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Projecting the Past: a heritage arts project engaging the community 

How a secondary school celebrated the local area by developing a community cinema

One of the young people project participants busy at the celebration event. Credit: Jason Pennells

This case study about Sawston Cinema exemplifies South Cambridgeshire’s Dual Use Arts Partnership Programme for secondary schools. This centred on making available arts facilities outside of school hours, for the benefit of the wider community. Written by Andy O’Hanlon and Lesley Morgan.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

In 2003 the District Council in South Cambridgeshire introduced a Dual Use Arts Partnership Programme known as Village Colleges, which aimed to make secondary schools’ facilities available for community use. By 2010, eight colleges were employing five local Arts Development Managers, each coordinating a participatory programme of live arts, exhibitions, public art, arts projects and cinema.

The Sawston Cinema project, originally established in 2008, is based in a former 1930s cinema theatre at Sawston Village College and today continues to programme mainstream films – including NT Live since 2013 – as well as original short films created by young people at the school.

The Cambridge Film Trust was keen to see the former 1930s cinema theatre on the school site, which had closed as a cinema in the early 1960s, operate once again and to support the school in achieving this. Alongside work, supported by other funding awards to make this feasible, ‘Projecting the Past’ was established by the Arts Development Manager as an intergenerational project aimed at both uncovering the history of the building and generating interest in the return of cinema to Sawston. The project took place during 2008 and 2009 and was funded through the Heritage Fund with an award of £25,000.

A total of thirty-five 11 to 15 year-olds were involved in the project, together with twenty-three older members of the community who remembered the original cinema when it was open, had gone to see films there, or had worked there.

The main project collaborators were Sawston Village History Society, Cambridge Film Trust and Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network. The project was also supported by Cambridgeshire Youth Services.

There were three project outcomes:

  • a film about the history of cinema in Sawston and of the cinema theatre building in focus.
  • a website about the project
  • a commemorative publication

Project participants worked with a professional filmmaker to make a 30-minute-long film which documented project progress and the return of cinema to the village, and included interviews with older participants recalling the original cinema and its story, and the recreation of some of these stories by the young people. The website documented project activities and progress, while the publication gathered participants’ reflections on the project.

“I really enjoyed making the animation about the building of the cinema. I interviewed some other students to find out what they liked about the project, and you can now see the film of this interview on our website.”

Nick Drew (young person, 2008)

The film was premiered at the re-established cinema in a celebratory event in 2009 and is available online

What worked well?

The Village College used the project to engage young people in the reopening of the former cinema. They became aware of its significance, connected with the local community and began building a new audience. A young people’s out-of-school filmmaking club emerged from the project.

Sawston History Society was instrumental in finding older people who were happy to share their recollections, and in encouraging them to participate in the project.

The Cambridge Film Trust supported young people in creating the website, teaching them how to make project podcasts and developing a marketing plan for the cinema.

The County Archive Network, then in its first year, helped source photographs, publications and film recordings, for use in the film.

Old and young attended oral history training sessions together and, once completed, the young people interviewed the adults, with interviews recorded on film.

Following the project, the older people involved became regulars at film screenings in Sawston Cinema and developed firm friendships with the young people who had played them, who, in turn, became involved in running the screenings.

“I love working in the front-of-house in the cinema. I enjoy serving people, meeting people, counting the money and the responsibility behind it. It was interesting meeting the residents and finding out about their memories of cinema in the past.”

Brogan Nolan (young person, 2008)

Sawston Cinema Club, the young people’s filmmaking club established following the project, continues today and, since the project first took place, young filmmakers are also often invited to create films about local events, and so links across the community are maintained. A new generation of young people create films that are screened in Sawston Cinema, while some of the original participants are today professionals in the film industry and occasionally return to give a talk or offer a workshop.

“It’s nice, when you get to my age, you can see history repeating itself but probably achieving what was intended in the first place.”

Brian Howe, former projectionist at the Cinema Theatre in Sawston

What was challenging?

‘Projecting the Past’ happened at the same time as work was taking place to prepare the cinema theatre building to be able to host screenings once again. While the school had received a £60,000 capital grant from the UK Film Council (as was) for the equipment to set up the cinema, there were unforeseen problems which meant additional funds were required to keep this part of the project on track.

The projector room had to be rebuilt to accommodate a heavy 35mm projector and other equipment, and a structural survey was required. Then, the lighting bar for the main stage – which continued to be used for theatre and musical performances – was found to be in the sightline of the projector, and had to be raised. An arts grant from the District Council and donations from local Parish Councils helped balance the budget.

The young people found some aspects of the project quite demanding e.g. waiting around whilst technical and lighting set ups were completed, and the detail and dryness of some of the oral history training. Young people were kept engaged and motivated by focusing on the stories of the older people, and thinking about how these would be told on film.

The logistics of filming on location were complicated. Careful scheduling was required throughout.

The unique model of the Arts Development Manager within the Dual Use Partnership provides a valuable role in navigating and mitigating challenges of this type.

What can others learn?

Managing the project
  • Trust young people’s judgements and their ability to manage things, and be supportive. Involving Youth Services in this project helped with this.
  • Be flexible: this project involved a complex filming schedule: participation among younger people fell as exams approached and coursework had to be handed in. Older people sometimes had other commitments (bowls matches/holidays) which meant the rescheduling of some activities.
Organising the project
  • Identify your project partners carefully and ensure their commitment to the project is fully established and agreed.
  • Involve practitioners with a good track record of delivering similar project elements and ensure they will work well with young people and provide positive role models.
  • Make sure your organisation is behind the project. The Principal of Sawston Village College was fully committed, which gave the project a high profile in school newsletters, staff briefings, etc.
  • Make sure the project elements are of interest to young people and they are involved in planning.
  • Ensure you have the right tools available to evaluate the project, and the young people are briefed on how to properly document activities.
  • Keep a record. It won’t just be a valued memento; it can inform future arts work.
  • Prepare a continuing or follow-up project, ready to engage those who were involved in your project, and think about legacy.
The wider picture

The project, led by the Arts Development Manager based at Sawston, was underpinned with revenue funding from the District Council through its Dual Use Arts Partnership. ‘Projecting the Past’ was one of many projects led by local Arts Development Managers across the district between 2003 and 2012. The ambition of the project, the quality of the work and the enthusiastic and creative way it was administered, helped to build the case for continuing the District Council’s partnership with the Village Colleges. In 2013, like many other local authorities, the District Council stopped funding the arts. Three local Arts Development Managers, employed by their Village Colleges, continued for six years. Currently one remains, based at Sawston Village College and providing support to schools across the Anglian Learning Multi-Academy Trust, delivering Artsmark, Arts Award, projects and expertise in school and out of school.