Since the pandemic took hold whilst I was away in New Zealand, I have not set foot in a UK theatre for the duration of 2020. I’ve had the opportunity to see, review and be involved in the making of some incredible work in the digital format, but I have not been in a room with a live audience in the UK, in 12 solid months. Then along came Away, an indie animated film following the journey by motorcycle of a lost boy on a strange island. Its promise of wanderlust and of beauty was enough to coax me out to the Exeter Phoenix, to quench my drought albeit slightly apprehensive, and alone.
As infection rates in Exeter have started to drop The Phoenix, Exeter’s arts centre, has gradually started to ramp up its provision and welcome audiences back. As a multi-arts venue, their programmes are varied and streams are going live bit by bit as it becomes safe and legal to do so. The Terrace bar and café were the first components to return, back in August, and I made sure I was there – even though the coffee machine broke in all the excitement. As well as cinema, their arts and crafts and creative skills courses are making a return, and there is even live (socially distanced) theatre planned before the end of the year.
“Any anxiety I had about being in proximity to strangers melted away”
Studio 74 is the Phoenix’s bespoke, solar-powered, indie cinema. It would have celebrated it’s fifth birthday this year, if it had been open to do so. I booked my ticket a little last minute (about 30 minutes before leaving the house!) and caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the entrance as no seat had been allocated for me. I apologised, guilty, and fortunately they were able to fit me in. Although it was a bit embarrassing, it was no real hassle at all and I took my seat in the familiar darkened studio with around 20 other people spaced out around the 74 capacity seating block and waited for the film to start. We had been advised to dress warmly, as the air conditioners would remain on for extra ventilation. Any anxiety I had about being in proximity to strangers melted away once I was settled into my seat, and I don’t think I have ever felt so acutely the anticipation for the evening’s entertainment to begin. Phone away, mind open and ready to receive. I even left the notebook at home so I could fully devote myself to the experience of simply allowing the art to unfold, and my mind to wander where it may.
Away follows the journey of an unnamed boy found hanging from his parachute in a tree, as he makes his way back to civilization. The story is told without dialogue, and through minimalist, stylised animations that took just one creator over three years to execute. The land the man finds himself in is beautiful but slightly surreal. He discovers a motorcycle, on which he winds his way through deserts, forests and over snowy mountains encountering no humans or human activity but instead an array of animals and mysterious dark, giant creatures, whose shadowy forms have the power to sap the world around them of life.
“Speed the day when we can seek out more new sights like these for ourselves without compromise or anxiety”
The story may be simple, but it is the sincere connections, particularly between the boy and a flightless bird, that director Gints Zibalodis paints which make this film so emotionally impactful. It may have taken three years to animate, but it has arrived at a time when we all crave more connection in our lives, both from the outside world and each other. It also arrives at a time when new horizons are a luxury. The beauty of the mirror lake, with dozens of birds in flight reflected back on all sides is breathtaking. Speed the day when we can seek out more new sights like these for ourselves without compromise or anxiety.
Perhaps a year ago I would have been irritated by the loud whispered conversations between a parent and her young children a few rows behind me, but today, it enhances the experience to see and hear those sharing in the film around me. Their curiosity makes me smile. Amongst the 20 of us, there are families, a few couples, another woman about my age by herself, an older man by himself in the front row.
In Covid19 times it is sad that we cannot reach out in the way we might want to – I wouldn’t be allowed to sit with strangers and strike up a conversation in the Café Bar after the show as I might have after a solo theatre experience back in London. But we mustn’t forget that we can share in experiences and just through being in the same room watching the same screen – or through watching a live stream remotely and seeing there are others out there watching with us – mentally support one another. We can be distant, together.