Frances Northrop of Municipal Enquiry talks to Elizabeth Costello about how Leigh Film Society is embedded in its community
On the 5th July 2020 the government made a commitment to a £1.57 billion investment to protect Britain’s cultural, arts and heritage institutions. What wasn’t clear was whether any of this investment would benefit grassroots cultural projects, many of which have been involved in mutual aid and have helped sustain local communities during the current crisis.
Leigh Film Society founder Elizabeth Costello knows from experience that the relative neglect of grassroots cultural projects compared to mainstream cultural institutions is part of a longer term problem with how community based arts and culture is understood and funded in this country.
“Public confidence is not going to return by going straight out to a theatre” Elizabeth says. Instead, “people will start looking at what their neighbours are doing and going out to do”. “Some might ask ‘is my knitting club back on?’, or ‘can I go for a coffee morning somewhere?’ So, at a local level, it’s about getting those small community groups up and running again. People feel comfortable in familiar environments, so where I live people might not be ready to go into Manchester or Liverpool yet for cultural activities, so they will start more locally”.
It is therefore precisely because these and many other kinds of small-scale community projects, activities and organisations have previously provided a platform for people to express themselves in a multitude of ways, that they can now, according to Elizabeth, start to offer people a safe way back into a world that is still in the grip of a dangerous pandemic. Elizabeth’s experience in Leigh can therefore inform current discussions about how resources should be allocated to help support a rich mix of community, cultural and collaborative community activity to help recover and rebuild in our new context.
A star is born
The Leigh Film Society began its life in a cafe in the town of Leigh in Lancashire in 2013, inspired by Elizabeth’s love of film, her experience of book clubs and a recognition that there was local demand for non-mainstream films and for spaces for discussion. From there, the Society quickly grew to become one of a family of international Film Societies, which have a long tradition dating back over 100 years.
Within twelve months of starting up the Society had found a home within a new organisation called ‘Creative Leigh’ based at The Turnpike Centre, above a council run library, which was a space slated for closure due to austerity cuts. After being asked by a local charity to get involved, Elizabeth was instrumental in saving this space giving it a new lease of life.
Over the course of two years Elizabeth worked with others to turn The Turnpike Centre into a cultural hub for all genres of art, providing a place for concerts, drama performances and art exhibitions, as well a place where the Leigh Film Society could call home.
Following a change in direction from the management of Creative Leigh in 2016, the Film Society has access to one day a month for screenings. Since then, the Society has been largely peripatetic for several years, setting up its screenings in church halls, community centres and town halls, delivering a package of regular screenings for the community.
Alongside their regular programme, which includes a monthly film discussion group and dedicated programmes for older people, those with dementia, young carers and refugees, Leigh Film Society organises its own annual short film festival, which has attracted national acclaim.
Elizabeth received a British Empire Medal in 2018 for her contribution to culture in Leigh. Despite this recognition and the success of these regular Leigh Film Society events, there is still evidence that the kinds of cultural activities Elizabeth supports still don’t get the support they deserve from those who set arts and culture strategy and make the big spending decisions.
Room at the top
“At this point in history it feels like a huge missed opportunity not to have community arts organisations as part of a national conversation about the future of arts and culture in the UK” Elizabeth says. “The independent and community run nature of a Society like this is its strength and has been a key to its success and sustainability.”
“I’m of the belief” says Elizabeth, “that volunteers can and should sit at the same table as professionals, they offer a different perspective”. “When it comes to funding and sustainability, for example, surely the larger organisations have something to learn from an example like Leigh Film Society, which despite not having had external funding is still here, seven years on”.
What makes cultural activities sustainable, Elizabeth believes, is embedding them in the local community. They need to be of interest to local people and directly involve local people in creating them. It is because the Leigh Film Society follows this approach that is successful and held in high regard locally, as well as within the wider independent film community, Elizabeth asserts.
In broader terms, what the Leigh Film Society is looking to do is realise a culturally democratic approach to arts and culture in the community. Cultural democracy describes an approach to culture that commits to actively engaging everyone in deciding what counts as culture, where it happens and who is involved in creating culture. It also describes the need to take a democratic approach to how the resources needed to create culture are distributed and a democratic and community-centred approach to cultural funding.
Cultural Democracy is very close to Elizabeth’s heart and something she is very vocal about on Twitter, which she uses as a platform to talk about where she stands. Since 2013 she has had a consistent position on her values and standards with regard to local cultural production which is informed by her considerable experience of the sector. “I do feel that I have to speak loud and proud about cultural democracy because I feel very strongly that community arts is given a raw deal”.
Home, community and respect are the critical elements which Elizabeth believes keep Leigh Film Society true to its founding ideas and give it integrity. “When the Society was founded we wanted it to have a clear ethos so it had three clear aims, which were: to fight against social isolation; to create opportunities for young people; and to support community cohesion.”
These are the aims that Elizabeth believes have kept the Society grounded and focused and by staying true to these aims Elizabeth is proud of how much the Society has achieved and how embedded the Society has become in its home town. Accountability and transparency are vital to its on-going success and continued development.
This grounding in place and these clear principles that are the heart of the Society come directly, Elizabeth believes, from a strong set of values she learnt in her childhood. Elizabeth “grew up in Salford, was the child of a single parent with six siblings living on a council estate” and was taught that if you give something back then that makes the world a better place.
Elizabeth’s journey has also been shaped by some serious incidences of ill health. She had kidney failure, unrelated to but directly following 2 years of successful treatment for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2006, which included five years of renal dialysis, “I had a lot of time on dialysis and a lot of thinking time as well. I had to rethink how I wanted to spend the time that I had in good health and my love of film was top of the list, so I started thinking of how I could give my love of film a community focus”. A transplant from a stranger on the donor register gave Elizabeth the freedom to develop her idea.
There is a positivity and pragmatism to Elizabeth which is deeply inspiring. It feels almost impossible to see where Elizabeth ends and the Film Society and local community begins but, in many ways, this is the project’s strength. It gives Leigh Film Society the grounding it has needed over the last 6 years and has helped the Society embed itself in the local community and grow in a way that means ownership of the Society is shared and the organisation is sustainable - with a commitment to community, independence and the common good - through mutual aid and building up of a shared culture.
Orange bags of cinema sunshine
It was this shared culture and this commitment to community that meant the Society was able to act quickly in response to the recent Covid 19 lockdown. “In a time of crisis” Elizabeth says, “the first thing you should look at is ‘how can I help somebody?’ So we looked at what it is we do and how it could help local people and we thought, well, if you’re not online, let’s try dropping off some DVD’s with these people and it grew from there.”
So in the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown the Society started delivering bags of DVD’s to some of the older people who had attended the afternoon cinema club and who live alone without internet access. The Society then, very quickly, started getting referrals from the council to other existing members, and from schools and care homes.
In many ways this kind of project was bread and butter for the Society, but what was a real eye opener for Elizabeth was the generosity of local people in the midst of the pandemic. Many people who donated the DVD’s also started donating treats to go along with the DVD’s in the bag – the sweets, chocolate and popcorn you would normally have to accompany a trip to the cinema.
While Elizabeth has been busy sorting through the DVD’s, doing the programming and bagging up, others have been delivering the bags. Elizabeth has been shielding during the pandemic so it’s been a two way street: the initiative has kept Elizabeth focused and given her something to take her mind off being in the house the whole time, while also ensuring she has continued to be involved in the Society and working with the community along with her fellow volunteers.
“This is mutual aid” she says, “ we’ve formed some great relationships doing this, as well as making lots of people very, very happy. As with everything that we have done as a film society, it’s just grown out of existing relationships in the community”.
At the core of all the Society does, Elizabeth says, is a pride about it being an entirely volunteer led and volunteer run organisation: “these people are you, these people are Leigh folk and they volunteer for the Society, you’ll know them, they’re your neighbours, you work with some of these people - they’re very much a part of our community”.
A Taste of Honey
Alongside its work within the community, a close relationship has emerged between the Society and Edge Hill University, which now sees Elizabeth lecture at the university about film and allows the Society to provide volunteering and work placement opportunities for students, so they can see if they are interested in a career in film.
The Society was recently awarded employer of the year by Edge Hill University for 6 years of creating work placement opportunities as part of their annual film festival – where the Society has created technical, media and video support roles for students, which they can then put on their CV to show they have the kinds of experiences many employers seek.
“It is hard to get a job in arts and cultural institutions” Elizabeth says, “so as a charity we will support the young people in our town as much as we can. Leigh is a post-industrial town that needs all the help it can get. Our short film festival brings people from all over the country into Leigh, it’s a nationally recognised festival and sits there with the recognition all the other ones have”.
There’s no place like home
Recently, thanks to the efforts of another community organisation - the Leigh Building Preservation Trust - and the strong partnership the Society has developed with them, the Society has recently found a new forever home at the Spinners Mill in Leigh.
Spinners Mill is one of the most important mill complexes in the UK, it’s a Grade II listed building and is one of the very few remaining double mills. Whilst some of the mill is still operating as a commercial business, making carpets and astroturf, the remainder is let on a peppercorn rent to the Building Preservation Trust for operation as a venue for small business enterprise, culture, art and heritage. This is where the Society has been able to establish their new community cinema.
“The beauty of the space and ethos of the trust means that we can, as part of a group of other organisations, take our first step into the ownership of our own space, while retaining our independence. The Society will continue to maintain its screenings and film programme in all its original venues, but having a new home at Spinners Mill will allow more specialised groups and a wider programme to develop too”.
Being at Spinners Mill means “you’re paying your rent, you’re in control of yourself, you’re your own business but you’re also part of something greater than yourself because you’re part of this mill, you’re part of this shared enterprise. We’re free of control but also part of something because we’re a member of the broader preservation trust”.
The Society may currently be ‘closed’ but they are keeping busy by preparing their space for when they are able to reopen and resume a full programme from their new home. The seating for the new cinema is going to be made up of 140 Imax pre-used cinema seats donated by the London Science Museum, following the recent refurbishment of their theatre. The fact Leigh Film Society were able to source these seats from the Science Museum is testament to the national connections and respect that the Society now holds.
That’s not to say a lot of hard work didn’t go into this too, Elizabeth says. To install the new seats meant a team of six volunteers and three long wheelbase vans travelling to London and taking nearly 48 hours, first to dismantle the seats, then load them by hand into the vans, drive them back overnight and unload and lift them to the 4th floor of Spinners Mill the next day.
This is all a testament to the spirit and ethos of the Society - dedication, pride, quality and what Elizabeth calls “the value of contributing to a positive life”. There is a commitment to, and regard for the Society in Leigh, because the Society continues to play a significant role in building and sustaining the fabric of the community.