Prague last week hosted the 16th International Oral History Conference. And among the dozens of seminars, workshops and presentations, there was one about an ongoing project to interview cinemagoers and movie house workers in the country’s second city, Brno. The idea is to produce a picture of the cinema experience in the city over four decades. In this week’s Panorama, we look at some of the results so far.
The three-part project is being piloted by a team from Brno’s Masaryk University. One part is focussed on cinemagoers, the other on those who worked at cinemas and the third focuses on a broader local history of Brno’s cinemas.
Pavel Skopal of the university’s faculty of film studies and audiovisual culture explained the goals of the project during the conference.
“All the projects are focussed on reproduction of cinema programmes and on interviewing cinemagoers. So the main point is to know more about the every day experience of cinema and what was the role of cinema going for people from the 1930’s. We have cinemagoers who were born in the early 1920s and talk about their experiences and even some of them remember the last silent screenings.”
The studies are founded on the bottom up approach to historical and social research for which oral history is particularly suited. In short, it seeks to get the view of the general public and ordinary employees of what cinema meant to them. Mr. Skopal again.
“Usually we are used to thinking about cinema in terms of the movies screened and seen by the audience without the context. But the research shows that the context was very important and changed the context of the movies.”
Cinemas themselves ranged from plush picture palaces, to flea pits and open air cinemas. There were also special kinds of cinema which had diversified roles such as the non-stop cinema opposite the city’s main railway station. This, it appears, served as a sort of waiting room and public convenience for travellers. Overall, though the physical conditions of cinemas, and not just for those that partly served as walk-in toilets, do not appear to have been too appealing.
“I am interested in the sensual conditions of cinema. And the main, most obvious case, is the bad smell of cinemas because they did not have any ventilation in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s. And the result was that most reeked. The affect was that the cinema owners in the 1930s and 1940s and the nationalised industry in the 1950s tried to react somehow. One reaction was to open the rear door of the cinema and this gave an opportunity, particularly to kids, to sneak in to the cinema without payment. So this is one of the well remembered experiences which give a special dimension to the cinema space when the guys tried to sneak in.”
Some of the cinemagoers interviewed recount how a man was paid to go round the cinema spraying a pine scent to make the atmosphere a bit more bearable for those inside.
As well as the physical conditions, the project also touches on the broader political context of cinema for audiences during a period when two totalitarian powers were in control, the Nazis and then the Communists. Some of the interviewees remember the Red Army’s entry into Brno in 1945 and the free propaganda films that were screened afterwards to both the local population and the new military occupants. But both regimes, it seems, took strict steps to make sure that their message was not disrupted.
“Of course, in the 1940s, the era of the Second World War, the audience was supposed to be silent and not to comment on the newsreels, that is the German newsreels. And there are, still very not well researched, but there are examples of problems people had from short comments on newsreels.”
For both the Nazis and Communists cinema was a priceless propaganda tool at a time when television had still to take over as the main audiovisual medium. Afterwards, cinema, at least the open air cinemas in Brno appear to have taken on a different role.
“In the 1950s these were used for kind of regime presentations and regime festivities. But in the 1960s they were used for screening the most popular West European and American movies. It was a kind of really popular culture and was a very specific place where people were loud and screamed and commented on the movies.”
According to Mr. Skopal, the older generation that used to frequent the open air cinemas did not take to this free for all atmosphere too well and decided to boycott screenings and stay at home.
Tracking down former cinema employees for the second prong of the project has been a lot more difficult with a smaller audience to target and in many cases old lists of names and addresses the only facts to go on. Nonetheless, as university researcher Luděk Havel recounts, some of those people for insider eyewitness accounts have been tracked down.
“Now we have 13 interviews. Most of them are projectionists although there are two usherettes and a cashier and a director, or former director, in Brno. Our goal is to conduct 45 interviews, so we still have a lot of work to do.”
The picture that has been built up of the projectionists interviewed is of people who were more interested in the technical side and cinema equipment than the films themselves. That rather than the money, which was pretty much peanuts, was their main inspiration for what was often a part time job twinned with other employments such as being an electrician. As well as being a projectionist they often had to double, or even triple, up as odd job man and cleaner as well.
“Some projectionists were also big collectors of parts of the film strips because they cut the film strips, usually the erotic or kissing scenes and collected them. They also liked to invite friends or lovers to the cabin. And they were so good in their projection work that they were able to be with them during the projection as the screening continued and they did not need to check it.”
The technical equipment also offered other bonuses for those projectionists with a culinary bent.
“Some of them also liked to cook in the cabin because when the projector is on its heats up and is warm and they tried to use it as a piece of equipment to warm up or cook. For example, some of them took their dinners in pots and they cooked goulash and things from home on the projector. Some of them tried to do their eggs on the projector and things like that.”
Some projectionists though did like to have their own input regarding the films. They sometimes cut or added extra scenes and added their own music scores when they thought this appropriate.
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