Our LIFF Behind the Scenes series brings you interviews with a wide range of people working in film exhibition who all have a connection with Leeds International Film Festival.

Here, we talk to Lee Bentham, Operations and Admin Coordinator for Sheffield DocFest and director of What The Film Club, which screens cult films, B-movies and trash cinema in Leeds.

 

Lee Bentham

 

I’m fairly new to the world of film exhibition. Originally I studied filmmaking at University. Afterwards I started working on sets as a production assistant and then left the UK to teach filmmaking at a summer camp in the USA. I loved working creatively with kids (they are nuts) and I went back to work there every summer for 5 years. In between those trips, I came back to Leeds and worked at the Everyman cinema, where I would always end up chatting to the customers about films. I started working freelance for film festivals at the start of 2021, working for Sheffield DocFest where I am currently the Operations and Admin Coordinator but also worked as a Venue Supervisor at last year’s LIFF. I’ll also be running the cinema programme for a small music and arts festival in July, called 42 Degrees. 

I recently started What The Film Club, a screening series showing fun, weird and dumb B-movies, cult classics and trash cinema. It’s been a blast to work on and it's been great getting to meet the audiences at our movie nights.

What do you enjoy most about working in film exhibition?

Whether it’s a great film you’ve seen in the cinema or even a funny video online, we all love to share what makes us tick. Imagine that with a whole audience. Plus I love the buzz of festivals and the all-hands-on deck camaraderie, it’s great working together with people then being able to go to a screening and actually experience the culmination of all your work in a room full of film lovers.

What inspired you to become involved in film exhibition and what were your first steps?

I originally volunteered at Leeds International Film Festival from 2012-2014 while I was at University but I hadn’t really considered working in exhibition seriously by that point. In 2018, I moved to Toronto, without much of an aim, but I couldn't find any jobs that sounded like anything I wanted to do long-term. While I was there I discovered the Laser Blast Film Society around the corner from where I was living, which screened weird old movies. I was super inspired by it and it got me thinking about the possibility of being able to do something like this myself one day. What The Film Club wouldn’t exist without it! A few weeks later I saw a job listing for the Toronto International Film Festival and it reminded me of my time volunteering at LIFF, which I had always enjoyed. I connected the dots, and for the first time I could see some kind of path that I was interested in exploring. I decided I was going to come back to Leeds, as I’d already had connections with some of the LIFF team. I came back late 2019 and signed up to volunteer again straight away, and with their support I got my foot in the door with film exhibition shortly after.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become involved in film exhibition now?

Do it! Put on a film night. It doesn’t have to be a huge production but just starting to do it will “break the ice” and make it a lot easier to do more. And putting yourself out there will always open doors or give you new ideas.There’s some great groups out there, like Scalarama Leeds who can help you put on your first screening - that’s how I got started with mine! Check them out!

And also, volunteer at festivals - I’ve done loads of volunteering. I would still happily volunteer now, it’s a great way to naturally network with festival staff and other volunteers who you might end up collaborating with in the future. I got my role at Sheffield DocFest through people I met volunteering at Leeds International Film Festival. And I always had fun and saw some great films I wouldn’t have gone to see otherwise.  

What is the main change you’ve experienced in film exhibition since you started? 

I think I am definitely too fresh to notice much of a change. I mean I technically started working in film exhibition during lockdown so maybe the main difference is that cinemas have reopened and restrictions are starting to lift. 

But it has been nice seeing audiences return. Even though we still have to be safety conscious I think people definitely appreciate the value of seeing a film as part of an audience a little bit more now. I know I do. 

What would you like to see change in film exhibitions in the future? 

I’m still learning about it all so it's hard to say what I would change - but I’m very into the idea of encouraging more people, communities and organisations to collaborate and get involved with the independent film exhibition scene. There’s already been some great work done in Leeds by Mosa Mpetha, who created the Leeds Film Network as a community for independent and DIY programmers and venues. I would love for that to continue and evolve so that Leeds becomes the capital of underground cinema, with new audiences discovering the increasing variety of non-traditional cinema events going on around them. 

Do you have a favourite highlight from working in film exhibition so far? 

I turned 30 last year, during Sheffield DocFest 2021. At midnight, I sat with the team on the rooftop of the office, eating pizza, drinking a beer or two and using a phone torch as a candle.

It was really nice as a culmination of 6 months working on something remotely, to be there together. And a moment like that had seemed really far away when I was working 6 days a week in a factory in Toronto. I’m always open to new doors that may open and how my path might change in the future but it was really encouraging looking back at how things had developed over the previous couple of years and thinking positively about what the next few might bring. 

Is there a film you love that you wish could be seen more widely by audiences? 

Just one?! I have a million. I could make a festival just of these films but that would probably end up being completely self-indulgent. But I actually have an old TV show that it is my mission to exhibit one day - it’s called The Interceptor and it’s a high concept game show made in 1989 from the people who made The Crystal Maze. And the reason I love it? It makes me cry with laughter for all the wrong reasons. It revolves around getting two extremely mild, middle-class contestants, blindfolding them and sending them out to various parts of the British countryside where they have to orient themselves with the help of the show's high-pitched presenter via earpiece. Essentially it’s a show about people getting lost in fields. So to spice it up they send in The Interceptor, a scottish guy with peroxide blonde hair and a black trenchcoat who chases after them in a helicopter shooting ‘lasers' at them. He also makes a weird eagle noise when he gets closer to them. Cue some bizarre "action" sequences of him chasing people around people's gardens or jumping onto mini-railways rides filled with old people, all while squawking at them and shooting lasers. By far, the best-bad British thing I have ever seen - with a tighter edit and a voiceover it could be the next Takeshi's Castle!

Do you have a favourite cinema-going memory as part of an audience? 

I went to Camerimage in Poland, while at university with a lot of my coursemates. It was actually the catalyst for me becoming best friends with a lot of them who before that I hadn’t known as well. A great example of film festivals (and film festival parties..) bringing people together!

While we were there we saw the pseudo-documentary film Punishment Park by Peter Watkins. We went into the film not having a clue what it was and it was the most gripping, insane thing we had ever seen. There was a Q&A afterwards but it clashed with another big film so we left before it started. When we sat down for the next film though, me and one of my friends just couldn’t get the film out of our heads. We had to know if it was a real documentary or not and we ended up running out of the huge auditorium theater as the film started to go back to the Q&A. We just had to know!

Which filmmaker’s work means the most to you? 

Great question and one that has probably changed a lot as I’ve  gotten older. Coen Brothers - I don’t usually think of them as my favorite directors but I would say they probably have the highest number of films I love in their roster. I just love the tone, that dark comedy/thriller style is something I really gravitate towards. 

I’m also a big fan of Ben Wheatley, mainly because I remember it feeling really refreshing to see a different type of British film have success. I have memories of being at film school and feeling a bit like you need to make films a certain way to have success then seeing Sightseers and loving it for all its genre elements, flavor and style while still feeling like you were watching something extremely British. 

Which new film have you loved recently that you would recommend to audiences? 

Again, just one? I saw Malcolm & Marie very recently and I really enjoyed that. The entire film features just two actors, Zendaya and John David Washington who return home after attending a hugely successful film premiere for Malcolm’s new film. When Marie reveals she is still upset that Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech, they draw each other into a series of  increasingly personal arguments in which they both refuse to back down on. I would say check it out because it’s got really divided reviews, and I love that. Those are even more fun to discuss and can be really interesting to hear why people love vs hate it. I loved it but I like a good debate and so a film about people arguing is right up my street. And I don’t think anyone can deny that the performances are amazing and the black-and-white cinematography is a visual treat.

Part of LIFF Behind the Scenes