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Sparks Open Air Cinema

  • Sparks open air cinema AHHAA

While we are looking back at the more than 230 community activities launched by Sparks all over Europe, we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the creativity of Sparks partners in putting forwards activity formats beyond those set by the project.

AHHAA science centre in Tartu (Estonia) incorporated a series of Sparks project activities into the 2017 Researchers' Night Festival programme (the biggest science communication event in the Baltic States), namely outdoor movie screenings that ran for four consecutive days.


Annika Vesselov & Kai Kaljumäe from AHHAA tell the story:

The event was not chosen randomly. First of all, Tartu already holds two popular film festivals each year (one of which is a summertime open-air event as well). Secondly, AHHAA has successfully ran its own Open Air Cinema several times during the Researchers’ Night Festival. Over the years, it has become one of the biggest hits of the festival, in terms of both the attendance and attention. It is also the most popular event among the young adults (including university students) and high school students – the target group that is the hardest to reach, and who we wanted to engage the most. Therefore, it seemed only natural to introduce the subject of citizen science and Sparks project in general through an already popular event format.

The Open Air Cinema is held in the outdoor parking lot behind Science Centre AHHAA. Visitors can enjoy the movies from their own car (by turning up the radio and tuning into a specially arranged radio frequency), take a seat in the truck-trailer-turned-into-a-movie-hall, or simply bring their own chair or sofa (this option was actually quite popular!). All the chosen movies fit the overall topic of last year’s festival (research ethics) and the themes of Sparks (health and medicine). 

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Photo: courtesy of AHHAA

What made the Open Air Cinema so popular (and also unique, compared to other outdoor movie events) is perhaps the fact that we purposely choose popular movies, even Hollywood blockbusters for our programme, as opposed to documentaries that focus strictly on the subject. We want to show how much science and scientific discoveries are involved in movies, even if we do not notice it at first: this is where the scientific aspect of the event comes in. Every screening features a guest lecturer – in our case, they were citizen scientists (which was something they did as a side project, in addition to their everyday jobs). The lecturers gave an opening commentary to point out the scientific side of the movies, picked out specific examples from the movies and encouraged the discussion with the audience. A moderator and a few assistants were also present and walked among the crowd handing microphones for those who wanted to give a comment, ask a question or point out something interesting.

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Photo: courtesy of AHHAA

How did the format exactly work in practice?

For example, one of the selected movies was "A Cure for Wellness" where an ambitious young executive was sent to retrieve his company's CEO from a remote wellness centre in the Swiss Alps. His assignment turned into a journey of slowly but surely uncovering the centre’s dark past, discovering the real reasons as to why the guests keep staying there, longing for the cure. The expert pointed out many topics and exact events that took place in the movie (trying not to give out spoilers) linking them to his/her field of study.

Then the moderator encouraged a discussion with the audience on the same aspects taken from the movie. Participants were asked questions such as what are their thoughts on the issue, how do they feel about it, have they ever seen, heard or experienced something similar is there something that could or should be done differently. Many aspects concerning the ethical issues of procedures, practices and methods used in medical centres arouse from the discussions. Also questions on the topic of aging, genetics and human experimentation.

The fact that the guest lecturers were so diverse, in terms of age, background and work, made this year’s Open Air Cinema particularly interesting. For example, we had representatives from a student company, who had just won an award for their ground-breaking food composting machine (which included special bacteria). We believe this made the event more appealing to other (high school) students and encouraged them to get more involved in science and research, and perhaps invent or discover something by themselves. A diverse selection of movies and lecturers also meant that people who came to one screening were more likely to return on the following days as well (as shown by the results of our visitor survey). 

We are glad that we chose the Open Air Cinema to carry out the SPARKS activities, because this format proved to be successful and engaging. Hopefully, it will have a great impact on the audience – who knows, there might have been quite a few future (citizen) scientists among them!

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Photo: courtesy of AHHAA

Events date: 
Friday, June 1, 2018