MAC Interviews: Dr Michele Aaron, founder and curator of Screening Rights Film Festival

Mon 18 November 2019

Dr Michele Aaron is the founder and curator of Screening Rights Film Festival and is Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick. In anticipation for Screening Rights 2019 this week, we interviewed her to find out about the background of the festival and the mind behind it…

What prompted you to start a film festival on the subject of social justice specifically?

 My research has always focused on the representation of difficult subjects on screen. In my opinion, mainstream cinema tends to get it completely wrong. Mostly, the filmmakers behind these films are entirely detached from the subjects they are creating their film around and end up somewhat glamourising it. As a result, an audience will flock to see these films which are about subjects they wholly dislike – war, illness, abuse – and utterly revel in it.

With Screening Rights, I look for films where the filmmaker has a real investment in the circumstances taking place in the story - this is immediately apparent in the programme. I’m also very aware of the importance of choosing films that aren’t often shown in the local area, and bring them to people who may be interested in seeing them but don’t always get the chance – especially not on the big screen.

This is the fifth Screening Rights Film Festival. When it was first founded, did you envisage it carrying on?

Yes I did, even if I didn’t know if that was necessarily going to be possible. When I was based at the University of Birmingham I tended to do a lot of singular events under the name ‘Screening Rights’ which were very successful. I think something that stands out about the festival is that it does have a research-based, academic aspect and people seem to like that. After a series of these one-offs, I realised it was better to just cut to the chase and make a festival out of it!

Do you feel you are always constantly on the lookout for films for the festival specifically? What do you look out for in particular?

Yes, through my research I suppose I have to be. A really wonderful place I go to find films is Sheffield Docfest. I’ve also built up a good network of contacts who are great for recommendations.

When I’m on the lookout for films, I don’t watch out for films that just focus on saying the unsaid - even if they are very good at it – as those films tend to lose their grip on how to use the power of film as its own medium to convey a message. I am looking for films that say the unsaid whilst consciously using cinema to help them say it.

Do you plan to expand the festival?

Well, I suppose the festival has already expanded. It started at the University of Birmingham when I was based there, and has now moved down with me to the University of Warwick. However, we’re hoping to really take hold of Coventry for the UK City of Culture in 2021 and of course when Birmingham hosts the Commonwealth games in 2022 we’ll be having conversations about working with the creative schedule surrounding that.

It seems that although these films look incredible, they could be pretty emotional and hard-hitting. Is there anything you would recommend watching after to lift our mood?

So, it’s crucial to understand that this festival is not simply showing grim, bleak films. They are not just about making you want to feel things, they are about making you want to do things. These are not just films about social justice, these are films that have harnessed the power of film to raise awareness about these issues.

It may not be a festival of entirely happy endings, but it is a festival of hopeful ones.

Screening Rights Festival 2019 takes place Thursday 21 - Sunday 24 November with the majority of the programme hosted at MAC. Parts of the schedule are also being screened at Square one, Coventry.