The North Devon Movie Bus Project was coordinated by Emma Giffard, an archive and exhibition project that saw her and her partner Ollie Halls put together a programme of local social-history films and travel around North Devon holding screenings in their mobile cinema bus. The Movie Bus Project was a collaboration between the Vintage Mobile Cinema, the Museum of North Devon & Barnstaple, the North Devon Theatres Trust, the Bill Douglas Centre of Exeter University, the North Devon Festival, and the South West Film and TV Archive (SWFTA). It was funded by the UK Film Council’s Digital Film Archive Fund, the Museum, Libraries and Archives Partnership and administered by South West Screen; (all three of which are now defunct, their work has largely been taken over by the BFI and Creative England); the fourth partner was the North Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Sustainable Development Fund. The project ran from March 2010 until March 2011, and was shortlisted for the 2011 Media and Innovation Awards. I realise I’ve just listed off a lot of names and schemes here, but it is important to acknowledge the intricacies and partnerships required to get a grassroots endeavor like this off the ground. It’s testament to Giffard’s management and coordination that she made a project like this successful.
“One of the challenges of moving into the digital age is to keep this archive footage accessible as old technologies become obsolete.”
Emma was kind enough to spend some time answering questions that I posed to her about The Vintage Mobile cinema and North Devon Movie Bus Project, my questions and her answers are laced throughout the article. Initially I was keen to find out more about The Movie Bus, I wanted to know where they took the bus and what kinds of events and screenings they ran.
We visited lots of schools in North Devon as part of the project, and ran education sessions with the kids about the history of film. We had a lot of interesting artefacts such as zoetropes and praxinoscopes from the Bill Douglas Centre, so the sessions were really hands on. Some of the kids got to make their own animations inspired by the films that they’d seen as well. As well as education sessions, we ran a lot of screenings for the public in local towns and villages. They were incredibly popular – sometimes it seemed that we’d get the entire village turning out to see the films!
I then asked Emma what prompted her to undertake The North Devon Movie Bus Project in the first place, it couldn’t have been a cheap or easy endeavour.
The mobile cinema was mid-way through its restoration when we sat down for a meeting with the North Devon Museum, North Devon Theatres Trust and the North Devon Festival. Despite the fact that the cinema was still a long way from completion, they had a lot of faith in the project and put together a proposal for its use, drawing in partnership support from the Bill Douglas Centre and the South West Film and TV Archive. Once they had secured funding from South West Screen, the UK Film Council and the North Devon AONB we knew that there would be work for the cinema once the restoration was finished. This gave us the confidence to invest the large amount of time and money that was still needed to get the cinema up and running once again.
The South West Film and TV Archive (SWFTA) have thousands of hours of archive film and video dating back to the advent of cinema in the 1880s. They have archives covering all aspects of life in the South West. The North Devon Movie Bus project undertook the task of helping transfer these films into digital formats readily available for a new generation of viewers.
One of the challenges of moving into the digital age is to keep this archive footage accessible as old technologies become obsolete. The Movie Bus Project has ensured that generations to come are able to access a part of this important record of our history on a modern format.
Together with Maniac Films in Croyde, North Devon the Movie Bus Project produced eight compilations of footage from the archives. The eight films made are: A Tale of Two Rivers, Sootbombs and Blazing Barrels, The Beast, the Hunt and the Harvest, Hippies & Hooligans – Yesterday’s Westcountry Youth, North of the River, South of the Sea, From Hartland Point to Lundy Light, Movin’ On Up, Nine to Five - for a full description of all the films see here. The archives are an important resource that can open up our historical landscape, helping solidify a sense of historical, social and cultural identity. Melvyn Bragg’s twenty part BFI/BBC series in 2011 The Reel History of Britain, mined Britain’s rich archive. Bragg’s series was an assertion and acknowledgement of British history, told from the point of view of real people via archive films.
“Giffard and Halls took their version of exhibition on the road, bringing both a unique selection of films and a unique viewing experience to audiences.”
With this in mind I asked Emma how she accessed and chose the films that they subsequently digitized, edited and screened:
Most of the footage came from the South West Film and TV Archive in Plymouth. We decided on a few themes, and as project co-ordinator I would look through their database and identify descriptions of films in the archive that sounded interesting. I would then spend the day at SWFTA where archivist Mike Brewis was incredibly helpful, running back and forth from the vaults to get reels out for us to have a look at. Sometimes they hadn’t been viewed for years – for example, I remember one description stating ‘Oil – Braunton’, which could have been anything but turned out to be a very interesting piece of film about an oil spill on Braunton Burrows from a tanker in the 1970s. Once we’d identified the footage we wanted to include, SWFTA would digitise the material and I edited them into coherent compilations with the help of Maniac Films in Croyde, adding soundtracks where appropriate, many of which were from local musicians. The films turned out to be so popular that we produced DVDs at the end of the project for people to buy if they wanted, which are still available at the Museum (in Barnstaple, North Devon).
The importance of making the archive open to the public is particularly salient. Recently the BBC and BFI have partnered the Arts Council on The Space, a collaborative, experimental digital channel for arts organisations to interact with audiences. The pilot project runs until the end of October, 2012 as part of the ‘cultural olympiad’ – a cultural celebration in aid of this summer’s UK Olympics. Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond is a film freely available to watch on The Space, made with 100 years of archive provided by the BFI. She uses footage of the British coast to paint a unique portrait of our coastline; the film was shown at the BFI with a live accompaniment by British Sea Power. Nick Bradshaw writes about Woolcock’s film in his lovely July 2012 Sight and Sound article The future is behind you.
This all relates to the work that The North Devon Movie Bus project conducted in 2010/2011 because they, in different ways, demonstrate innovative ways of utilising existing archive material thus making it available to a viewing public. What makes Giffard’s North Devon Movie Bus project special is not only her approach to preservation but the unique way in which she, and Halls, exhibited these archive films. The Vintage Mobile Cinema is “a unique slice of cinema and automotive history” – one of seven custom-built mobile cinema units made for the British government in the late 1960s, the cinema bus was initially designed to show training films to workers. It seems as if Giffard and Hall are in possession of the last remaining mobile cinema bus. It was in this bus that they travelled around villages in the South West, screening the films they made with Maniac Films and SWFTA.
“It is inspiring to find creative, intelligent and socially engaged individuals working hard to bring the power of the cinema to eager audiences.”
I asked Emma how her and Ollie got the Vintage Mobile Cinema off the ground:
Ollie was a visual arts graduate; he had specialised in projection and was keen to set up a mobile cinema, although he had an outdoor screen in mind. He was also a vintage vehicle enthusiast, so when he heard that there was a derelict 1967 mobile cinema for sale, he jumped at the chance. That was the beginning of a five-year restoration project. All along he wanted to retain control over it rather than handing it over to a charitable trust or something similar, because he wanted to run it as a business and get it out there once it was finished, rather than letting it become a museum piece. This meant that the restoration project was not eligible for any funding, with the exception of a small grant from the Transport Trust, who were very supportive. Other than this it was entirely self-funded, so Ollie would be out working to earn the money to feed into it and spending his spare time in the mud underneath the cinema putting it slowly back together.
I wondered how Emma and Ollie fused their collective knowledge to make this project such a success, it turns out that their combined skill set was perfect for the undertaking.
Ollie studied visual art and graduated from Plymouth University, so it was a pretty natural route for him to go down. I had a background in community work rather than the arts, so the work that I did putting the Movie Bus Project together, liaising with schools and communities and trying to maximise the impact that the project would have fitted in with that.
Like Bruno, the mobile projectionist in Wim Wenders’ 1976 classic Kings of the Road, Giffard and Halls took their version of exhibition on the road, bringing both a unique selection of films and a unique viewing experience to audiences. After the North Devon Movie Project finished in 2011 their bus was hijacked by Melvyn Bragg, who used it to travel around the UK for the aforementioned television series The Reel History of Britain, a fantastic audience-led social history project that saw Bragg bring relevant films to regional areas, screening those films for locals, family members, friends and, wherever possible, the actual people appearing preserved on the reels. “For the first time we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people” says Bragg “we are bringing these rare archive films back to life, with the help of our Vintage Mobile Cinema.”
The Vintage Mobile Cinema is constantly on tour, popping up at events and festivals all over the U.K and Europe, screening a variety of films. The North Devon Movie Project was, one of many, astounding achievements. I asked Emma about their recent and current adventures:
We travel all over the country, and recently, have taken the cinema abroad for the first time in its forty-five year history. That was very exciting – we took it across to Amsterdam on the ferry. The Ijburg Film and Fotofestival organisers were fantastic – it was the first time they’d put the event on and they were full of passion and enthusiasm; it was great to be a part of that. Other events that we run can be anything from arts or film festivals, corporate, promotional, or community events, or private parties. The film choice is often made by the event organiser but sometimes they like us to curate the programme. In those cases we look for independent film-makers work that fits in with the theme of the event. More often than not we screen short films – with only twenty-two seats it means that a lot more people get the chance to experience the cinema. Our record stands at about 1500 audience members over two days at last year’s Thames Festival with the BFI; that was a pretty hectic two days!
They also popped up at Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham, amongst many other festivals and events too numerous to mention. As with my interview/article on The Cube in Bristol it is inspiring to find creative, intelligent and socially engaged individuals working hard to bring the power of the cinema to eager audiences. Long may the Mobile Cinema motor on.