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Setting the scene for genre cinema's new direction

Historically, genres such as horror, fantasy and sci-fi were dismissed as weightless escapism, living in the critical shadow of high-brow cinema. In recent years, however, these films has gained educational credibility. Building on that theme, Dr Russ Hunter has taken a more academic approach into the genre film festival circuit. The impact of the study has triggered a surge in attendances, more nuanced schedules, bigger budgets and a wider appreciation in places where the currency of such cinema has been underestimated – notably, Slovenia.

The allure of cinema has always been compelling, but the influence of certain genres – beyond the mere screening of a movie – has divided opinion. Dr Hunter, Senior Lecturer in Film & Television at Northumbria University, led a team of researchers – including Northumbria University trio, Dr Steve Jones, Dr Jamie Sexton and Dr Johnny Walker – on an international tour of film festivals, with a view to further developing the educational profile of genre cinema.

Using their research specialisms in genre and cult cinema, the team organised several public-facing educational events at Abertoir Horror Festival (Aberystwyth, Wales), Offscreen Film Festival (Brussels, Belgium) and, most prominently, Kurja Polt Genre Film Festival (Ljubljana, Slovenia). Their activities included organising and participating in film festival symposiums, industry panel discussions, introductions to films and masterclasses with directors and actors.

Tellingly, the team’s work demonstrated that the participating film festivals benefitted materially because of their partnerships with the Northumbria University team. The collaborations impacted upon structure, trajectory and overall success, while the presence of academics allowed festival organisers to apply for additional funding, by adding educational content to the schedule. Indeed, since the team’s involvement at Kurja Polt in Slovenia, its budget has increased from 6,500 Euros in 2016 to 31,000 Euros in 2019 – a huge difference to a festival operating on a limited budget – and increased festival attendance by 20%. The association even allowed festival director, Maša Peče, to pay her volunteers (an extremely rare occurrence on the festival circuit), invite more film guests and add more screenings.

Furthermore, findings were translated into Slovenian for the national film journal, Kino!, while Dr Hunter and Dr Jones even appeared on Slovenian television and radio to talk about the importance of festivals and appreciating different film genres. The exposure has thus increased attendances, media coverage and local education relationships, while also triggering a more nuanced offering at festivals. It has also motivated people to debate and deconstruct the films they consume, however disparate or obscure.

Typical here was a talk Russ Hunter gave on 1980’s Italian ‘zombie cinema’ at the 2018 edition of Kurja Polt. He suggested that – although the films were superficially cheap and sometimes even comical – they contained bravura aesthetic moments and – importantly - also contributed to environmental discourses in cinema and beyond, often referencing specific environmental disasters in Italy or alluding to wider ecological concerns. He concluded that, when you dissect such films, many explore real-life issues and have far greater depth than they get credit for.

For future reference, the researchers have created a bank of knowledge which festival organisers can use to add variety and educational content. Meanwhile, the team are keen to work closely with local students, as evidence suggests they are starting to add the research to their reading lists and engage with genre cinema in different ways.

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