Films that explore the age-old question of what it means to be human and to be alive are exciting things to experience. They are mirrors for humanity, reflecting back at us expressions of who we are, what we’re capable of doing and what we actually do (or don’t do).
The ones that accomplish this with majesty are counted among the most meaningful and relevant of contemporary artistic creations because, viewed by national and international audiences, they have the potential to influence how we understand ourselves and how we address our individual and collective problems.
In other words, if we see something about ourselves, perhaps through a depiction of something we’re doing or not doing (for instance, “Hotel Rwanda” reminded us how, just a decade earlier, genocide approached and unfolded before our very eyes, prompting us to question why and how we could allow such a thing to happen), then we find ourselves with the option of responding to new information by thinking critically about our own values and beliefs, or otherwise making the changes in our lives that help us optimize our potential as human beings.
Film studies programs and film societies have always known and appreciated the power of the cinematic experience, but we’ve gradually moved out of theatres and into our living rooms, bedrooms and even cars to watch movies.
Without the opening night lineups, the shared excitement of seeing a new film and even the overpriced concession stand candy, have we relinquished any significant part of that experience?
Memorial University dean of graduate studies Noreen Golfman organizes the MUN Cinema Series and is perhaps the island’s keenest film enthusiast. And, to answer the question, she says, yes, indeed we have.
Golfman took over the school’s film society in the early 1990s, just when video rental stores were popping up everywhere and precipitating a shift from cinematic experiences being shared among big groups to being shared with small groups or alone, delivering a blow to the society’s ability to draw people to public screenings.
“Campuses all over North America had film societies,” she explains, seated behind her desk and surrounded by heaps of paperwork. “Everybody had memberships. The ticket prices were negligible and it was about contributing as stakeholders to the pot for films to be rented.”
The screenings were also moved from MUN’s Little Theatre (now the Reid Theatre) to the engineering building, which also affected attendance rates.
So Golfman struck a deal with Empire Theatres for weekly screenings at the company’s Avalon Mall location, a move that effectively expanded the film series’ reach to include new demographics of audience members.
“We developed a really fruitful relationship with Empire,” she recalls. “It started off with them not knowing what they were getting into, but they went with it.
“The local theatre guys have been fantastic,” she continues. “They don’t do any programming. All the programming for Empire comes out of Halifax, and those decisions, I’m sure, are massaged by somebody’s notion somewhere of what box office is and what the market will sustain.
“I think that should and can be challenged, but that’s a general observation. It’s clear to them, and I’ve known this all along, that there’s a hungry appetite for movies that are not mainstream.”
And with that, the MUN Cinema Series has not only survived but thrived since it moved to its present location, where it’s been running 14 years straight.
Golfman’s research in film studies represents both her personal passion and her professional world, she says.
“It’s part of my life. It’s what I breathe.”
And though she laments the technological trends that have posed challenges to the shared experience of cinema, including the current phenomenon of pirating art online, she doesn’t think the audience that prefers the “big screen effect” will ever dissipate.
“I guess it’s a paradox,” she says. “You’re an individual experiencing these things, but you’re part of this audience, this community you’re watching it with at the same time.
“Normally people will emerge from the so-called ‘feel-good’ movies, movies that will resolve (problems) in some affirmative way, whether it’s global politics or personal life experience,” she explains.
“I just think it’s a truism of the human experience that people, yes, want to be entertained, challenged, provoked and use their minds. But they also prefer to emerge from something like that feeling as if, you know, things can be better, things can be good.”
Over the years the MUN Cinema Series has screened some of the most important films of our time. This winter’s lineup features a wealth of attractive films, too, including “Le Havre,” which plays today at 7 p.m.
“Without giving away too much, (it’s) a film in which everything happens exactly the way it should happen. Here’s a crisis situation, (and) you could see how it could go tragedy or comedy. And the happy resolution is in some way totally unrealistic because we’ve come to a view of human nature not being inclined to work for the greater good, let’s say,” she says.
“But that’s what audiences want to see, that’s what they feel good emerging from. There’s something validating or affirmative about that. That said, I don’t shy away from bringing dark films in. It’s all there. If you don’t like it, OK, but what’s your tolerance for engaging with some dark stuff?
“People are doing serious work, are interested in big questions and are aware of the world,” she continues. “The world’s quite different now — awareness, information, complexity, immigration, homelessness, poverty, inequity, the challenge of finding love in a totally
f---ed up world, you name it.
“Serious films are going to be taking up these issues in one form or another,” she says. “The perfect story or film is the one, whether it’s comic or tragic or whatever tone it’s hitting, that grounds something personal and something very, very large, so that you’re working on several levels (and) you know the story you’re seeing is typical of many, many stories that are going on in the world.”
For more information on the MUN Cinema Series, including the complete winter schedule, visit www.mun.ca/film.