Cinema Worth Leaving the House For: FilmHouse Sunderland

Fllmhouse Sunderland is a new, independent cinema project bringing a wide-ranging programme of new independent film to the city.

Bolstered by support from the British Film Institute, Fllmhouse Sunderland has the full backing of a council committed to increasing access to independent cinema for residents and visitors alike.

A prelude to the Sunderland Shorts Film Festival 2020, after opening Fllmhouse Sunderland with a glittering 4K restoration of Federico Fellini’s acclaimed masterpiece La Dolce Vita, co-curators Jonny Tull and Chris J. Allan reflected on what the project means to them, and the great stuff still to come.


“Sunderland has a brilliant cultural offer with loads of energy, so it’ll be great to see how film feeds into that,” enthused Jonny, the independent film specialist brought in to run the project. “We’re offering an opportunity for people to enjoy something other than mainstream cinema; not better, just other. This is about giving people more.”

You have to get past the mainstream for people to see these things

Boasting two ten-week programmes of independent cinema, Filmhouse Sunderland is a mix of specialised, foreign language, documentary and experimental film, pitched just north of mainstream with a laser-focus on offering something different.

“When you’re walking down the street, you don’t see these more niche films,” noted Chris, an independent filmmaker who has worked with the Short Film Festival over the past couple of years. “You have to get past the mainstream for people to see these things, to show underrepresented communities that cinema has something for them.”

We’re showing stuff worth leaving the house for

Jonny is particularly keen to showcase the breadth and depth of cinema to the near 300,000 people in the city.

“There are lots of people passionate about cinema here,” said Jonny, “and each film offers an opportunity to develop new audiences. Midnight Traveller deals with the refugee experience, and we’re delivering that with refugee support services. Portrait of a Lady on Fire speaks to the LGBT+ community, while 2040 is a documentary highlighting climate change and new British film The Runaways is a gritty drama with broad appeal.”

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“Just because a film tackles a serious topic doesn’t mean it’s low budget and non-cinematic,” says Chris. “This is about looking at film with different eyes, getting people to flex a different muscle, and being culturally aware in different ways. We’re showing stuff worth leaving the house for.”

In service of getting people out of the house and into a new experience, accessibility is critical to Jonny.

“It’s only £5 or £4 with concessions to get in, and it’s on at an accessible time of day,”

“We really wanted it to be financially accessible,” agrees Chris, “and make it so people don’t have to get all the way to Newcastle or Teesside to see these kinds of films.”

The cinema experience retains a real power that isn’t going away

While proliferating streaming platforms mean more interesting films have a chance to reach wider home audiences, Chris remains committed to representation on the big screen.

“Having under-represented cultural experiences writ large on a big screen really matters. Filmhouse Sunderland offers an opportunity for people to witness different lives and reflect on universal experiences. That’s important, and we want to prove Sunderland is a place where this can happen.”

Jonny is keen to conquer this threshold anxiety and deliver a timeless experience for all.

“People like being in the room and laughing and crying at the same time, and I’m passionate about how the audience meets the content. The cinema experience retains a real power that isn’t going away, and I’m excited about seeing that in Sunderland.”

This article was originally published in January 2020, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns which pressed pause on the Filmhouse Sunderland programme and brought a halt to cultural events across the land. This meant that the last three screenings scheduled for March 2020—Parasite, Little Joe, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire—were postponed.

Following the lifting of restrictions in England, Chris and Jonny are currently making plans for the return of Filmhouse Sunderland, while parent event the Sunderland Shorts Film Festival will take place over 6-9 October 2021 to celebrate short films with big ideas.

Follow filmsunderland on Instagram for Chris and Jonny’s Film (in the House) Watchlist, a weekly selection of four must-see films playing across various streaming platforms. 

Leigh Venus

Originally published in Narc Magazine

Photos: Neon (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), 2040 publicity image (2040)