Edinburgh Filmhouse: Proposed new building could be an Enlightenment beacon – Mark Cousins

The proposed new Filmhouse building in Edinburgh would have a transformative effect on the city, writes filmmaker Mark Cousins.

An artist's impression of the proposed new Filmhouse building (Picture: Grimshaw Architects)
An artist's impression of the proposed new Filmhouse building (Picture: Grimshaw Architects)

How lucky we are in Edinburgh, to have such a cultural repast. I moved here in 1987 because of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and found a home, a harbour, in Filmhouse, the best-programmed cinema in the UK outside London. For more than three decades, I’ve weathered the storms of my life in that look-out, that window on the world.

But when I worked at Filmhouse for five years, as programmer and then director of the Film Festival, and when I was one of its trustees for another five years, I started to see that, from the inside, it has major practical and cultural limitations. Its great staff disguises those limitations well, they make do and mend, but for decades the problems have built.

Scottish society and the world of film have both changed a lot since Filmhouse’s move to Lothian Road in the early Eighties, but as it’s confined in a converted church, it can’t reflect a lot of those changes. Back then, there were a few cultural films released each week. Now there are four times as many. Back then, Scotland was more homogenous. Now Edinburgh is diverse. There was no #BlackLivesMatter in the 80s, no internet through which society’s mosaic of identities and interests could rally. Back then, you could count the number of the world’s film festivals in the hundreds. Now it’s in the tens of thousands. Back then, some people had video cameras. Now there are three billion of them in our pockets.

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Filmhouse has a duty to reflect this multiverse, this modernity of feeling and identity, to show and teach the work of these new filmmakers, to keep up to date with the artform of the people. But it has just three screens (plus the brilliant Edinburgh Film Guild’s little screen), which really limits what it can show.

Income, and cultural richness, restricted

Even if a new film by Pedro Almodovar is still pulling in Edinburgh audiences, it has to be taken off in order to start a new film festival about activism, Africa, Spain, France, Poland or LGBT+ themes. Income is therefore restricted, and so is cultural richness.

Each of those three screens has its own projection box, which is like a restaurant having three kitchens – costly and awkward. Filmhouse does great education work but has no education spaces. There are no separate places for audience discussions. Its café bar, much as we love it and have talked long into the night there, has no natural light and quickly feels cramped.

There’s hardly room to breathe in its offices, where all the work happens. As a listed building, the façade can’t be made to look like a movie house, a pleasure-dome, and so lots of Edinburgh’s citizens don’t quite know that Filmhouse is even there.

A design for a new Filmhouse by Edinburgh architect Richard Murphy has addressed all these problems. It has six screens, big and small, which means we’ll be able to see far more films from more countries, more classics, documentaries, Scottish cinema, animations, children’s cinema, etc.

An imaginative leap

I’m no fan of showy icon-buildings – when Tilda Swinton and I do our projects, we have the mantra “ramshackle rocks”. But I hate to see the Scottish film culture I love – the film culture of Gregory’s Girl, of Lynne Ramsay, of the masterpiece that is the Bill Douglas Trilogy, of Sean Connery, animator Norman McLaren, of Margaret Tait, Ewan McGregor and so many more – fall behind.

Murphy’s design is a long overdue imaginative leap. A short film about what it will be like inside shows that it will have multiple spaces to enjoy films, talks, festivals, Q+As, seminars, celebrations. As a filmmaker myself, I travel to cinemas all the time. Most of the great cities in the

UK and Ireland have exciting, forward-looking film centres – HOME in Manchester is a huge success, Bristol’s Watershed is dynamic, Cardiff’s Chapter is a gem, the Light House cinema in Dublin (mostly underground, like Murphy’s design) is a beauty, even Galway (with a fifth of Edinburgh’s population) has a striking new cinema.

The new Edinburgh film centre is better than all of these. It not only addresses the historical logistic problems, it affords new ways of seeing our city.

Compared to most European capital cities, Edinburgh has precious few rooftop spaces from which we, and those who visit, can enjoy the panorama, the cityscape. From the top two floors of this new building we’ll be able to look across to the castle (lit by the setting sun, on cloudless evenings). Film producers, visiting production companies will be able to rent office spaces or screen their rushes to actors or sales agents.

Culture is a recovery machine

When I was director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, we did our glitzy premieres in the 800-seater ABC on Lothian Road. The new building could host premieres again.

The premiere of Trainspotting 2 was one of the great nights in recent Scottish film culture, but was at the Cineworld on Fountainbridge. I go to the Cineworld regularly, and like it a lot, but the new film centre will offer our major filmmakers and movie stars a dedicated space, a wow factor. And the Edinburgh International Film Festival will finally have a hive, a heart.

Money’s too tight to mention, these days, of course, and it perhaps seems wrong to make this new Filmhouse now. But polls show that one of the things that people have missed most is… cinema. It’s an affordable, luminous empathy machine.

Culture has come to the fore in recent months. It’s a recovery machine. Filmmakers will come from far to show their movies in the elegant new Filmhouse. Murphy’s design is lens-shaped and, when I walked through it virtually, I felt that I was in a lighthouse.

Which is fitting for a city of the Enlightenment.

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