INTERVIEW: Star and Shadow Cinema Microprojects | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Andrew Wilson

If you live in Newcastle, chances are you’ve watched the steady growth of The Star and Shadow Cinema since it took up residency at the bottom of Warwick Street back in 2016. What you might not have noticed as you passed by on the top deck of the number one bus, is that the cinema is a product of the blood, sweat, tears and time of an 800-strong pool of volunteers. A true consensus-driven organisation, when the pandemic hit the UK, a collective decision was made to close the doors of the cinema long before the government mandated the closure of venues.

We’re adaptable and resilient,” agree volunteers Dawn Felicia Knox and Michelle Hirschhorn-Smith over Zoom, referencing their online radio station, which launched during the early days of lockdown. “Our number one priority was to meet the needs of our community,” Dawn continues, “we can’t live without them, and we needed to support them emotionally and financially.”

Aware that many of their volunteers were self-employed, isolated and in some cases left entirely without income, The Star and Shadow made the decision to invest Arts Council Cultural Recovery funding straight back into their community. The result? A Microprojects Commissioning Fund for volunteers. “We were like ‘go big or go home’,” Michelle laughs, and ‘go big’ they did. In just six months, they secured funding, assessed dozens of applications, commissioned and supported 38 volunteers to realise their projects. The process was hard work but was helped immensely by the “reservoir of knowledge and talent” among volunteers. “We operate under a ‘learn something, teach something’ model so nobody hoards their skills,” explains Dawn. “We had people who were entirely new to the commissioning process join us, who now better understand how it works.”

The cinema operates as a microcosm of a democratic society, something which artist and volunteer Andrew Wilson explores in his Microproject Commission, This Trust Idea, a 30-minute film of playfully melded footage exploring the interception of trust, coercion and democracy. “The first time I turned up to volunteer at The Star and Shadow, someone thrust 200 quid in my hand and told me to cash up the bar. That’s trust,” he laughs. He felt a sense of urgency, having been inspired by the varying response to COVID-19 across the globe, noting that the countries that dealt best with the pandemic had the greatest relationships with trust. “I ended up spiralling a bit, thinking about the relationship between individuals, the state, the media and authority. It’s examining the relationship between coercion and freedom, really.”

In just six months, they secured funding, assessed dozens of applications, commissioned and supported 38 volunteers to realise their projects

We spend 45 minutes chatting about the handling of the pandemic, state control and the impact of the lessons we’re taught as children regarding authority, but this does a disservice to the light-hearted nature of the film. “I wasn’t intending to evoke any grand reflections, or wrap anything up,” he smiles. “I want it to be enjoyable, laughing isn’t a lesser art.” Inspired by a new world in which isolation is the new normal, Wilson acknowledges that the film is provocative, made to be consumed in a cinema and discussed at length afterwards.

At the other end of the cinematic scale is Kate Sweeney’s Little Light, a beautiful, personal animated video made up of a series of watercolour paintings documenting Kate and her young son, as she cuts a lock of his hair to make a paintbrush. It’s a laboured procedure that comes full circle, as the paintbrush is then used to generate the watercolour stills. “I wanted there to be a claustrophobic feel to the video,” Kate says, about using her son’s hair. “It’s about using what you have to hand when you’re stuck at home in lockdown, but also because I’m obsessed with being a new mum.”

Kate skilfully treads the line between intimacy and privacy as she explores the emotions and close bonds of motherhood. We discuss this at length, a ninety-minute conversation impossible to dilute into a few dozen words, though we continue to return to the need to achieve a balance between sharing “intense maternal feelings” and moderating how much we put out into the world, especially in a year that has driven us to isolation, whilst exposing much of ourselves and our homes over Zoom. Thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on creative output, she believes that whilst productivity levels are low – “it doesn’t matter what grand ideas I have in the morning, because by 8pm I’m knackered and just want to watch telly – our sincerity levels are incredibly high.”

Making the most of low productivity levels is fine art student and podcast host Susie Davies, who began interviewing non-male filmmakers for Star and Shadow Radio. Reel People shares the stories of six North East-based filmmakers such as Maria Caruana and Ellie Land. “I figured that people who would ordinarily be busy might actually be available,” she laughs. Finding, and amplifying the voices of female role models within film has played an important part in building confidence; at the beginning of our conversation Susie refers to herself as an “aspiring” filmmaker, agreeing that this delegitimising of ourselves is a habit that female creatives need to break. In Episode One, Maria Caruana recounts being told that “women don’t work here” in an early film job, the antithesis to the openness and generosity of the podcast. “For anyone that might be listening thinking ‘oh I can’t do that’ because their identity prohibits them, I want them to know that they can.”

All Microproject Commissions are available to watch, listen to and engage with via the Star And Shadow Cinema’s website

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