Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema - Pathein, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmar

A concrete jungle in a watery land. That's Pathein for you. The biggest city in the Irrawaddy Delta. Myanmar's proverbial rice bowl.

Pathein's past primacy can be read in its logistical heritage. It is the terminus city for a railroad spur that juts southwest from the Yangon-Pyay line - the country's oldest rail line. British colonial logic designated Pathein as the western most fresh water port in the Delta that could be reachable by locomotive.

Today the port is still bustling. The train, much less so.

For the workers on Pathein's busy waterfront - the longshoremen, sailors, porters and so on - downtime is often spent as it has been for decades, under the flicker of film at the Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema.

Subdued International Style architecture of the Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema

The entrance to the Shwe Pyi Taw is along the length of the building. The grand head house is reserved for small shops. Recent renovations have resulted in the entrance side of the theater being clad in colorful vinyl panels.


Shadows and colors

The Shwe Pyi Taw has been entertaining Patheinians - dock worker or otherwise - since at least the mid-1960's, according to the floor manager. Once one of a trio of theaters in the city, including one which stood directly across the street, the new and improved Shwe Pyi Taw is now the last operating cinema in town and one of only two still in business in the entirety of the province.

To stay afloat, the theater was given a complete renovation in 2015, which cut the number of seats down by nearly sixty percent. In fact, the entire auditorium was physically reduced in a bid to save electricity costs against a newly installed air-con system; the first the old theater has ever had.

In addition to a rightsized auditorium with new seats and climate control, projection and sound have both been upgraded to digital. 

Part of the 20-plus staff at the Shwe Pyi Taw in leisure mode between screenings.

Door girl on duty

The wall on the right is the original wall of the Shwe Pyi Taw before renovations reduced the auditorium. On the left is the new wall after, post-reduction.

Old carbon-arc projectors sit unused in the former projection booth. A new projection booth, containing the digital audio-projection system, has since been built. 

All new seats in the Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema

VIP seats. Most theaters in Myanmar have their back several rows of seats separated by partitions for couples. Added privacy for a few extra Kyat.

Screen views

Reduced number of seats, increased comfort.

The Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema at night

In 1968, the central government nationalized all the movie theaters, with oversight given to the Ministry of Information. A special department tasked with running them was established in the form of the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise. Under the MMPE's stewardship, most of the country's cinema halls were neglected, with few if any improvements made to the majority of them. The end result was a fairly well preserved, if shabby, stock of traditional movie halls across the country.

Since 1997, the MMPE has been privatizing its movie theater holdings. While many of those sold off have since been razed to make way for new developments, a few, the Shwe Pyi Taw included, have had new capital poured into them with the aim of making them profitable again. It remains to be seen how many of Myanmar's stand-alones will be salvaged in this manner, but the very fact that it's happening at all is noteworthy. 

Even if only one is preserved for every 5 that are destroyed, Myanmar's movie theater evolution will be moving in a very interesting direction compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, if not the world.


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