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The Dream Palace: An Interview With The Tyneside Cinema's Alex Ayre

Updated: May 26, 2020

Our Tyneside Cinema: It’s hard to know where to begin. Maybe I could start with its intriguing history? Or Its colourful journey? Perhaps its diverse audience? But let’s go with how much it to means to Newcastle upon Tyne and how our society is whole-heartedly enriched from her. Approaching 100 years, this independent cinema has faced dreadfully turbulent times, as all of our Arts have, but now, more than ever, we must protect her; we must preserve her.

She stands proud, unassuming on Pilgrim Street right at the heart of the city, and offers more than its name: she is a community. From the moment you walk through the door, there is a sense of calm, not always quiet, but a relaxed, creative feel. Even the coldest, northern day doesn’t put Vicolo regulars off their espressos as they watch the world go by in the alley, and you only need a glance around the café/bar to see a mix of folk, whether a productive business meeting or old pals putting the worlds to rights. I also need to mention the traditional Coffee Rooms too, which thankfully will never shake off its Art Deco elegance.

So, this brings us to the actual films. Providing that moment of escapism, as the pictures do, but capturing a bit of extra magic in the atmosphere, you will know of this, even if you have visited only once. Where else can you relax, with the vibration of the metro passing underfoot? The eclectic programming aims to be inclusive, and the interactive events and Q&As encourage a deeper connection to the medium. The Dream Palace is a piece of film, which discusses all of the above and more, which you can see for yourself as it’s available on YouTube until this Sunday, May 24th. To understand the concept further, I was grateful to a catch up with director Alex Ayre.

Mr. Ayre’s glowing history with the beloved place is a long-term relationship that has allowed plenty of growth and development, with the majority of his filmmaking training and education completed there. Alex reminisces. “When I was 15, I was accepted onto one of Tyneside's filmmaking academies for young people. I learned so much, in both practical filmmaking skills and theory and had such a brilliant time, that I decided to apply for another academy the following year. On my second academy, I was chosen to be the director of a short film. While I still had loads to learn, I think I decided that was the role I wanted to pursue. I did some follow-up volunteering with Tyneside, and when I left school at 18, I was offered a full-time role as a trainee filmmaker with Northern Stars Production: Tyneside's in-house production company, which was just being launched.”

Over the following seven years, Alex worked in his small team on over 200 commissioned films, and this dedication did not go unnoticed. “All this time I was bettering my skills at shooting, editing, and leading a small crew, to the point where I have worked my way up to being Lead Filmmaker. From very early on, I knew documentary was the genre I was keen on working in, so I tried to get out and about finding subjects and making my shorts as much as possible. Tyneside was really supportive of my work, and have screened several of my shorts prior to features on the main programme.”

Whilst The Dream Palace is not a new release, the decision to screen it free directly into people’s homes was seen as a thoughtful way of Tyneside keeping its relationship with the community buoyant during COVID 19. “The film had an initial run of screenings at Tyneside Cinema in 2018 and also had a screening at HOME in Manchester. When the current pandemic started, and the cinema had to close, it was decided very early on that something the business could offer to its loyal supporter during lockdown would be the ability to see this documentary at home.”Alex elucidates.

The documentary was made over a year from 2017-18, as part of Tyneside's 80th birthday celebrations, and made full use of a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The goal for Alex and his team was to engage the local community in discussing memories of cinema buildings they'd visited. “We ran some workshops in the building and out in the community, and set up booths to interview people in the cinema during specially programmed weekends of classic movies.” The goal was to engage as many different members of their film-watching community as possible in telling their own stories of going to the movies: “We knew we'd be cutting a feature-length documentary film out of it, but what was left on the cutting room floor was then archived as part of the heritage project.”

It’s not always an easy take to find willing participants who agree to be the stars of the screen, but thankfully there were plenty of willing candidates. “We initially asked the public who were not based locally to send us clips they'd filmed of themselves talking about their cinema memories. This is why there is a selection of user-generated content in the film - shot on mobile phones, etc. We then grew this bank by capturing interviews ourselves within the cinema with our interview booths.”

For the core story of the Tyneside itself, they liaised with Michael Chaplin. He had written a book on the building's history and was able to give his thoughts on who would come across best on camera. “Thankfully, they were all willing to be involved when we contacted them! Andrea Riseborough and Ken Loach both had strong past connections to the cinema and kindly agreed to give us some time in London to be interviewed. Mark Cousins was the first person we interviewed for the film as he happened to be taking part in a Q&A at the cinema. He was really kind, and we filmed a wonderful interview with him that captured his immense passion for the history of cinema, which formed the backbone and recurring inspiration for the project going forward.”Alex muses.

There is a substantial amount of beautiful archive footage used, which is a joy to see, in terms documenting not just the changes of the Tyneside, but our city too. It alludes to the idea that it would be a mammoth task to unravel, but it fell into place. “The majority of the archive footage came from the North East Film Archive, who are extremely helpful and have an amazing collection. Our researcher, Owen, spent some time there watching films that focused on the building. To be honest, it was fairly straightforward as I believe they had three films which were pieces on the building itself, and its activity from different points in its 80 years - each one illustrated what people were talking about for those periods!”

Who could ever have predicted that the purpose might shift when they were making the film: “We wondered if many people would come and watch it in small screenings, not knowing that it would find it's true audience online years later during a pandemic where no-one was allowed to go to the cinema! Its audience in 2020 is those who have loved and lived cinema, and long for its return.”

Alex ends by taking a moment to reflect and think about what The Tyneside Cinema means to him. “It’s a place where I first realised that people from all walks of life, all over the globe, make films of all shapes and sizes. It's a place where I think people feel that their passion for film is cared for, and about, by those who run the cinema and work there. In this current climate, there are no guarantees for the building, but if we make it to September, I'll have worked there for eight years. What I did on this film can be my small contribution to its on-going legacy.”

Article by Beverley Knight

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