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TIS and their ‘student friendly’ film club

Getting the setting right to enable everyone to enjoy film

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to snag a ticket for an advance screening of ‘Moonlight’, the much lauded story of a young African American boy who faces an extreme struggle coming to terms with his homosexuality. The film is stunning: subtle, heart-breaking and, during this fractious period in history, vitally important. After the screening, the director Barry Jenkins answered questions from the audience with a passion untamed by the media junket circuit.

The film’s power is so strong that it remained unaffected by what seems to be an increasing issue at the cinema. As a regular cinema goer (although my girlfriend would probably describe my film consumption with at least one use of the word ‘addict’), I have struggled over the past few weeks with managing the distraction of the audience. Rustlings of snack papers, incessant talking and beams of phone backlights have, at various points over the past month, taken me out of the film at the moments I should be most absorbed.

This screening of ‘Moonlight’ was definitely aimed at a more mature audience. Pre film publicity focused on upcoming French art house releases. Staff efficiently ushered patrons to their seats whilst offering them glasses of prosecco or champagne to wash down their artisan popcorn. Yet the behaviour from this audience was far worse than my trip the week before to the popcorn encrusted floors of a popular multiplex chain, filled with teenagers high on the sugar rush of Coca Cola and vats of sweets from the Poundland next door.

For a start, as the film began latecomers flooded in, still preoccupied with Instagramming the fact they were at this momentous event. Each flicker of light pricked at my eyes, before the distraction of each latecomer mumbling ‘sorry’ bothered me whilst I tried to concentrate on the opening scene. Throughout the film, the now empty glasses were knocked over, shattering moments of tension or quiet beauty.

So if the children can do it, why can’t the adults? I think it has to do with setting.

Something that the big cinema chains have begun to offer more regularly are ‘Autism friendly screenings’. Working with Dimensions, a non for profit company specialising in supporting individuals with autism and learning disabilities, chains such as Odeon, Cineworld and Vue are rolling these screenings out at over 250 cinemas nationwide.

These screenings do not alter the content of the film in any way. They just change the environment.

In the screenings, the lights are kept on, at a very low setting. Just enough to be able to see if you need to move around. For those on the autistic spectrum, the challenge of sitting still for the entire duration is too much. Too claustrophobic. By making freedom of movement an expected behaviour, it removes the stigma of distracting others by getting up and taking a comfort break. The sound in the theatre is turned down so not to jar the senses and all trailers and adverts are cut completely in order to avoid any potential confusion with the film itself.

Furthermore, the comforts provided by inanimate objects or particular foods (that would usually be non-cinema approved) are welcomed. Not to say that viewers are encouraged to bring three course dinners in tupperware boxes, but no longer are they gawped at for wanting to have a box with exactly 122 chocolate covered raisins.

Cinema staff are given specialist training and understand how those attending will engage with the cinema going process. As one parent quoted on organisers, Dimensions, website gushes ‘Sometimes, me and Isaac curl up together in the chairs or lie on the floor. I can hear the patter of feet as children run around. It’s nice, it doesn’t disturb us, we’re in our own moment and they are part of it.’

On the way home, I reflected on my evening’s cinematic experience and remembered with a smile on my face how I spent the previous day’s lunchtime. At TIS, we have a film club that has seen us watch such film classics as ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Galaxy Quest’ and, er, ‘Gremlins’. Not all of our students are autistic. At TIS, we support students with a wide range of potential barriers to learning. Yet, our film club is ‘student friendly’.

One of the things that we do (and I say we-most of the credit should go our fantastic caterer, Lynette) is set up the room so that the kids can eat their lunch whilst watching the film. They are set up at a desk, lunch in front of them, as the VLC media player chugs to life. There are jugs of water, napkins and cushions. And then silence. Silence and awe as the worlds come to life on the screen. Sure, there is the occasional question (Minority Report did need pausing a few times to explain certain intricacies) but the students support each other by answering the questions before returning their gaze to the film. The students are able to come and go as they need; sometimes, students will need to have a quick walk up and down the corridor after a particularly tense sequence!

Somehow it works and, as a teacher passionate about film, the glimpse of a student sitting open mouthed, fork frozen in time on the way to the mouth, as they immerse themselves in the movie universe, gives you goosebumps in the same way the film itself is supposed to.

Matt Archer, TIS Head of English & certified film buff.

17 March 2017

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