Organizing an event in a city that is relatively new to you is a challenge. Organizing an event when this city is located in another country is a particular challenge. That the ECA launch event on November 21st in Magdeburg (Germany) turned out to be an absolutely amazing event is indebted to a handful of involved persons and last but not least, the residents of Magdeburg attending the event!
To be honest, until August I hardly had any idea where, when and how to organize the ECA launch event in Magdeburg, a city located close to the boarder that used to divide East from West Germany. As I live and work in the Netherlands, most contacts had to be done via e-mail and/or telephone. Many of these e-mails weren’t answered, others only after weeks. So during my research trips to Magdeburg, I tried to arrange as many appointments with people in different institutions and organizations, most of which, however, were cancelled on short notice.
The first major breakthrough was a number of brainstorm sessions with the head of PR of the city library. He not only showed great interest in our project, but also offered to help preparing and organizing the event for free! Unfortunately, most dates for fall 2018, when the event had to take place, where already scheduled for other activities and the deadline for submitting concrete ideas was approaching at high speed. Fortunately, I had also been able to get in touch with the exhibitors of one of Magdeburg’s longest running cinemas, the OLi-Kino, and they showed great interest. Wouldn’t it to be great to host the ECA event in a cinema that opened in 1936 and is still operating more than 80 years later?
After settling for a date, preparations made headway very quickly. Press releases were sent to a free monthly magazine, a weekly free newspaper and newsletters to residential homes of senior citizens. A poster was designed for distribution in the cinema, the city library, the city archive and the local community college. The first RSVPs followed quickly. But the biggest surprise was yet to come.
Three weeks before the event I met with a journalist of the local newspaper ‘Volksstimme’, to draw attention to our project and discuss a press release. To my surprise, our talk was to be used as material for a big article to be published in the local weekend edition only two days later! This article was to introduce ECA, announce and provide details about the launch as well as invite senior citizen to share their cinemagoing experiences with us! And it didn’t stop here. Depending on the amount of reactions, the board of editors offered to publish a serial of cinemagoing memories of Magdeburg residents.
The article turned out to be a success! At 8:20 the very morning the article was published, the first e-mail trickled into my mailbox, more followed in the course of the day and the following days. Not only by senior citizen eager to share their memories and personal collections of film memorabilia, but also from persons I have tried to reach in vain for months! In addition, letters to the editor reached the ‘Volksstimme’, resulting in a follow up article in the Saturday edition preceding the event. I was moved to tears to see people’s great interest in our project and in the cinema history of their home city!
Suffice to say that I was in the clouds and confident that the event would become a success. And it was. When I arrived at the venue on November 21st about two hours before the start, tables had already been arranged and set festively, technical equipment was being tested, a last line up was agreed on. As the venue opened one hour before the scheduled beginning, I had a chance to already chat with some of the early birds, who were proud to tell a bit of their memories and show me old fanzines, pictures and other items from their personal collections. Coffee and tea was served by the bar ladies of the OLi team and the owner himself distributed delicious Streusel cakes.
I guess making the guests comfortable in such a way, to a great extent paved the way for the event’s success. The cinema owner had put on his special bowler hat and with a few jokes introduced me and the purpose of the gathering. I took over, by introducing myself not only as a film historian but most and foremost as one of them: a fellow citizen of the former GDR, who, just like the majority of the audience, had lived in and experienced many sides of the socialist regime. I guess that was when the last ice broke.
The Magdeburg audience was fantastic! It listened closely and learned about our project and most and foremost about their role in it. Different from what I had expected they were actively engaging in talks about Magdeburg cinemas, adding to or nuancing the stories that were known so far. The interaction was always in a very friendly and open manner. I can’t say how pleased I was about how the presentation went. But it still didn’t stop here.
I had scheduled at least another hour where participants could talk to each other, share memories and memorabilia, and where I could get a chance to talk to them. After all, the event’s main purpose was to get in touch with senior citizens and recrute participants for the video-interviews. I was overwhelmed once more to see people cuing up to share their memories, donating parts of their collections and leaving notes with their contact data.
Leaving Magdeburg the next morning with a suitcase twice as heavy than on my way there, I still could feel the warmth and openness of the Magdeburg residents. I flipped through the countless film programs, self crafted files of images of stars and films. The most precious gift probably was a diary, containing a man’s list of each visit to the cinema and films seen between 1929 and 1958, including the war years! This and the event‘s success made me realize the importance of shared (cinema) memories in peoples‘ lives, but also about the importance of unlocking private collections for the writing of film and cinema histories.