Thursday, March 24, 2016

The San Thit Cinema - Ma-ubin, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmar

The San Thit Cinema stands just in front of the docks at Ma-ubin on the gently rolling Myitmaka River. The building itself is barely visible from the street due to its placement below street level and obscured behind a strip of one story shop houses that face the thoroughfare. Behind the theater, surrounding it on three of its four sides, are low slung warehousing facilities holding goods brought up off  and destined for the boats below. Bundles of raw tobacco, jars of various spices and sacks of rice are piled floor to ceiling in these wooden godowns, which are connected to each other, the waterfront and the cinema by a warren of narrow lanes. It's an ecosystem of transit, trade and leisure so tightly intertwined that it's as if it were a living organism. 

The waterfront scene at Ma-ubin is typical for a modestly sized port town in the Irrawaddy Delta. At just 40 miles by river west of Yangon, the bustling burg is ideally situated for riparian trade. In former times, one can imagine dock workers breaking from their duties to catch a film at the San Thit Cinema - or the Shwe Aung Cinema, which was just next door. Cinematic reprieve from a life on the waterfront was quite literally just a few steps away.  

Movie posters stapled to boards just above the main entrance of the San Thit Cinema

Ticket window

Beyond the folding wooden doors of the San Thit Cinema, a sea of hand crafted wooded seats, neatly arranged in narrow rows, unfolds before the eyes. Such a sight is increasingly rare in Myanmar. As the old theaters go out of business, owners sell the seats to antique dealers, usually in neighboring countries like Thailand and China, where a market for such cultural curiosities is quite strong. Alternatively, a handful of theaters in Myanmar have recently been modernized, in which case the old wooden seats have likewise been removed to make room for new cushioned ones.

Auditorium views

In the days before electrical lighting was a staple, natural light served as a means of illumination. The wooden awning windows at the top can be opened and closed to lighten and darken the auditorium as needed. 

Interesting curve in the balcony rail.

Balcony views

Almost all movie theaters in Myanmar feature partitions between every two seats in the back rows, as pictured in the above photo. This addition allows couples attending a film to have a modicum of privacy. In a conservative society like Myanmar, trips to the cinema for young lovers is generally the only privacy they're likely to get. These seats are at a premium because of it.

The man above was the caretaker of the San Thit Cinema. He has been at the San Thit since it opened in 1963, when he was just a young boy. 

Seven months ago the cinema stopped showing movies, though it still opens occasionally to screen football matches via an LCD projector. 

The name San Thit translates to "modern."

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mutilated Cinema Row and other movie theater missives from Myanmar

Round 3 of the Myanmar Movie Theater Survey has come to a close. What was supposed to be a full 28 day-long expedition screeched to a premature halt, unfortunately, about a third of the way into it. A freak accident involving a scorching hot motorcycle tailpipe put a second degree burn on my heel, totally incapacitating me.

Likewise, the survey got off to an equally slow start, albeit not by my own doing. Demolitions and a cyclone simply left a dearth of material to document during the first leg of the trip.

But as bad as it all sounds, the in between was very productive, yielding almost as many new insights into Myanmar's movie theater archaeology as it did new photographs of old theaters. Above all else, it made me realize that 3 rounds of photography for Myanmar is not enough. Rounds 4 and 5 are thus in the pipeline.

The highlight of the survey was a panel talk on the subject of movie theater preservation held at Myanmar Deitta Gallery. The round table discussion took place in conjunction with an exhibition of Myanmar's Vanishing Movie Theaters, consisting of 15 images from my previous Myanmar surveys. About 60 people showed up for the talk, the main agenda of which was to draw attention to the plight of the Waziya Cinema - perhaps Myanmar's oldest existing cinema hall  

The low point of the trip - burned heel aside - was the fact that I waited 5 years to do it. About half of the theaters that I visited on this trip had closed down within that time frame. Others were demolished. Many vacant lots stood in place of what only a few years before was a mid-century movie theater. 

The most obvious loss to Myanmar's movie theater heritage since my last survey is "Cinema Row." Once the highest concentration of stand-alone movie theaters anywhere in Southeast Asia, the downtown Yangon strip went from having six theaters side by side to mere two. A before and after shot depicting the stretch of city is below.

Cinema Row c. 2010

Cinema Row c. 2016

But it's not all bad! As I start organizing my photos and notes I'll be sharing with you some surprisingly positive news from the Myanmar movie theater scene. Believe it or not, there are some interesting trends afoot. And unlike neighboring Thailand, where the crown jewel of movie theaters still faces the threat of demolition, the finest active theaters in Myanmar seem to be in very good hands.

More to come very soon.