Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Radiance Mini-Theater - Magwe City, Magwe Division, Myanmar

There was little reason to doubt Mandalay's distinction as home to Myanmar's most recently constructed stand-alone movie theater - a state-built giant called the Myoma. In the 1980's, Mandalay, the second biggest city in the country, was struck by two massive fires, leaving large tracts of devastated city in their wake. Over the following two decades the government allocated funds to help rehabilitate certain aspects of the city. In the process, three new movie theaters were erected, the most recent of which was the above mentioned Myoma in 1998. Noting that the private contracting of these iconic buildings has been moot since the current regime seized power in 1962, it seemed logical that, under the circumstances, Mandalay's Myoma Cinema would be the newest of the new. That, however, was an erroneous assumption on my part, quickly dispelled after a more thorough survey of Magwe.

Front entrance of the Radiance Mini-Theater

Magwe is not exactly a bustling metropolis, nor the kind of place where one would expect to find the progressive social forces needed to support a new stand-alone theater. To be sure, in Myanmar old stand-alones are kept in service mainly because a hyperconsumerist shopping mall culture, spurred on by global capital flows, barely exists. From the stand-point of architectural conservation, this is an unintended benefit of economic sanctions. With no money to support this kind of consumption, there is no need to redevelop the prime lands often occupied by movie theaters for more profitable structural types i.e. shopping malls, condominiums, office towers.

In this regard, Magwe's brand new Radiance Mini-Theater circa 2010 is an anomaly. A newly built stand-alone theater in a provincial backwater doesn't seem to fit easily into any equation. However, when looked at in terms of local geography the mystery is solved. The Radiance is indeed the product of global capital flows, but not the kind predicated on mass consumption. We have to look towards Myanmar's most powerful entity, the military, to find its source.

A few kilometers east of downtown, along Magwe's main east-west thoroughfare, the imposing gates to the Magwe Air Base rise skyward. Socialist authoritarianism in poured concrete. As dominating a sight as this entryway is, the gates were manned by a lone security guard slumped in a folding chair, fidgeting with a pocket radio in a desperate attempt to neutralize his boredom. San San Pwit - my indispensable interpreter - and I, were scarsely noticed as we strolled past.

A few short blocks later, we turned off the main road and found the Radiance Mini-Theater, Myanmar's latest stand-alone. Impressed by its shiny newness amid the dusty provincial mellow of Magwe, we exchanged a few pleasantries with the staff, bought our tickets and went in, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness before taking our seats. The film was a typical low budget Myanmar comedy projected from a DVD - viewing fare which ensured that we would depart quickly. We stuck around just long enough to get a feel for the interior: the auditorium was small (it is a "mini-theater") with seating comprised mostly of fake leather love-seats. Once our eyes adjusted we could see that a handful of them were taken up by young couples slouched in intimate entanglement. The Radiance, we concluded, is a den for the young to radiate their love for one another. We left them to their privacy and bad movie.

Back out in the lobby, San San Pwit eased into a restrained conversation with one of the staffers, hoping to glean a bit of information about the new picture house. The key here was to do so without arousing suspicions. The Radiance, after all, is a mere stone's throw from a major military installation. Harmless questions about a topic as seemingly benign as movie theaters can send paranoia levels through the roof. Being in close proximity to a military base makes tensions that much higher.

In spite of the looming unease, San San Pwit glided and glottal stopped her way through a cordial-if unrevealing conversation, while I snapped off a few lackluster photos of the newest movie theater in Myanmar. In the end we concluded that the theater was built to provide entertainment (and a little privacy) for family of personnel stationed at the nearby Magwe Air Base. This theory was partially substantiated by three framed photos above the ticket window depicting military men apparently giving their blessings to the new Radiance Mini-Theater on what was likely opening day.

Lobby view of the Radiance Mini-Theater, with photos of opening day ceremonies presided over by military brass hanging above the ticket window. Who exactly is in the photos is unknown. We didn't dare ask.

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