May took my research to Aberfeldy, to Isle of Lewis, back to Inverness and finally up to Orkney, to visit four amazing cinemas and the managers and committee members running them.
The Birks Cinema
I started with a trip to The Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy to meet with General Manager Simon Lewis, a man who has spent his entire life with a passion for film and cinema. The Birks Cinema first opened its doors on 3rd July 1939 – a beautiful new building in The Square of Aberfeldy, built by Strathmore Picture Houses Ltd. However, due to the economics at the time, it closed its doors as a cinema in 1982 and over time fell into dis-repair. In 2005 when the building was listed for sale a committee of seven applied for and received funding from a private trust that enabled them to fund work by a local architect, Robin Baker, on how to re-model the dilapidated building and bring it back to life. After a lengthy process, the building was completed and The Birks Cinema reopened for business in April 2013 having been out of business for over 30 years.
The new cinema sits on the same footprint of the old with a re-designed interior so that it can function as a multi-purpose arts venue. It’s not only a cinema: as Simon implied, its objective is to offer affordable entertainment to residents and visitors in Highland Perthshire. The Birks Cinema has become a community hub for the town: hosting functions, meetings, workshops, weekly groups, yoga, local bands, fundraisers, parties to name just a few.
In the small community of Aberfeldy, The Birks Cinema is a rather large employer with around 14 staff and 10 – 12 volunteers. They also support the area and greater Scotland by sourcing where possible local produce and products; their coffee is supplied by a Scottish brand and they bake their goods on site.
Not only does The Birks Cinema take pride in local products, Simon has taken the time to really know the local Aberfeldy community; the cinema’s diverse programme showcases this with different screenings targeted to different audiences. Such as the Heartland Film Society which had been regularly screening films at town halls in the area and now they have a home at The Birks Cinema.
The cinema is also host to the superb Aberfeldy Film Festival. Following on from last years very successful theme of ‘food’, showcasing films such as The Lunchbox, Julia and Julia, Babette’s Feast and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, this year the theme is ‘music’. Simon is excited to see where the festival and the theme of ‘music’ will take them this year!
From Aberfeldy I made my way to Isle of Lewis and the An Lanntair arts centre situated on Stornoway’s seafront. The purpose built building was opened in October 2005, following a ten-year campaign. The restaurant within the building has an incredible outlook, overlooking the bay and the coming and going of boats; this is where I met Alex MacDonald, Head of Performing Arts/Cinema. She radiates enthusiasm for cinema provision in remote and rural communities and explained that before An Lanntair was built in 2005 there was no cinema provision on the Isle of Lewis. The people of Lewis had previously just dealt with the lack of provision, and enjoyed the travelling cinemas when they came, however, An Lanntair and the cinema have now become a part of everyday life in Stornoway.
The building boasts a contemporary art gallery; a space which can act as a theatre, a cinema, a concert hall, or a platform for poetry, literature, and music; a studio and an education space. It provides a central community hub that can also be hired out for functions and by community groups for various activities. Alex’s programming runs monthly and features Hollywood’s big-budget adventures, romances and thrillers, while providing film aficionados with hand-picked selections from world cinema and independent film. She works hard to create a balance and likes to treat the cinema and its patrons as a family unit. When you attend the cinema at An Lanntair, you are not just a number that is walking through the door.
An Lannaiar is also one of the largest employers in the area; over the busy summer it will employ up to 40 staff! So not only is An Lanntair providing jobs and helping to increase the local economy, it is helping the general well-being of the community by keeping ticket prices low and allowing people to afford to have leisure activities, which is so important in communities as remote as Stornoway and at large the Isle of Lewis. For Alex the collective experience of cinema going is what is important; allowing class barriers to break down and for people to express emotions publicly that they otherwise wouldn’t have. They’re all experiencing the same thing together and it allows people to escape their daily troubles.
Next on the list was Eden Court. The sheer size and architectural brilliance of Eden Court is what first struck me when I met Paul Taylor, programmer for Eden Court. Situated on the grounds of the official Bishops of Moray’s residence and refurbished in 2007 to successfully bring together buildings from three different centuries, it now boasts the largest arts centre in Scotland with the premises having two cinemas, La Scala and The Playhouse; two theatres, The Empire and the The OneTouch Theatre; two dance and drama studios; fifteen dressing rooms; visual arts and conference spaces and restaurants and bars.
Paul and I sat in the busy café to talk and it was amazing to see the space in use. The restaurant was busy hosting a 50th birthday lunch; the table next to us was filled with drama students; La Scala cinema had just gone into session and The Empire was being used for a rehearsal for an upcoming ballet performance. The space is evidently cherished by the Inverness community and by programming art-house, independent and foreign films it gives the public access to films that they wouldn’t be able to easily find on the big screen.
It’s not only the interesting and illuminating programme that draws an audience to Eden Court and its cinemas; it’s the whole experience of Eden Court. Despite it’s size there is a somewhat personal touch to a trip to Eden Court. You can come in beforehand and there are spaces you can sit to meet a friend and have a cup of coffee or something to eat before the film or even after the film to discuss what you have just watched. Eden Court appears to be a community in itself with the members of staff making an extra effort to get to know the regulars. Paul appreciates this sense of community and believes that it is important that people get an opportunity to see the more artistic side of film as well as the easily accessible large blockbusters. He believes that just because people are living in a more remote community, doesn’t mean they can’t have access to great film.
West Side Cinema
For not only my last interview of May but my final research interview, I sat down with Mark Jenkins of West Side Cinema on a beautiful, sunny afternoon in Stromness. It was easy to see Mark’s clear passion for delivering film beyond the mainstream releases to audiences.
Whilst Mark programmes the cinema, West Side Cinema is run by a small enthusiastic committee and ‘offers the edge of world cinema in a relaxed and social atmosphere – themed music, candle-lit tables and a ‘bring your own’ policy.’ It is a not-for-profit voluntary run enterprise which runs out of Stromness Town Hall; a beautiful converted church in the centre of Stromness. The intimate environment and seating arrangement encourages interaction between audience members and allows easy exchange and conversation once the film ends. Mark encourages this discourse following the movie and is happy to stay until the last person leaves.
West Side Cinema opened in 2012 and has been consistently programmed in such a way that they are not competing with the other local cinemas on Orkney like the mainstream Phoenix Cinema.
Basically West Side Cinema is offering an entirely different experience to audience members. They offer alternative screenings and an immensely diverse programme that doesn’t rely on new releases to attract its audiences. Any given programme includes shorts and features, fiction and documentary, international and classics, as well as on line content, and they often work with local festivals to tie in with them. For example, just last weekend was the Orkney Wine Festival and West Side Cinema screened the award-winning film Delicatessen in conjunction with Kirkness & Gorie, Orkney’s oldest delicatessen (founded 1859) who supplied an evening of wine and cheese. Thus, a big attraction to attend West Side Cinema is the themed nights – the committee love to theme a whole night to the film that they are screening! Mark believes that cinema is best experienced in a collective, social environment that enables the audience to be a part of something unique. This unique cinema experience is what make West Side Cinema just amazing.