Temperature Check : We catch up with Colin Farquhar from Aberdeen’s Belmont Filmhouse cinema

We have now faced restrictions to our lives in Aberdeen for the past 8 months, and while Covid-19 has meant that we all have to share the burden of stopping the spread of the virus, there’s a cost to our mental health. We decided to check in with Aberdeen folk to see how they are coping at this point..and hopefully learn a little bit more about them along the way.

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Colin Farquhar (right) at the entrance Aberdeen’s Belmont Filmhouse Cinema — photo supplied by Belmont Filmhouse

First up we’re checking in with Colin Farquhar, Head of Cinema at the Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen’s last independent cinema, who have been forced to close again recently because film distribution in the UK has ground to a hault.

Hey Colin. Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about how you are currently dealing with life in pandemic Aberdeen. We’ll start off with a simple one…how are you doing right now?

Good…I think. It’s a strange time for everyone and that includes me. I’ve been part-time furloughed since Saturday (7th November 2020) and that will be an adjustment as I hadn’t been before. Quite often we go on holiday at this time of year, so I’ve a feeling of absence about that, as we obviously can’t travel. Generally good, though. I’ve held up fairly well this year, which I’m proud of as like most folk I can be fragile as well.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I grew up in Whitehills which is a wee fishing village of about a thousand people, just on the Banffshire coast. Beautiful place, not much to do, but I’m very grateful for the prettiness and people when I go back. I moved to Aberdeen to do Media and Communications at Aberdeen College in 2003 when I was 18 and then after a bit of course juggling did English Lit. at Aberdeen Uni, graduating in 2009. I got a part-time job at the Belmont at the end of 2007.

My folks are mostly fishing and farming stock. My Dad worked on boats until he decided it was too hard a life (I can’t disagree) and my Mum was a nurse at Ladysbridge, which is a now mostly closed mental health hospital just outside the village. My direct family and much of my extended family, work in social care now.

What made you fall in love with movies?

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is a cupboard in my Mum’s house full of recorded VHSs from my early teens of stuff that I was still much too young to watch. I’d write the name of the film on the side of the black box in marker pen in an attempt to make it more readable — Taxi Driver, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Deer Hunter. So there was dozens of these tapes at home that I’d watch a lot. Those late night Channel 4 films.

Prior to that I have a lot of fond memories of going to Elgin and Aberdeen to the cinema as a kid to watch films. Big day was the first time we watched two films in the cinema on one day. My wee brother wanted to watch MiB and I was keen on Jurassic Park: The Lost World. I think that Jurassic Park, and I’ll refer to that original film rather than the entire franchise, had a huge impact on me in terms of what cinema can achieve. I was the right age, it got me into dinosaurs and it’s still the first film I think of when someone talks about the spectacle of cinema or the cinema. It remains one of my favourite films.

What is your favourite part of your working day?

I guess all jobs have their routine to them so whenever I get to step away from the admin and talk to customers is a bright spot because you end up talking about films and that’s nice. I feel I’ve been able to do that a lot more recently. If there’s one upside of COVID on cinema it’s that we’ve been able to brush away a lot of the cobwebs and focus on the real core stuff like my team and the punters. I’ve enjoyed that immensely.

Working in a cinema is also just full of the occasional pinches that you work in a cinema. So when you do something in a projection room when a film is playing and even a wee glance at the light through the window reminds you of the magic…that romantic stuff. We’re lucky enough that you manage to experience that at least once a week.

Without having to deal with the public quite so much, did you have time to develop any new skills…or catch up on some great movies?

I spent a lot of time reading Scot Gov COVID regulation. I’m unsure if that’s a new skill…Usually I’d try and apply downtime to reading but I’ve found concentrating on that more difficult than usual this year.

I did watch quite a lot of films. MUBI had a great run of Bergman stuff through the summer so I saw Cries and Whispers and The Silence and Autumn Sonata and a few others for the first time. I also watched Le Cercle Rouge which I hadn’t seen before. It’s probably the best film I’ve watched all year. I watched a lot of films until we reopened strangely but work has been pretty full on since then.

I also walked around the city a lot, particularly in early lockdown. I moved flat last November so did a lot of trekking around the West End and out to Cults and around Hazelhead. I was mostly back in the office from mid-June and from that point on it was pretty much full bore in terms of reopening planning. So it limits what you can apply yourself to. My headspace was always focused on the mechanics of how Belmont would run, operationally anyway.

How has your community helped both you and The Belmont through lockdown?

The response from the community for our fundraising was amazing. I never expected to raise that amount. It was quite overwhelming. I’ve really felt like people rallied round us and that’s from the hardcore membership and audience to folk who used to come but moved away and then the friends and family of the staff. It helped keep me going. I was still working on my own at that point and reading the letters in particular that came in with the donations (lots of people still send cheques instead of donating online) was lovely.

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Photo by Christopher Sansbury

The latest closure of the Belmont must have felt like a real blow. Tell us about that decision.

It was hard — I think this year has been quite an acute demonstration of how much we mean to people and that makes these decisions really tough. You know how much people will miss you if you close. The reality was every film we had booked for November dropped off the slate. The audience also petered away a little after the PM announced harder restrictions down south so we felt it became the common sense decision to shut.

But, it’s not March. March was, in all honesty, frightening. On this occasion we felt we were making a controlled choice and although finances will remain a worry for some time we know what we have. Thanks to support grants from Screen Scotland and the extension of the furlough scheme we’re in a better place. All being well we’ll reopen early December and then get into the Xmas stuff.

I take it you have a date in your head for the reopening of the cinema, which I’m sure you don’t want to commit to just yet, but what will influence that final decision to open?

Ideally we’re looking at 4th December but I wouldn’t want anyone to take that as verbatim. If lockdown extends down south then that sets as back, as would a lockdown in Scotland. I’m also expecting the UK and Scottish Governments to relax household rules for Xmas. That might yet have a trade off with other restrictions. If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year it’s that everything is subject to change, so you’ve got to be realistic, flexible and patient.

Who has inspired you recently?

I think everyone to an extent. Seeing people having the will to get on with things and go to work in a year like this has been quite astonishing. I see that in my team, colleagues in Edinburgh and my friends.

My Dad, specifically. I hope he wouldn’t mind me mentioning this but my Dad lost his wife in early in the pandemic to cancer. It was all very quick and sudden. He was due to go back to work when the pandemic was at its peak in mid-April and I told him no one would judge him if he took another week or two off work. He told me that that may be considered selfish and back to work he went. I’ve definitely carried that in my head since. He’s been a star. My brother has also had a kid among all these so that’s been a wee celebration amongst everything. It keeps you going.

Also, with the realisation that it can come across as contrived to point to politicians, particularly current ones, I have a lot of admiration for how Nicola Sturgeon has handled the pandemic. That’s not to say the Scottish Government have done everything perfectly, but being able to get up in front of the country every day for six months and talk them through it is quite a feat. It’s a good example. As someone who manages people it helps a lot.

Do you think you have been changed by the pandemic?

This will be a long answer — I’m not sure. I am someone who is perennially asking myself what I’m good at or what my nature is and this pandemic breeds more of that, so you lose perspective on yourself the same as any other time.

It has made me value more what is close to me; but at the same time I miss travelling. It does teach you can get by on simple pleasures and routine; but the weeks where I just stuck to work and cooking were the weeks I really needed to do something different at the weekend. Ultimately I think we’ve all found out a lot about balance, but we all knew that already really.

One thing definitely — I’ve found I’m far more resilient than I ever thought and for someone who struggled with anxiety through their 20s that has been reassuring. I’m proud of that. Perhaps that’s learning to give up control a little in a situation you can’t possibly. If I carry that out the other side of the pandemic and can apply it to the micro stuff to I think that’s a positive change.

Another realisation is — and I’m unsure this is a change — is just how time passes. It’s just as subjective as everything else and it just siphons away like an elastic blob down a drain if you let it. Books or hill-walks or films or pints in the pub with your pals are the checkpoints that slow it down a little. So, I hope I’ll learn to do stuff I enjoy more and that I’ll remember. Those experiences are wee pauses that slow down time and I think, strangely, lengthen it, at least in memory. If that realization leads me to taking life less seriously, or working less, or procrastinating less then that’ll be a positive change too.

Thank you so much to Colin for his time and frankness. You can follow both him and the Belmont Filmhouse on Twitter. If you would like to support Aberdeen’s local independent cinema on a regular basis, consider getting an annual subscription…it gets you some great benefits too.

We’ll be publishing regular temp checks over the next few weeks…keep in touch on Twitter and Facebook.

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