CUFA with permission for Varsity

Cambridge University has all the ingredients for a vibrant cinema scene: creative, ambitious students, lively Facebook pages to connect on, an established theatre scene full of aspiring actors, and equipment available to rent through Cambridge University Film Association. There is no shortage of originality, enthusiasm or artistic verve here. So, what’s going wrong?

Sitting down with this year’s CUFA President, Daisy Samra, I tried to get to the bottom of these questions. Asking her how she would describe the Cambridge film scene she slips out, “Well, I need to go for a positive one — not just chaotic. It’s got a lot of potential”.

“I didn’t really know how to get started and I know that’s the same for a lot of people”, Daisy says, sympathising with the plight of motivated young filmmakers who enter this “community of chaos”. “We want to grow it, [...] and make sure there are things that are easier to find, so you can dip your toes in first”. While freshers stumble into sport, theatre, and even student journalism, there’s no equivalent ‘falling into’ filmmaking at this university. It requires a concerted effort to find opportunities, let alone sustain any attachment to them.

2023 CUFA Committee in Harvey's Coffee HouseDaisy Samra with permission for Varsity

“You do see people making short films even though there’s not much experience around”, Daisy says optimistically. But this is the exception and not the rule. People manage to succeed in filmmaking despite the absent film scene rather than because of it. Frustratedly, Daisy even admits that she considered venturing into theatre as a more well-trodden avenue into the industry: “that’s definitely something I’ve wavered on, because I’m very much interested in film and I think theatre’s super cool but it’s not really the same for me in terms of what I want to do. [...] Maybe I should get into the theatre scene because there’s more available”, especially regarding “ways to get some kind of technical experience”.

In some ways it’s not surprising that the theatre scene has more fuel behind it. Invented just over a hundred years ago, cinema is comparatively new, while theatre was around back when the first Cambridge college was founded in 1209.

“People manage to succeed in filmmaking despite the absent film scene rather than because of it”

Unlike with the theatre scene, there aren’t many entrenched schemes for young filmmakers to engage with. For example, the ADC runs an annual 24-Hour Musical project in which actors, directors, lighting technicians etc. produce and perform a musical in the crunch time of 24 hours. This is perhaps a less trendy or attractive scheme than Fresh2Film, in which groups of creatives are mentored and supported by CUFA to make a short film over Michaelmas term. However, the 24-Hour Musical runs every year to a fabulous turnout, while some of the Fresh2Film schemes fall flat after just a few weeks. The momentum that the ADC can rev up because everyone is so eager to get involved is energy that student film projects cannot seem to sustain. While making a film you can quit anytime, so you have to be self-motivated. You don’t have the boss of Corpus Playroom breathing down your neck to fill your week 6 late show position.

So, with alumni like Emma Thompson, maybe Footlights is a more credible avenue into the industry than to just pick up a camera and start rolling. Cambridge theatre’s long and prestigious history is tried and tested, while the film scene is still young and nervous to establish itself as something worth paying attention to. Social climbers, nepo babies and networkers alike roam the ADC’s halls biting their lips waiting for their big break, without time to spare for the passion projects of the small screen. Is the film scene doomed to forever be compared to the mammoth that is Cambridge theatre?

“Maybe Footlights is a more credible avenue into the industry than to just pick up a camera and start rolling”

“The thing we’re still working on is trying to institutionalise it a bit more”, Daisy says, when I ask her to imagine her ideal student film scene. “It would be more unified because there’s a lot of little film things that crop up which is amazing (like more college-led screenings), but then the problem is that when it’s based within the college, if the next year nobody in that college wants to do it, then it falls apart again”. Not to mention it having a much smaller reach across the student body.

In CUFA’s lent schedule, it is running its weekly film club on Wednesdays at 7pm. Its Cambridge Shorts Showcase, an evening of screenings of student films and lively discussion with the respective student filmmakers themselves, will take place on Tuesday 21st February at 8.30pm in the Palmerston Room at St. John’s College.


Mountain View

Watersprite Film Festival: "it's all free, why wouldn't you?"

So, things are happening in the cinematic sub-world of the Cambridge bubble. There isn’t nothing out there, however quiet its voice may sound in the diluted noise of society mishmash. The mystery that shrouds the film scene might fool you into thinking that something exciting is happening underground, behind closed doors that you can’t open. But, really, if you pull back the curtain this is a vacuum pocket of Cambridge culture that's waiting for someone with a trick up their sleeve to fill it. It’s asking for some oomph!

It will take a long time to establish a culture with the same kudos and prestige as the theatre scene — but being so early on in this process is an exciting opportunity to shape what Cambridge film might look like in the future. “Because we’re the ones running things,” Daisy admits, “we’re making the rules”. How freeing!