The city without a cinema

Observations on Sunderland

Sunderland has just finished holding a film festival. Which is stranger than you might think. Because Sunderland (population: 270,000) doesn't have a cinema. The last picture house - the ABC on Park Lane - closed its door in April 1999 after a few showings of Waking Ned, a film described by one critic as "mawkish drivel - possibly the worst film ever made on or about Ireland".

In a filmless four and a half years, a new nightclub or theme pub has opened almost every month. But if the citizens of Sunderland want a night out at the cinema, they have to go to one of the multiplexes in the cities of neighbouring Tyneside, which rubs in a cultural subjugation that they endure but never concede. Newcastle and Gateshead, with smaller populations, have UGCs, the Theatre Royal, the Tyneside Cinema, the Laing and other galleries, and - on the Gateshead banks of the Tyne - the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the soon-to-be-opened Music Centre.

Why the contrast? Newcastle was and is a mercantile capital, drawing on a wealthy hinterland and on the interests and talents of a large number of immigrants - both from abroad and from other parts of Britain. The Geordie culture is uniquely of the north-east, but it is cosmopolitan. Wearside's, by contrast, is rooted in what until recently was essentially a two-industry economy - mining and shipbuilding, both of which were suddenly and savagely extinguished in the 1980s. It also had a static population: comparatively few people leave Sunderland to return with new ideas and interests, while not many outsiders go there and stay.

Despite strong amateur traditions in music and the arts, football is what counts for culture on Wearside, where the strong-ly held conviction is that little of social or aesthetic significance has happened since the local team's FA Cup Final victory of 1973.

And the politics of football is what brought the film festival into being. It is the outcome of anti-racist initiatives begun by a trade union veteran, Mark Metcalf. Spawned under the banner of Sunderland Fans Against Racism, the festival has screened documentaries about intolerance, football corruption, alcoholism and bullying in schools. There was a Bollywood evening and a series of film-related events at the Stadium of Light; the author Julian Putkowski introduced a screening of The Monocled Mutineer; and a programme of classics and contemporary movies put together by the BBC critic Neil Young was interspersed with workshops run by film-makers and writers.

Let's hope it has whetted Sunderland's appetite for cinema. After a five-year drought, CineUK opens a 12-screen complex next year in the rebuilt city centre, and promises that one screen will cater for minority interests and small audiences.