Austerity Begins at Queen's Film Theatre

Out with the old, in with the new. Film buffs get busy at Swap Shop

The opportunity to get something for nothing is always welcome, particularly during January financial belt-tightening, when drawers are bulging with unsuitable Christmas presents begging to be discretely offloaded.

Thankfully, Queen's Film Theatre's Swap Shop initiative, part of their Unscripted – Adventures in Cinema season and organised in conjunction with community arts group Swap and Smile, offers the perfect solution. Attendees can exchange unwanted DVDs, film-related biographies and other forms of memorabilia for one, two or three tokens, and barter for new stuff displayed on tables in the QFT foyer.

QFT press and marketing officer Sarah Hughes explains: 'The idea behind the QFT Swap Shop event was to make use of the film memorabilia that we all have lying around gathering dust in a way which is fun, environmentally-friendly and doesn’t cost a penny.'

Arriving early we find bare tables and no smiles, but this changes quickly as punters start unloading Bags for Life and wheeling in suitcases filled with gear. We're no exception. After all, there are only so many times you can read and enjoy Charlton Heston's autobiography. It's all very egalitarian, with little accounting for taste or critical acclaim.

Whether Gigli or Gigi, all DVDs go for one token. The volunteers develop a routine as they go along, and when DVDs are stacked up to head height, they stop checking each item for scratches. Luckily, the participating film buffs take good care of their discs and are unlikely to lose collector's inlay booklets.

It's not merely old tat being jettisoned either, and everyone falls upon each other's cast-offs hungrily. That said, the atmosphere is more genial than a Marks & Sparks Boxing Day scrum. A cry of 'Oooh, Bettie Page!' at one end of the table leads to the DVD being passed hand-over-hand to its new owner.

There are some smart bagging techniques on show too. Tag-team couples with the smaller of the two at the front handling tokens, families evolving neat systems with mum guarding the hoard as dad and kids scour the tables.

As the afternoon wears on, more people convalesce with a drink before returning to the fray. With dozens of tokens still unspent, friends, family and fellow bargain hunters give advice. 'You can never go wrong with kids' movies,' says one. 'A bad horror film is still more fun than bad drama!' adds another. 

Then, at the other side of the room, boxloads of VHS tapes are brought in, and offered free to anyone who wants them. It's painful to see the format having died out so finally, but the verdict is clear: nobody has a VCR anymore. These tapes are the wallflowers at the school disco, ignored while everyone dances with their more popular format cousin.

Saving the few shop-bought videos that can be donated to charity, two mournful volunteers begin a painful cull. Who knows what too-obscure-for-DVD cinematic gems, what mythic live TV broadcasts are destined for the landfill. We are reminded of the old BBC tape-wipe, and ease our guilty conscience by rescuing some tapes from oblivion.

Back at the tables, by 4pm the carcass has been picked clean, and people sit around the foyer, drinks in hand and tables piled high with their spoils, with looks of glazed happiness. It's like Christmas all over again, but this time, they've got exactly what they wanted.

And even though our hefty Chuck Heston book still sits on the two-token table, we decide to leave him to his fate. After all, our own wheelie suitcase is chock-full. As an attic-clearing exercise it's been a total failure, but the QFT Swap Shop reminds us of an old truth: what's a lump of coal for one person is another's diamond.

'We had over 100 film fans here today, some from as far away as Monaghan,' adds Hughes once things have died down. 'They swapped everything from rare Star Trek comics and Napoleon Dynamite figurines and Some Like It Hot badges. It was a great success, and we definitely hope to do another one over the coming months.'

Details of further Unscripted – Adventures In Cinema events can be found on the QFT website.