Articles · Newcastle and North East

The Star and Shadow Cinema Reborn

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The volunteer-run Star and Shadow Cinema has just reopened on Warwick Street, a few streets away from its original home on Stepney Bank.   

The original Star and Shadow Cinema sat on Stepney Bank, overlooking the Ouseburn river, a small tributary which flows from Callerton, north of the city, through Gosforth Park, Jesmond Dene and into the River Tyne. Stepney Bank runs steeply down into the Ouseburn river valley, a picturesque location traversed by three bridges, that was once a dilapidated and post-industrial wasteland in need of much investment and redevelopment. Today, it has been transformed into one of Newcastle’s most exciting locations, with a thriving cultural, musical and drinking scene, thanks to community-led regeneration efforts and large amounts of outside investment.

The Star and Shadow was located on the periphery, hidden behind the Tanner’s Arms, a gateway to the valley. The success and gentrification of the Ouseburn, however, ironically spelled the end for the old building in 2014. Capitalising on the Ouseburn’s new status as a youthful, artistic and cultural quarter, and the current fad for building student flats across Newcastle, the cinema’s landlord decided not to extend their lease any further and to redevelop the site himself. And so, the Star and Shadow would have to be reborn.

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In order to protect themselves from the harmful consequences gentrification may bring again, the Star and Shadow team wanted to buy their own building outright. They were assisted by the city council, who asked them to look at a former SCS store on Warwick Street, near Shieldfield. “And that’s kind of where it started,” says Arto Polus, a Finnish filmmaker, whose appearance suggests less volunteer at an independent cinema than member of a Scandinavian metal group. “We didn’t have an alternative really. There were a couple of alternatives that we looked at but there was no real alternative. It was a bit of a gamble. But then the council said, ‘OK, you’ve done a good job for nine years, we can agree on a mortgage.’ There was a real sense that the Star and Shadow really had something to offer the city.”

The council offered two mortgages, the first, to buy the site without a deposit, and the second, to renovate and do up the space, totalling around £250,000 each. The Star and Shadow team also applied for grants and government support while establishing a crowdfunding campaign that had two functions: “One, was raising money. Two, was to say, ‘OK, the Star and Shadow is still here, we’re still doing it and we need your support.’ And it became a way of telling people what was happening.”

In June 2016, the new Star and Shadow organised its first event, a crazy golf course in the bare furniture store. But it would be a while before the cinema would reopen for real. The first phase of the redevelopment was to strip down the space into an empty shell and this was completed in February 2017. Since then, the Star and Shadow’s team of volunteers and outside contractors have been inserting walls, soundproofing rooms, and creating what is now the cinema’s bar, venue, smoking area and toilets. “When I walked in here late May, early June, I thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe we’ve really done this,’” says Arto. There was originally some doubt “but we were stubborn enough to keep going.”

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Mat Fleming, one of the cinema’s founding members, meets me in the cinema’s new auditorium. The hum of the final building work is faintly audible in the background. He’s also clearly happy about the new space. “It’s much superior. We can run films all the time and say yes to all the gigs that are proposed. It was previously, ‘we all like the cinema but the music is more popular and makes more money’. We couldn’t do it at the same time and we could rarely do it on the same night. So that’s a great thing about this building. It’s more accessible. There are very few places you can’t get to in a wheelchair for example. There are better toilets which are easier to get around. The windows look out onto the park. And in the park, there is a primary school, loads of terraced houses and the street is a main thoroughfare for students.”

Since the Great Opening of the Star and Shadow 2.0 Festival (June 22nd-24th), the cinema’s team of volunteers have been trying to get back into organising screenings and gigs after two years of thinking about the logistics of building work. They are looking to expand their already sizeable volunteer base – 800 people are today registered on their system – and bring a lot of new faces to their Warwick Street venue. No experience is necessary and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved in programming, projecting, organising gigs, ushering the screens and working on the bar. All you need to do is to attend one of the cinema’s regular volunteer inductions and then you can sign up to volunteer shifts on their website. And there are range of events to attend from the family matinee – a series of film screenings programmed by local children – to world cinema and documentary film seasons.

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The Star and Shadow Cinema originally grew out of the activities of Cineside and the Tyneside Radical Film Festival (TRFF), two groups first based at the Side Cinema on the Quayside in 2001. Cineside were “programming the canon of world cinema, artist films, documentaries, Old Hollywood, whatever we found interesting, whatever we could find on 16mm because that was the project there,” says Mat. They began with films as diverse as the Newcastle-based Amber Film Collective’s Launch (1973), Mat’s favourite film L’Atalante (1937), Michael Powell’s psychological horror Peeping Tom (1960) and the Swedish arthouse classic Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and were driven by a desire to improve the current state of independent cinema programming in the city.

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A fortnight later, TRFF began their weekly programme, focusing on highly politicised subjects such as police violence, left-wing revolutionary groups and anti-globalisation. This brought together the two principal concerns that have run through the Star and Shadow’s activities until the present: art and politics.

The popularity of those screenings led to the development of further strands at the Side. The ‘Other Side’ explored LGBT cinema and ‘A-Side’ focused on video art and contemporary artist film. But Amber who owned the building had other plans. “They got a bit bored of us. But we were also broadening our minds and discovering that we wanted to do other things. We wanted more than the four walls of the Side cinema to do it in. If we wanted to get a band in or have a party or put on an art exhibition or open at different hours it was difficult. And we didn’t see eye to eye culturally with the café which had their business to run.” Amber’s decision provided a stimulus for the Cineside group to start looking for their own building and this search ultimately led them to the Ouseburn.

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“The Ouseburn development organisation realised that a building was available. The lease was being sold and they wanted something that fitted with their vision of what the Ouseburn was. So, they were willing to facilitate us moving in by paying for the conversion of the toilets. At the same time, the organisation that was connected to the political documentary side of things had been given some money to set up a social centre which was a political-activist hang-out sort of place. But that group found it really difficult to agree on anything at all.

“We were quite pragmatic. We wanted a building. We weren’t getting paid. If we wanted to keep that model of not turning it into a thing where we had big pressure to make money to pay ourselves we needed to have loads of people. We wanted the activists anyway and wanted to get them to join in as we knew that we needed many to make it happen. But they didn’t want to join us at the time. We did very determined work for a while and all lived in cheap places. We didn’t have many responsibilities and we could put silly amounts of time into it. By force of will we opened the cinema in 2006. The build was relatively simple. We got a grant for £16,000 and the council paid for the electrical work and the plumbing. And that was basically it.”

It wouldn’t be long until the Star and Shadow began regularly screening films programmed and organised by a growing group of committed volunteers. In those years, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the film programme and community spirit of the place. Arto joined the cinema in 2008 and he says the experience of volunteering at the cinema changed his life. “I came at the right time, knowing nobody in the city and having to find something to do. It was a great place to get to know people and see stuff that you didn’t even know existed. Every time I walked through the door there was something that I had no idea even existed.”

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The Star and Shadow screened a great range of arthouse, world cinema and Hollywood classics in these years, from the films of Agnes Varda to Abbas Kiarostami and Frederick Wiseman, while hosting slow cinema giants Lav Diaz and Ben Rivers at the 2012 AV Festival. I also distinctly remember a Mexican wrestling event in 2009 with the masked Demon and Senor Portugale fighting it out in the cinema’s makeshift ring. These are all elements that the Star and Shadow team hope to continue in the new building. There are plans for a month-long Ken Loach season in November 2018, followed by what Mat says will be called Canon Fodder, a retrospective of what Star and Shadow volunteers consider their essential canon. But really, the future programme is still up in the air. Volunteers will be given the freedom to choose what they want to see.

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The Star and Shadow “is an over-arching organisation that has a different meaning to different people and different groups. They might disagree. You might have a different opinion on what the Star and Shadow is than me and they might not match,” says Arto, over a beer in the Town Mouse. “I’ll divide it into two different things. One, it’s a building and a place where things happen and cultural events. And then it’s an organisation, an area involving open collective people, trying to organise themselves and organise the space in a fashion that may or may not function. It’s an experimental space and organisation. The ideal take on it would be a non-hierarchical, consensus-based utopia.”

But the cinema is not always utopian in practice. “When you bring two people in, you get conflict straight away. It’s a mixture of people and they have their own disagreements. Often the right hand does not even know what its own fingers are doing, let alone what the left hand is doing. I don’t think anyone knows what is going on as a whole or knows what different groups are doing and I think this is the beauty of it.”

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It is also a space where cinephiles can come together and watch films projected on 35mm, a practice which is increasingly dying out as digital projectors replace film projectors and distributors stop sending celluloid prints out. “I think there are some people here whose love of cinema is geeky enough to take in the fact that the format matters,” says Mat. “Translating from one to the other is a change. It’s not meaningless. In my opinion, if a film was made on film then I want to see it on film because I prefer it.”

The Star and Shadow is currently equipped to show 35mm and 2K digital prints but there are some worries that passion for celluloid may be on the wane. “I think it’s because some volunteers aren’t so into cinema that they notice the difference. They are intimidated by the hassle involved in putting a film on 35mm, receiving it and sending it back and not damaging it. And presenting it right. Some people say, ‘I’ve got a DVD. Can’t we just stick on a DVD?’. Well no, for starters, we’re not allowed and what do you need a cinema for if you’ve got a DVD anyway?”

Mat’s insistence on continuing to play films on film differs with the practice of other independent cinemas in the area such as the Tyneside Cinema who have moved 99% of their programme over to digital. The Star and Shadow has been trying to carve out their own niche for years, and 35mm offers an extra way to differentiate themselves from the competition. That being said, regular Tyneside customers may get a little whiff of déjà vu when they walk into the new screen, as it looks like a partially repurposed Electra, with rows and rows of the Tyneside’s old seats. And yet, there is still a unique Star and Shadow feel to the space, something inexplicable carried over from the previous building.

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The Star and Shadow is also trying to differentiate themselves in terms of audience. “If you walk into the Tyneside, you realise that everyone there tends to be wealthy and most of them retired. The young people there have often only come to see Harry Potter and Sex and the City. I hope that the Star and Shadow is less straightforwardly middle class and university-educated than the Tyneside is. I think similarly to the Baltic and Sage. Although I bet you they go to masses of effort to get loads of schools in and tailor their programme, and have consultants who check the copy for long words.

“I hope that, paradoxically, we sidestep that by not having a gatekeeper. If you’re confident enough you can put your thing on for your friends. Also there’s the fact that we have music here and music’s a big crossover and a way in for subcultures. We represent a more bottom-up side of culture than the Sage and Tyneside. Plus, we don’t have curators being paid to decide what’s good for everybody else. We don’t have a sort of high-brow-low-brow police going on. We’re not second guessing that stuff. We’re just people acting on our own interests. Mostly its people who are here by accident, not because they came here to do that job curating that organisation or directing that organisation. We happen to be here and we want to put on the culture that doesn’t already exist.”

And yet, even if the Star and Shadow can transgress some of the unsurmountable class barriers in British culture, they are aware that there is more that they can do to appeal to the local population. “People think it’s highbrow, they think it’s too lefty,” says Arto. “They think it’s some intellectuals who don’t listen. It’s just some Londoners coming here to do stuff. But it’s definitely on the agenda and it’s something we strive for.”

Now is a good time to get involved since the team are all still trying to figure out how to run the space. “It’s a new venue. There is a constant stream of people coming in. They want to put on their stuff. This is a great time to join if you want to learn how to put on events, learn how to run a cinema, be part of an organisation and community and have fun.” And that’s it, we finish our pints and Arto is off out of the door with a lot on his mind and a lot to do.

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Photographs courtesy of Arto PolusJohn Dal, Richie Rocket and the Star and Shadow Cinema

Visit starandshadow.org.uk for more information. 

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