September is Scalarama film festival month and National Museums Liverpool is happy to be taking part with a programme of free film screenings across our venues on the waterfront! Here, one of the International Slavery Museum's Young Ambassadors, Laila Waraich, talks about her experience of working with Scalarama film festival this summer and being a young film programmer:
As one of the International Slavery Museum’s Young Ambassadors, I helped to organise a public screening at the Museum of Jordan Peele’s acclaimed film Get Out in June. The story follows a young Black man in America who goes on a trip to the country to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The visit takes a sinister turn when he learns the family has a history of luring Black people to their home for a horrifying purpose. The aim of our screening was to show a film featuring positive or non-stereotypical representation of people of colour and to challenge the frequently negative depictions we all see daily from Hollywood and the wider media. But we also wanted to organise a fun opportunity to see a scary, funny, contemporary film.
The first stage in our planning was a workshop led by Monika Rodriguez and a team from Scalarama Liverpool. During the session, we discussed what our ideal cinema would be like. Although most of our ideas weren’t quite achievable; ranging from a screening on a white sandy beach to watching the film in our pyjamas in bed, it helped me to understand how the environment you watch the film in matters to how much you enjoy it. We all realised there were lots of things we didn’t like about conventional cinemas, from sticky floors to ear-ringingly loud audio, and we decided to cut them from our event. The thing I liked best about designing our own screening was the freedom to create a cinema experience we thought our target audience would enjoy most, and would have the largest chance of passing across our message. However it is also a big responsibility to host a public event that is both enjoyable and impactful. Monika explained to us the importance of an introduction to an audience and how to lead the Q&A session we had planned. It was important for us to have done our research on the film in order to steer the discussion and get our audience talking. Monika reminded us that our cinema-goers would be just as nervous to speak to the room as we were!
Another important decision we made with our audience in mind was the choice of film. We researched lots of options that we felt were both entertaining films but also featured BAME characters in leading roles. It was important that the films contained positive representation and didn’t fall into the common and dangerous trap of lazily stereotyped people of colour that we came across a lot, even in recent Hollywood pictures. Among the options discussed were Belle; Moonlight, 2017’s Best Picture winner; and Loving, about an interracial couple’s famous battle against the law. When looking for films, we were conscious of the need for it to be an entertaining, engaging film that would appeal to the general public, as well as ‘important.’ I found this aspect of film programming very interesting; the programmer has to balance what is likely to be popular with the audience as well as personal preference. This means it is not always the best idea to pick your favourite film or an obscure, vintage, foreign language documentary when planning a screening. Eventually after several rounds of tense group votes, it was either Black Panther, the popular Marvel superhero blockbuster with a mainly black cast, or Get Out. Choosing the winning film was even closer and more difficult, but eventually we decided Get Out featured both clever social comment and exciting action, making it perfect for us.
In the run up to the event we began a Marketing campaign, another aspect of film programming that Monika stressed the importance of for a successful event. Other members of the team did extra research, wrote a promotional blog post for the International Slavery Museum's website, while I took part in writing web copy to further promote the film. I really enjoyed this because I gained experience of how to market public events from the inside, under the guidance of Education team at the International Slavery Museum. As a group, we also developed ideas for a poster for our event, which we passed on to Toucan Tango, a Liverpool print company, who turned the design ideas into a beautiful poster. It was fun to see our ideas brought to life and made into artwork that was specific to our project, with the detail featuring symbolism of enslavement taken from objects in the Museum’s collection.
On the 16 June, we hosted the screening at the Dr Martin Luther King Jr building at the Royal Albert Dock, Liverpool. After I delivered a short introduction welcoming visitors and providing some background information about the film, the lights went down. The Scalarama workshop was very useful when I was choosing what to say in my introduction, as it helped me to understand how different information the audience does or does not have before watching a film changes their experience of it.
After the film, the whole Young Ambassadors group, as well as Dr Richard Benjamin, the Head of the Museum, sat on a panel for a Q&A style discussion with the audience. At first the discussion centred around our opinions of the characters and talking points about the film, such as an alternative ending, before we moved on to issues of race relations in the UK compared to America, where the film is set. The fact that watching the film created the kind of conversation about race that it aims to do, at our screening, was really positive and exciting. It also helped to convince me that our Marketing of the event was successful, as we ended up with a room of like-minded people having an interesting conversation. As well as the film, there was also a handling table of objects from the Museum's collection relating to the legacies of enslavement covered in the film and historical representation of people of colour, with Ambassadors on hand to explain the significance of items to the visitors. Finally, we handed out screen-printed copies of the limited edition poster to all the guests as a reminder of the occasion.
Overall, I hope everyone enjoyed the film at our screening as much as we did, even after having seen it before. Hosting a screening is a rewarding experience because you get the opportunity to share something you care about with members of the public. It also taught me how valuable it is to discuss a film with others, as everyone has different opinions and sees the same story from different angles, creating interesting questions that stayed with me well after the screening finished. Becoming a cinema is fun, exciting and not as hard as you would think. Most importantly, people will definitely turn up! If you do have an idea, you can take part in Scarlarama’s September festival.
National Museums Liverpool is taking part in Scalarama film festival this September with a programme of films across our waterfront venues, beginning with a screening of Hidden Figures at the International Slavery Museum, and its Young Ambassadors, on Saturday 1 September.