Access at the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF)

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From the start, the organisers of the annual Scottish Queer International Film Festival were determined their event would be as fully accessible as possible, as Festival Coordinator Helen Wright explains to Paul F Cockburn.

Photo of two women in an office.

Still from Women Who Kill

The not-for-profit Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF) was launched in 2015 with the goal of “getting people watching, talking about, and making queer films”. Although describing itself as “an organisation by and for LGBTIQ+ communities,” Festival coordinator Helen Wright and its large organising committee nevertheless believe the festival should be as fully accessible as possible.

“Since our first year, we’ve tried to screen every film with English subtitles or captions, use venues that have hearing loops and are accessible for wheelchair users. As we’ve learnt about it, we’ve spoken to more people; but, from the beginning, we’ve recognised that the term ‘access’ can mean a lot of different things.”

So it’s not just about wheelchair access, large print brochures, and hearing loops. “Access” also covers the festival’s unusual ticket prices; most SQIFF screenings and events operate on a sliding scale (Free, £2, £4, £6 or £8) where audience members are trusted to pay what they can afford.

“Under the ‘access’ section of our brochure and website we also include the fact that we have gender-neutral toilets, so that leads to access to trans and gender non-conforming people. We have content notes available for any kind of upsetting subject matter which could improve access for people with trauma or mental health issues. So yes, it’s a wide-ranging meaning. We want the festival to be as open to as many people as possible, who want to come, and particularly LGBTIQ people.”

Photo of two men kissing in front of a ferris wheel

Still from The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin

SQIFF’s approach to “access” is a combination of seeking out existing examples of “good practice” and ensuring they have sufficient experience “in-house”, which in part explains why the current organising committee is quite large, with 17 members.

“After the first year, when we had some BSL interpretation, we realised we needed more connections with the Deaf community, so we asked a couple of people who are LGBTI-identifying and also Deaf to join our committee. They are able to feed in a lot about what is a good way or not a good way to do things.”

In order to avoid re-inventing the wheel, SQIFF also looks to what others are already doing.

“There are a lot of amazing disabled artists and activists based in Scotland, working away; we saw what they were doing, so when we started up the festival, we knew we should try make efforts towards this. We also look at at what other people, other festivals are doing. Buzzcut, a performance festival in Govan, Glasgow, are also trying to work on improving deaf and disabled access. The Glasgow Film Theatre has a programme called Visible Cinema Club, where they put on an event once a month specifically for deaf communities. We’re talking with them about what does and doesn’t work.”

Looking for examples of ‘good practice’ but also ensuring relevant, authoritative experience is kept within the festival committee, would appear to be working so far, if rising audience numbers are any sign of success.

“We’re not a deaf or disabled-led organisation, but part of the ethos of the festival is to get as many people involved as possible; that’s why we have a large committee with people with lots of different identities. We try to make sure people’s voices are represented.”

A significant contributor to the levels of accessibility SQIFF can provide is down to the venues they use. The principal home of the festival is Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), which she believes are “already quite committed to access.”

“They work with us. At the moment, in their downstairs screen, which is quite small, there is only space for two wheelchairs if they keep the current seating arrangements. We know that we’ll have quite a few people coming along who use wheelchairs. The CCA are totally happy to adapt; they’re able to take the first row of seats out, which means there’s a lot more space for us.”

Although Helen has the official title of Festival Coordinator, she is the first to point out that it doesn’t mean it’s just her festival. “We’re kind of still working out what works best in terms of organisation. The first year no one had any titles, with everyone pitching in; that didn’t work hugely well in terms of efficiency, we found. After that I became the Festival Coordinator, which means I also lead on coordinating our access measures. We’d like to have somebody for whom that was their sole focus, but we haven’t yet got the funding for that.”

The Scottish Queer International Film Festival runs 27 September to 1 October, primarily at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. More information: http://www.sqiff.org