Cinema is woven into the culture of a place. The Exeter Cinema Heritage Project has delved into the historic cinema experience of the city, and in the process unearthed, celebrated and fostered a community.
“The main core of the project was interviewing older cinema audiences from Exeter, to capture some of the stories of what going to the cinema was like how it’s changed in Exeter, how it hasn’t changed,” said Luke Hagan of the Exeter Phoenix, who was leading the project.
For The Exeter Cinema Heritage Project, there are 11 short films which will be premiered at Studio 74 at the Exeter Phoenix before being hosted on a dedicated website. Each one tells a different part of the story. From Saturday morning cinema clubs in Odeon, The Gaumont and the ABC Savoy, to fine dining experiences.
Rich history of cinema-going
Exeter has a rich, long history of cinema-going, at one time having over a dozen cinemas. The Odeon still remains from the cinema hey-days in Exeter.
The Exeter Cinema Heritage Project has been taking archive work into schools with primary school visits working with their project partners Into Film.
“We’ve been getting kids engaged with archives and what that means. They’ve been thinking about how going to the cinema has changed and they’ve shared their own earliest memories,” said Luke.
Those written responses alongside other material that has been created by Freefall, the youth arts group at the Exeter Phoenix, will be at an event at the Positive Light Projects in the city. It will be accompanied by a video film, projected in the window of the venue.
“What really strikes me is that no one thinks that their memory is interesting, or unique or valuable,” said Luke. “I suppose you see how things change over time, and you just accept it. Whereas if you’re looking back on what those things were like, it seems remarkable.”
Luke mentions the dining experience that was available at the Odeon – tablecloths, silverware and waiting in suits – which seems totally alien now, but was once quite normal.
“It’s also quite heartening to see the things that haven’t changed,” he said. That’s young people still valuing going to the cinema. “They do see watching films on streaming services as a different thing to going to the cinema. It’s more of an event. The type of event is changed slightly, but the core of it’s still there.”
As well as capturing the valuable and rare cultural experiences of the city, the Lottery Heritage Fund project itself has been part of that nurturing of a community. The initial project was meant to kick off in early 2020, but Covid got in the way. When it began, restrictions necessitated some streamlining, but the power of connecting and valuing the contributors was felt more keenly. That, combined with an intergenerational approach which embraced the whole city, showed how important the cultural life of the city is for the residents’ well being.
In the run up to the premiere, Studio 74 has been running a series of classic film screenings as a thank you to the groups that have been involved in audiences. The films have been Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Niagara starring Marilyn Monroe, and Educating Rita.
“Those have been really popular because you don’t get to see those films in cinemas,” said Luke.
The Exeter Cinema Heritage Project is premiering at Studio 74, Exeter Phoenix’s cinema on Friday, 22 July. The project at the Positive Light Projects is over three nights, starting on Thursday, 28 July.
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