Last shift at NZ International Film Festival (28th July 2010)

Finally, today’s shift is the last of my 9 volunteer usher shifts at the NZ International Film Festival. It has been an interesting experience working as an usher with a fun crowd, watching some awesome films while working, and finding ourselves in the odd (and sometimes difficult) situations during our shifts.

As with all the shifts, my shift starts 15 minutes prior to the film screening and us ushers would go around each aisle to collect any rubbish or items found, sort out glass bottles for recycling and carry the filled rubbish bags down to the basement where the large bins were located. Used wine glasses or cup and saucers found were returned to Blondini’s CafĂ© & Jazz Bar situated on the first floor foyer of Embassy Theatre, and scattered popcorn swept up. Some patrons were really inconsiderate, purposely pouring the popcorn all over their seats and the floor, even building a popcorn pyramid/castle on the floor with a bottle sticking out on one end. Just makes it a pain for us to clean up the place given the brief time. We even had someone puke on their seat one shift and the paid ushers on duty had to see to it, cleaning up the mess with warm water and smellies to rid the stench. Fortunately for the volunteer ushers, we do not normally have to deal with the difficult (and yucky) stuff. Lucky!

Before we opened the doors to the public, we would always have a quick briefing to bring up any issues and if there would be reallocation of seating for the film (apparently Ticketek had messed up their online booking system and early birds ended up sitting in the front 3 rows of the theatre, which weren’t the best seats in the house). Ushers got to choose the sections they work at (first come, first served) and 2 ushers would station themselves respectively at the doors. I’ve worked at all the sections in the theatre and that helped me learn the seating plan quickly. The type of seats actually vary – the good ones, of course, were the comfy and large leather seats in the middle, and the worst seats would probably be right up the back of the theatre, fold-down seats that had cramp legroom, or those at the very front of the theatre though some film enthusiasts prefer sitting there. We had a woman just like that who would stake a claim for a seat in the front row with her bags before the doors open! “She’s a regular patron to the film festival so it’s OK to accommodate her special needs,” said one of the head ushers smiling. I’ve also worked at the door but found that it rather stressful when throngs of people eagerly wanting to get into the theatre tried to bypass me checking their tickets before they got in. I had a lady rushing into the theatre saying that her film had started but it turned out she was meant to be at Penthouse cinema which was in Brooklyn! I think I’ll just stick to my sections…

Film-goers were generally appreciative when we offered our assistance to help them find their seats in the theatre and it was imperative to seat people correctly, especially if it was a full house screening. Patrons get rather antsy if they turned up late AND found their seats taken, plus it was difficult to get people to the right seats in the dark anyway. And speaking of the dark, us ushers have a torchlight each and as latecomers come in through the doors, an usher would approach the person or group and guide them to their seats, light shone on the ground so they could see where they were going. This goes on for about 15 minutes into the film screening. Ushers who had to stay on during the shift would then take their seats in one of the reserved house seats to watch the rest of the film and keep an eye out for any issues that may arise during the screening (this includes informing the projectionist if the picture quality was poor).

On one of my shifts, I had a man coming over to speak to me about his seat just before the start of the film. He walked up so close to me and then paused, not saying a word, as if sizing me up. And then when he did speak, it sounded and looked as if he was having a fit or was being choked. The other ushers were baffled but I had a gut feeling that the man had a speech impediment and true enough, he was stuttering really badly as he proceeded with much difficulty to convey his sentence. He was one of the unfortunate early birds who got a seat in the first row and told me the view was making him feel rather ill. I had to get the head usher to see to him as it was a full house screening (I think the head usher gave up her usher seat for the man). Another incident we had was a power cut for about 20 minutes during one of the night shifts. Thankfully it wasn’t too problematic and all we had to do was make sure people were OK and got them back to their seats when the power came back on.

Steven Hay, one of the head ushers, was a jovial chap with a prosthetic arm – you would see him at most film festivals ushering (well, I have) and I have to admit, I’m quite intrigued about his arm and wondered what happened. I didn’t ask him – I hardly know the guy! Anyway, on one of the shifts that we were on, there was a young Asian chick that on every opportunity when she would walk past Steven, she would sweep her hand down his prosthetic arm, smiling. It was hilarious watching Steven’s behaviour change from slight shock to an embarrassed smile, then to somewhat disgust/bewilderment when the woman came back to ‘attack’ him. “Did I just get assaulted by her, AGAIN??” exclaimed Steven. Er, I think she’s got the hots for you bro…something about your arm…:P

I swapped shifts with volunteer usher Darren to free up my weekend (which is why I’m finishing up today and not Saturday as initially scheduled). Volunteers were free to swap shifts with one another and since Jono had plans to head up to Palmy this weekend, I thought I would try my luck getting my shift swapped. The shift was at Penthouse Cinema in Brooklyn and I had the opportunity to work with the head usher Debbie who was stationed at there. The cinema itself was way smaller in size than where I’ve been working most of the festival with only Debbie and myself ushering. Easy as!

Of the 11 movies I’ve seen, including the two I saw using my staff pass during the day, my favourites were Exit Through The Gift Shop: A Banksy Film (a brilliant documentary about Frenchman Thierry Guetta obsession with street art – a must see), Agora (a historical drama about religion and science during the era of Christianisation of the Roman Empire), and His & Hers (documentary of Irish women of all ages talking about the men they love). Though I got to watch many films for free and had fun working at the film festival, it made my day and week felt very long and exhausting, AND it also meant a lot of time away from my social activities and Jono. Not sure if I would return as a volunteer again next year but will definitely come back as a viewer. This film festival is definitely the film festival of the year you don’t want to miss – so many amazing films from around the world that will open up your mind and show you the lives of others, their religion, cultures and practices that you may or may not know existed.


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