assemble, Bermondsey Square, Igloo Architecture, the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group, Landscape Surgery, the Autopsies Research Group, Fugitive Images, Brick Box, Southwark Cyclists, the Vintage Mobile Cinema, Screen Machine, OneWay Theatre, The Bentham Project, the BFI, Rushes Soho Shorts, The South East London Film Club Network, the Digital Cultures Research Centre, Resonance FM, PM Press, Picturehouse Cinemas, Policy Press, Cinematic Drifters, the Open City Docs Film Festival and the British Library.
What worked well?
To have a varied line-up of speakers of different kinds, balancing director Q&As with conceptual talks and visual presentations. Find more details on the individual events here.
What didn't work well?
While it is good to be adventurous with events and collaborations, straying too far from our ‘main’ audience can be a very, very un-economic use of time. It took us a long time to learn to say no to opportunities which were flattering, but not directly involved with academic engagement.
The British Federation of Film Societies gave legal advice; Filmbank has the largest online bank of film licenses. It was vital to set up regular connections with certain film distributors and exhibition spaces, such as Dogwoof and Axiom. We relied on academic affiliations and the enthusiasm of guest speakers and guest co-curators. We also relied on creating a good profile within the local and London-based film exhibition communities, which meant networking at film community events and programming at multiple venues and joint seasons. The largest (and most difficult) resource required was time: the programming and curation of events would fall flat without a huge amount of time given to weekly admin and marketing.
1. It is incredibly important to balance both the public appeal and the academic appeal of Passengerfilms in order to create and sustain a rewardingly mixed audience. We research academic audiences through listservs, research centres, departmental mailing lists etc., but must put equal effort into film listings, cultural guides and event blogs.
2. Academic talks must be to the point and entertaining; other means can also be used to disseminate the academic ideas. In the run up to each screening, for example, we write extensive programme notes and post them on our blog, with hyperlinks to relevant research websites, articles, online projects and recommended publications on the theme, and begin teaser discussion threads on our Facebook page and Twitter (@Passengerfilms). At the event itself, we provide printed programme notes, and also encourage audience members, speakers, and others to bring along any relevant material they may like to exchange, which we set up a table for.
3. However, we also make sure to keep up the level of cult entertainment on the night, with themed music, themed drinks, and other aspects (for instance at a ‘Day of the Triffids’ eco-horror themed screening in collaboration with the John Wyndham archive we filled the cinema bar with actual carnivorous plants, sourced from Essex Carnivorous Plants).
4. We have learned a huge amount from the models of other non-academic ‘cult’ and ‘community’ film societies in London. So one major tip is – LOOK AROUND at the different models elsewhere which are popular or important, even (or particularly) those that have no relation with academia. They will probably have something to teach you about their own networks and modes of engagement.
5. Another tip is to not be too modest. Self-promotion is very constructive in the creation of events and audiences. Recognition of Passengerfilms has been helped, for instance, by receiving the British Federation of Film Societies commendation award for ‘Best Film Education Programme’, which we nominated ourselves for.
“PassengerFilms is a wonderful bridge between academic and popular cultures. It offers an accessible, fun, and provocative environment which brings cultural geography -- and its associated debates -- to a wider audience whilst at the same time allowing films to speak for themselves.” Dr. Innes Keighren, Lecturer in Human Geography
“PassengerFilms's screenings are a very effective way of bringing together people from different backgrounds, disciplinary and otherwise, to reflect on the diversity of reactions that an audience normally has, which is enhanced and explored further by the discussions around the films themselves. It's a great initiative.” Dr. Carlos Galviz, Research Assistant in Geography
Name: Amy Cutler
Amy is a Public Engagement Ambassador. Read more about her here.