Friday, March 16, 2018

The Migalar Waziya AKA Waziya 2 Cinema - Hlaingthaya Township, Yangon

It would take nothing short of a military dictatorship feigning benevolence to erect a movie theater like the Waziya 2 Cinema up in Hlaingthaya Township on the outskirts of Yangon. I don't mean that cynically. Back in the early 1990's, no bottom-line minded private theater operator would have had the gumption to plop a massive movie hall in the middle of a rice field in the sticks. Stuff like that only happens when turning a profit is as easy as stealing the wealth of a nation.

Indeed, the kleptocrats behind the Than Shwe government went through a mysterious period of theater construction in the early to mid 1990's. At least 3 that I know of were built in Yangon, a few in Mandalay and others elsewhere, too. It may have simply been part of a wider infrastructure development initiative that the generals put in motion in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy crackdown. Placate the citizenry with new roads, bridges, ports and why not a movie theater or two? What better way to make them forget how much they hate you?

Whatever logic lay behind this act of generosity, its legacy is a block of hulking concrete with a movie screen in it. Not an architectural beauty by any stretch, but looking at it, it's hard not to indulge in a little dystopian fantasy. You can just about feel big brother's cold, pan-optical gaze leering down at you from this cement cinema hall. Personal freedoms swapped for failed cradle-to-grave security and some propaganda films. Reality surrendered.

That's more the Soviet version than the Burmese Road to Socialism, but the look is the same. 

That was then, of course, and this is now. A brave new Burma is upon us, no longer fettered to the whims of dictators. Capitalism and the whims of the market have taken their place, and movie theaters are reverting to private ownership.

Enter Mingalar Cinemas. The Yangon-based theater chain - Myanmar's largest - acquired the Waziya 2 in 2015 following a two year spell of sitting dormant. The new owners sank some money into it, sprucing it up enough to mute the authoritarian look and adding some much needed pizzazz. They dropped the "2" from the title (Waziya "1" being a Beaux Arts beauty from the 1920's in downtown Yangon) and prefixed "Waziya" with the company name.

"At first we thought we would divide the single-screen auditorium into three smaller ones," a company rep told me, "but in the end we opted to keep it as one to accommodate larger crowds."

Since installing top-of-the-line Christie 4K Digital Projectors and Dolby Digital Sound, the new and improved Mingalar Waziya Cinema is doing better than ever.

"It's a good thing we kept the auditorium whole," mused the representative. "On weekends the theater is usually packed."

Crowds pour out of late afternoon Sunday screening at the Mingalar Waziya Cinema.

Packed house weekends are no exaggeration. I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon just in time for a screening to let out. A Burmese romantic comedy judging by the billboard. As I surveyed the grounds for prime angles to shoot, the theater's doors opened and a trickle of people sauntered out. Moments later the trickle turned into a deluge, as seemingly satisfied movie-goers poured out into the surrounding lot towards their bicycles, motorbikes and idling taxis parked outside the gates. It was a beautiful sight to behold. The good old fashioned collective pleasure of the cinema, sacrosanct in its concrete stand-alone guise, in full swing. If tickets for all 651 seats weren't sold then it was pretty close. 

A quartet of movie-goers go to the movies.

The side entrance of the Mingalar Waziya is where the box office and lobby are.

Box office 

Staff at the Mingalar Waziya cleans up the theater between shows.

Gentle illumination

Now, I don't know this for certain, but by the looks of it most of Hlaingthayar Township was probably agricultural in the 1990's when the Waziya 2, as it was originally called, was built. Most of the nearby structures look tellingly recent. Others are little more than slapdash huts by the side of the road and other developments on the fly. Between the two are tracts of fallow rice fields.

Nowadays, Hlaingthaya is thick with industry. Young factory workers and their families comprise the majority of residents, who in turn make up the bulk of the audience at the Mingalar Waziya. Prescient planning by the military gov. to plop a movie theater in a rice paddy that would soon be zoned industrial, densely populated and in need of leisure activities. And a wise move on the part of Mingalar Cinemas to buy it up, slap their brand on it and keep it intact.


For those of you who only follow The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project blog and don't follow my Twitter, Instagram or Facebook feeds, you might not be aware that I'm in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign. The aim of the campaign is to raise funds for a feature length documentary about my work photographing old theaters in Thailand and Myanmar. Details of the campaign can be found by clicking here.

If you like the work I do, please consider chipping in. Even the smallest donation (200 Thai Baht, or $7 US in this case) helps.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Things to come from the #theaterhunt

The trip was grueling. In 23 days, 27 towns were visited. Some for no more than a few minutes. Or just long enough to learn that there were no theaters left to shoot.

Of all the predictions listed in my pre-departure post only a handful occurred. No run ins with raging ethno-nationalists, thankfully, nor any skin contact with scalding tailpipes. I was sidelined by a case of the green-apple quickstep for a spell, but it couldn't have come at a more convenient time. Namely, while sucking up the largess of my old alma mater at a comfortable Mandalay hotel.

The theater tally has yet to be tallied, but I suspect it's somewhere in the range of 27 theaters, give or take. A few were repeats. Most were never before seen. Among the batch are some outright gems. Hopefully my photography will do them justice.

As I sort, edit and delete my way through this batch of images, the 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey motherload, I leave you with a preview of things to come.