Our moving stories of going to the movies
By Jonathan De Burca Butler
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
As the Lighthouse in Dublin reopens, two film producers examine our love of going to the ‘picture house’, writes Jonathan De Burca Butler
WHEN James Joyce opened Ireland’s first cinema, Cinematograph Volta, on Dublin’s Mary Street in 1909, he was embracing the most exciting technology — the moving picture.
Most Dubliners ignored Joyce’s venture, resulting in the sale of the cinema after seven months. The Volta was owned by several companies until it closed down in 1948 to be replaced by the clothes shop Penney’s.
Ireland now has among the highest per-capita cinema attendance in the world, with 16.5m bums on seats in 2010 generating €150m.
Last week, the much-loved cinema The Lighthouse reopened in Dublin’s Smithfield.
But there are still fewer cinemas than there used to be. O’Connell Street in Dublin had four cinemas, while every town from Clifden to Killorglin had a movie house. As each of those cinemas has been replaced by a generic room in a multiplex cinema, our cinema experiences, although more comfortable, have become very similar.
So production company, Planet Korda, has started a new project, See You at the Pictures, to document, through film and writing, people’s memories of the cinema in Ireland. The company was started in 2005 by 44-year-old Canadian-born Jeremiah Cullinane and his 41-year-old Italian collaborator Bartolomeo Dibenedetto. The pair have worked on successful documentaries for RTÉ and TG4. The seeds for this project were sown while doing research for the engrossing documentary Hitler’s Irish Movies, on RTÉ. “A film history lecturer named Ruth Barton told us about a particular element in Irish movie history in the late 1920s and early 30s,” says Cullinane. “Certain republican elements took it into their own hands to censor films, because they felt that the Irish film censor was not doing his job properly; particularly in respect of what they deemed to be British propaganda films.”
“They had their own gangs,” says Cullinane. “And they would go around the place threatening exhibitors and distributors and telling them to withdraw certain films, or else.”
Cullinane approached RTÉ about making a documentary on the topic but they rejected the proposal as “too niche and too arty.” Cullinane says that the underlying themes of the project were to explore the dynamics between Church, State, propaganda, film censorship and the formation of an Irish cultural identity within the context of “a very deep suspicion of cinema [by Church and State]”. Research for that (ultimately shelved) project had commenced. Cullinane had penned a “six-line letter” to an Irish newspaper asking people to contact Planet Korda about their memories of going to the movies in Ireland in the 1930s.
“Well, out of that we got a flood of responses,” says Cullinane. “And Bartolomeo turned around and said ‘hold on here, look at the amount of responses we got from a tiny little letter’. So this indicated to us that there might be a huge amount of interest and material out there.”
Galvanised by the response, Cullinane and Dibenedetto decided to “think bigger” and to look into what Cullinane calls “the whole Irish cinema-going experience throughout the decades.”
This time RTÉ didn’t resist, and so Planet Korda are calling on people of all ages, from all parts of the country, to contact them with their memories of cinema.
“What we’re going to be doing is setting up cameras in different rural and urban venues all over the country,” says producer Lisa McNamee. “And we’re going to interview a certain number of pre-arranged people and whoever else happens to walk in and feels like talking. We want to get a really good cross section of society.”
The Planet Korda team start recording in March, to air the documentary later this year. But McNamee says the project will not end there.
“At the moment, our website is just an information gathering site,” she says. “But we’re going to be replacing it with quite an advanced interactive map of Ireland with every cinema there’s ever been in Ireland and the interviews will connect to that geographically.”
Planet Korda hope that other documentary makers will contact them regarding other films about cinemas and Cullinane hopes the project will bring local stories into a broader national picture.
“What I’ve noticed, since picking up the project again, is that everybody we’ve talked to seems to have a story,” says Cullinane.
“Everybody seems to have some special memory from their youth, or even their present life, about going to the cinema. Older people, in particular, and the way they light up when they remember a certain event that happened to them, that really moved me and I thought these are very, very cherished memories and are something that many people would be very fond of seeing and sharing.”