Matchbox Cine's Sean Welsh discusses their upcoming screening of Shelf Life (1993) and the pandemic's potential positive impact on cinema accessibility and the hope that hybrid events have brought, including an industry shift in sincerity towards subtitles.
Shelf Life is a film about three deranged adult children, raised together in a bomb shelter. It was conceived by the writers (also the cast) "as a result of their rumination on what must become of people boxed in tiny spaces for long, long periods of time." Released in 1993, it’s the little-seen, underappreciated swansong of a fringe director (Paul Bartel, perhaps best known for Eating Raoul and Deathrace 2000) and a film long out of circulation, otherwise unavailable. It’s an apposite title to mark a return towards normality - as we’re encouraged to test the air above our own bunkers - and of course kind of a weird choice, given the context. Matchbox (myself and Megan Mitchell) take as our guiding principles the celebration of "the orphans, outcasts and outliers" of cult cinema and the intention that our events should be open to all and that all are welcome. Which is to say, we like to screen weird, incredible films that you can’t see otherwise and we try to make those events as accessible as possible. Of course, we’re tempting fate, after many lamented and commiserated postponements (not to mention the quiet, lonely cancellations that we kept to ourselves), to announce a physical event, albeit a small and hybrid one. But we chose Shelf Life, as we chose all our events, because it’s worthwhile to champion and because our way of championing it is, we think, worthwhile.
Shelf Life (Paul Bartel, 1993) | Trailer from Matchbox Cineclub on Vimeo.
Our “discovery” of Shelf Life, through Northwest Film Forum’s online screenings in April 2020, was one of the early signs that there might be some consolations to mitigate the waves of crushing negativity that were then just beginning to crest. Audiences internationally began to realise they could enjoy farflung programming just as international programmers realised they could court farflung audiences. NFF added Shelf Life slots to cater to European timezones. Their screenings were also priced on a sliding scale, a model we ourselves had successfully adopted to help improve access (and box office take, happily). It was heartening - something to point to, to promote and encourage - and we invited Northwest Film Forum’s Rana San to join an online roundtable we hosted, as coordinators of Scalarama in Glasgow, alongside other programmers from across North America. Screening films online, it became clear, offered opportunities that screening them in real life didn’t, or at least that hadn’t been fully exploited - access provision being at the forefront.
We enjoyed the flexibility we had at that time, to try to respond constructively to what was happening across the world. Also, that we could now enjoy firsthand the work of programmers and venues we’d previously admired from afar. We were lucky and grateful again, once those monthly roundtables came to their necessary, scheduled end, that we had had another purpose to focus on - subtitling, or more particularly, captioning films.
All of Matchbox Cineclub’s events, since 2019, have featured open captions - descriptive subtitles on-screen, by default. Since then, recently with the help of my trainee Calvin Halliday, our subtitling arm, Matchbox Cinesub, has captioned 700+ films and short films. By the end of 2021, that’ll be much closer to 1,000. We’d seen a notable increase in open-captioned physical film screenings in Scotland before the pandemic, but once venues and festivals began to refocus online, accessible screenings exploded - after all, since online players support optional, switch-offable “sidecar” subtitles, one of the most commonly (read: conveniently) cited obstacles to subtitled screenings was gone. Charitably, the will had always been there, but with limited resources, small teams and slim budgets, access provision generally slips further and further down the to-do list. Some organisations now jumped wholeheartedly at the opportunity presented by moving online - and at the support offered by Film Hub Scotland and similar organisations to promote accessible screenings. Glasgow Short Film Festival in particular committed to having their entire festival programmes in 2020 and 2021 (and their collaborative Dive-In Cinema project) fully captioned. The sincerity of GSFF’s investment, that we increasingly see echoed across mid-level festivals in Scotland, is notable, as is the quality, reliability and consistency of their offer.
Sincerity is essential - festivals and venues claiming accessibility plaudits for themselves need to first consider whether or not their claims are reliable and their offer genuine. Basic English subtitles, for example, are not SDH - when your French language film could not screen at all without subtitles, including them in your claims to access provision is confusing at best. Advertising but not guaranteeing SDH is completely unacceptable now, as it always has been, but that’s no longer an excuse to not try. Several festivals and venues across the UK have proved that, with the right collaborators, it’s possible to negotiate late-delivering media, unreliable distributors and technical issues to deliver substantial, fully accessible programmes, as advertised. And, above all, what is increasingly clear is that audiences are extremely comfortable with subtitles, to the point that many even prefer having them. It’s never been true that subtitles are used exclusively by D/deaf audiences - very far from it. Audience members for whom English is a second-language, neuro-divergent viewers and most users of social media across the board make day-to-day use of them. There is an untapped market in D/deaf cinemagoers, but it requires building trust and investing in consistent and sustainable access provision. Focusing on the results of one screening, particularly to expect a monolithic deaf audience to turn out en masse, is a recipe for disappointment.
Anyway, as Megan is fond of saying, “You wouldn’t put out your wheelchair ramp just one day a week.” Access provision isn’t about making more money - that’s simply a fringe benefit you can expect if you get it right. Yes, if a film has a D/deaf focus, it’s particularly egregious for it to be presented inaccessibly - but all films should be equally accessible. It’s a principle of equity and equal access as a human right. Access therefore shouldn’t be a request - if your audience has to ask you to turn on captions, you’ve already failed. Nor can accessibility be turned off and on as it suits those who don’t need it, or who may deign to acquiesce to its application. Relatedly, technology is not the answer (until it is - but that time is assuredly not now) and all mooted devices and systems have proven unreliable and/or not fit for purpose, making accessibility the users’ problem rather than the venues’. So while open captioning is not itself a panacea for access challenges, nor does it represent the limit of required action, it’s literally the least we can do. We hope that cinemas, festivals and organisations will refuse to give up the ground they’ve gained screening films online. Hybrid events are wonderful, but it doesn’t mean IRL events should get a pass if their online counterparts are accessible. And it’s easy (read: convenient) to be cynical, but we believe that general audiences are capable of handling subtitles onscreen by default. Those organising events need to be bold in making the case for captions and those running events need to be empowered and supported to counter any criticism that may come.
For our event - a time-limited, internationally accessible online programme and a physical screening in Bristol’s Cube Microplex - we’ve created brand-new descriptive subtitles, approved by the film-makers (without, of course, Paul Bartel, who died in 2000), and audio description, a new, necessary and exciting avenue for us. The access materials we make for the film will then be available for all future screenings or releases. We first saw Shelf Life near the start of the pandemic so, now that it’s supposedly near the end, we’ve decided to pass that experience on to as many people as possible. Whether the pandemic is actually near the end, time will tell - one way or another, we’re going back to the bunker. The challenge we set for ourselves is to leave it better than we found it.
Matchbox Cine are screening Shelf Life on 27 August. Find out more here.
Matchbox Cine is an independent film exhibitor and an award-winning subtitler, specialising in access provision for film exhibition & distribution. From Glasgow, Scotland, and currently based in Bristol, England, they programme, curate and promote cult film events across the UK.