Cinemas that Made Me: Johanna Leech from Strand Arts Centre, Belfast

16 Jul 2020 in Cinemas That Made Me

7 mins
Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
Strand Arts Centre, Belfast

With many cinemas still closed due to COVID-19, we're continuing to celebrate independent venues and exhibitors across the UK in our Cinemas that Made Me series. This time we profile Johanna Leech, Programme Manager at the Strand Arts Centre in Belfast.

The Strand Arts Centre is located in Northern Ireland's oldest cinema, an Art Deco building dating from 1935. Since 2013 the charity have been programming and hosting a diverse range of film, theatre, music and more. Programme Manager Johanna Leech tells us all about their work with audiences young and old, and shares her own far-flung history with cinemas - from the Strand to Australia and back again!

What does the Strand Art Centre offer the community?

We run daily film screenings of new release, art-house and classic films. We have film clubs, creative workshops and a stage for live events such as comedy, theatre and music. We have a strong focus on partnerships, taking part in festivals and running special events. We have an ongoing outreach programme that includes pop-up cinemas in local nursing homes and community centres.

What initiatives and projects are you most proud of working on?

Establishing Silver Screenings, weekly classic films for seniors. We have sponsored taxis provided by Specsavers for local nursing homes. This enables hard-to-reach groups to attend. Alongside each film we provide free tea or coffee, and talking points about the film.

During the golden age of cinema the Strand hosted Saturday ‘Minors' films - something we have wanted to bring back. By teaming up with Into Film we provide the Minors Film Club, a weekly free movie and an optional themed workshop (craft, dance, drama, music and more) for a discounted price. 

We've also run outreach screenings as part of the BFI's Coastal project and in partnership with Newcastle Community Cinema. All films were paired with local archive footage that included the locations. We had a screening at Tropicana Sea Pools where the audience swam in the pools then came inside to watch Song of the Sea. We also had a dress-up screening of Hotel Splendid, shown in the ballroom of the Slieve Donard Hotel, where the film was shot. The Secret of Kells was shown in Kilkeel harbour with an actor playing a Viking.

Which cinemas had an important impact on your life?

I grew up getting dropped off at the Strand every Saturday, and I went to school on the same road - so I had a great fondness for the place! It's definitely my first cinema love.

Later, I lived on the same street as an Art Deco cinema called the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Similar in architecture to the Strand, it's been refurbished while keeping the original features but also adding a screen with sofas. It was the first place I saw a mixture of film, theatre and live performance.

What was your first job in the film industry, and how did you become a programmer?

I originally worked as a curator and events manager for art galleries and festivals, including Belfast Photography Festival. Not wanting to tie myself to only visual arts, I started to programme events which included different disciplines such as moving image arts.

I lived and travelled throughout Australia and liked how their art centres and cinemas were often combined. When I heard that Strand Cinema was becoming an art centre I wanted to work with them to be part of the transition - bringing together several art forms alongside the cinema heritage and maintaining the existing community.

Since working at Strand I have also programmed specialised events for the BFI and Northern Ireland Screen Digital Film Archive (NIDFA). I still work freelance with art galleries and have my own visual art practice.

How have other venues affected how you work today?

Having gone to the Strand since I was a child has made me want to see it remain a mainstay of Belfast cinema. We are currently trying to get the building refurbished to ensure it can continue offering quality services for future generations. We are lobbying to get funding from our local government, and will need to fund-raise

I always need to keep a nod to the Strand's history for programming. As an arts centre we want to be a community hub, so we need to programme to meet the community needs but also challenge that occasionally too.

While the Strand is closed due to COVID-19, have you begun any new initiatives to reach audiences at home?

We created Silver Screening Rescue Packs over lockdown. We missed our Silver Screenings community so we put together packs to send out to nursing homes and other isolated individuals. The packs contain a number of classic films on DVD, talking points about the films to stimulate discussion, a film quiz, and a bag of Raspberry Ruffles! There's also a bonus DVD with poems read by Stephen Beggs and songs performed by musicians Rab Wishart and Hannah McPhillimy. We've also put together Silver Screening film lists with iPlayer links and associated talking points.

Our Minors Club workshops have continued on Saturdays with recorded artist workshops for free, and we put together a curated film list for Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts Festival, including Into Film resources. 

Once cinemas can reopen which film would be your first choice to see on the big screen?

It's hard to choose a classic movie as there's so many I'd love to see! I'd go for The Night of the Hunter, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Shining. They are all films that look amazing on the big screen. 

As for a new movie, the upcoming live action version of Mulan. I'm interested in Chinese folklore and I hope the scenery will be breathtaking.

To support the Strand, visit their fundraising page on Local Giving. If you'd like to support other independent cinemas in the UK, consider donating to the UK Cinema Fund. These donations will be added to the BFI FAN COVID-19 Resilience Fund and used to offer critical relief and business continuity to exhibitors across the UK.

This Article is part of: Cinemas That Made Me

A series celebrating cinemas, venues and exhibitors across the UK.

View other Articles in this column

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