Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ciao for now.

Regular followers of the SEA Movie Theater Project have probably noticed the dearth of posts in recent months. Sorry to drag it out like this, folks, but truth be told, I am fresh out of material. In the past I could remedy that by setting out from my Chiang Mai apartment on field trips around Thailand, or into neighboring Burma, Laos or Vietnam. A steady supply of documentary photography was always in store to keep the faithful entertained, if not a little bit informed.

It's a new ball game now. At least for the time being I have decided to spend some time in America, without any immediate prospects of a return to Southeast Asia. Believe me, this is a painful adjustment. And nothing pains me more than not being able to work this project (I've tried documenting American movie theaters, but I can't muster the same devotion to it).

So an indefinite lull in activity awaits, but by no means is this the end of the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. To the contrary, I have a bunch of irons in the fire as I type. Besides my usual attempts to land grants and fellowships, I am slowly piecing together a book about the stand-alone theaters of Burma. That's still a ways from completion, but it is in the works nonetheless.

As some of you may already be aware, there is currently a series of SEA Movie Theater Project photos on display at Bangkok's Jim Thompson Art Center. That will be running to through October. Please check it out if you want to view these images in large print format and in a context other than a computer screen.

The people at Jim Thompson, I ought to mention, have been consistently supportive of this work. Without them I do not think it would have been able to survive as long as it has. They are a saintly group to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.

The Lifescapes Southeast Asia Film Fest, the Busan International Film Fest, the Luang Prabang Film Fest and the Cinemanila International Film Fest have also been extremely good to me and deserve much praise. So does his Wiseness over at Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal, who has generously promoted this project from the start.

As for future events, December of this year includes another exhibition, this time in Jakarta, Indonesia at the Chop Shots Documentary Film Festival. There very well may be something exciting in conjunction with that, which I'll keep you all abreast of.

In the meantime, thanks for all the visits and page views, the supportive comments and fan mail. Check back from time to time to see if anything new is in the works. Send in your own photos of stand-alone theaters in Southeast Asia if you feel so inspired. Or feel free to drop me a note: sea.theater@hotmail.com. It would be great to hear from you!


Sunday, August 19, 2012

A day in the life of a projectionist

The life of the projectionist is one of silent toil. His work is carried out in stuffy quarters, beside noisy machines, usually alone, yet it's the basis of mass entertainment. He is like a conductor in that sense, a disc jockey, only without the notoriety that comes with being seen or heard. As an occupation, the projectionist is the faceless link in the movie industry supply chain. A critical link, no doubt, but one which is fast losing its prestige, if not its place in the industry.

Amnuay is a veteran projectionist. A true old hand. He got his start as the projectionist at the Sri Surin Theater in neighboring Surin province before moving to the Sisaket Rama in the provincial capital. Both theaters are now out of business. A decade has gone by since he got his third gig as projectionist at the Thai Rama here in Uthumphon Pisai. Notwithstanding a miracle, there won't be another chance to practice his craft should this gig expire. Fortunately, the Thai Rama sustains, if for no other reason than its owner enjoys running it. A bastion of family entertainment in small town Isan. The owner's rock bottom entrance fee of 20 baht is the lowest in the country, making the big screen accessible for even the most pecuniary. In the second decade of the 21st century, an active stand-alone theater in rural Thailand is a rare occurrence.  

Amnuay opens the lamphouse of his projector, revealing the xenon bulb. 

Amnuay mans a clunky, two-reel changeover projection system that could be in a museum. It's at least as old as the theater itself, which dates to 1977. In the working life of projection equipment, that's grandfatherly. Only with a lot of extra tweaking and coddling are these machines able to perform.

A cacophony of motors sets an industrial mood in the projection room. Antiquated projectors require hawkish attention. At times they caused the on-screen picture to shake, the result of a loose imaging lens. The audio system failed for a moment, too, leaving the audience of 20 or so in unintended silence. The amount of attention required just to ensure a steady picture, an even light source, is praiseworthy. This is no mindless task. Tedious, yes, but skilled no less. 

When one reel has nearly finished, Amnuay switches on the other projector. The so-called "changeover" system staying true to its name. The expired reel is then removed and taken to an adjacent room where it's rewound by hand.

Split view

Rewinding by hand

The rewinding bit seems to have a meditative quality. In the minute or two it takes Amnuay to complete a reel he seems lost in thought, watching as the film shrinks from one reel only to grow, correspondingly, into a tightly wound circle on the other. Occasionally he glances out the wall opening towards the distant screen, checking that the film is playing smoothly in his absence.

Above the wall opening hang portraits of the King and Queen. Most businesses in Thailand keep images of royalty prominently displayed. In this day and age, to not is to rouse suspicions. The portraits on display in the Thai Rama are inscribed with blessings of good luck and prosperity. They've presided over this room since the beginning.  

Amnuay pauses, staring blankly into existential nothingness as the movie plays on in the background.

While the projectors hum away, clamorous in their melody, Amnuay takes a moment to read the newspaper. Moments like these mark the completion of a reel cycle. Several minutes pass this way before he returns to the machine to adjust its components. It takes about 5 or 6 reels to complete a typical feature film.

A smoke break provides Amnuay a moment to take in the movie. 

Another solitary moment for Amnuay, his machines clanking away in the background. It was not too long ago, he recalled, when the theater was full on a regular basis. The Thai Rama had an original seating capacity of one-thousand. Now only 200 seats remain, the rest sold off as scrap. 

The projectors in this steamy little room are aged artifacts. When they go, so will the theater. Projectionists like Amnuay, operators of these aged artifacts, are like members of a fading guild. They are a breed of their own. To see the occupation at this particular point is to watch occupational Darwinism unfold before your very eyes. A sterile silence awaits this room where dreams have been projected twice a day since 1977.  

Amnuay shrugs and cracks a smile before loading another reel.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Film director from Cambodia's "Golden Age" passes

The stunted but reviving world of Cambodia cinema lost one of its legendary directors last weekend in Phnom Penh. Yvon Hem was a much lauded movie director in Cambodia during the country's most prolific period of cinema production - the late 1950's through the early 1970's. He is credited with helping develop the Cambodian film scene from virtually nothing to a thriving industry. Hem was 75 years old.

The Phnom Penh Post has the full story here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Thai Rama - Uthumphon Pisai, Sisaket, Thailand

Like countless little towns dotting the Thai countryside, Uthumphon Pisai comes across as a functioning time capsule. Core sections of such towns are much as they were when they developed in the mid-20th century, spurred towards growth by market-sized agricultural yields from Green Revolution technologies. 

Town fresh markets, still a staple of community life, are now concrete instead of wood framed, as are most commercial structures. Those wooden structures that do survive often have an endearing sag to them, like the dear old aunties and uncles who so often call them home. They belong to a visibly different era.

It's the town outskirts where the 21st century makes its presence known. Inter-province highways on town outskirts are lined with the same kinds of big-box retailers that led small town America to a needlessly early grave.The central business community is challenged by the hyper-markets on town's edge. 

Generally speaking, local movie theaters are in a similar, if not more dire position. Closed or altogether demolished, virtual unknowns to the new generation of would-be movie-goers. 

But in Uthumphon Pisai, the Thai Rama has managed to cling to life through simple economy: at 20 baht, it's the lowest priced movie ticket in all of Thailand.

The Thai Rama Theater

Like most stand-alone theatres in small Thai towns, the Thai Rama was built near the heart of the community, perfect for a largely pedestrian population.

When it opened in 1977, much of the countryside had yet to be linked to the electricity grid. The local cinema, then powered by diesel generator, topped the list of places to go for entertainment. That has all changed over the last two decades.

In Uthumphon Pisai, however, for less than the price of a bowl of noodles, you can still experience the joys of the silver screen the old-fashioned way. A family of five, living off a single minimum wage, can comfortably enjoy this luxury at such a price.

But it gets even better than that: In a display of her affection for the business, the Thai Rama's owner-operator - a middle-aged woman who inherited the theatre from her late parents - outdid her own rock-bottom price.

"Buy tickets for next week's movie today and pay only Bt10," she announced recently as a group of patrons filed through the door.

Her explanation as to why so low: "We're an old theatre, without air-conditioning, and in need of a paint job." Clearly this is a theatre owner for whom community spirit trumps profits.

Wooden doors and sign for 20 baht movie tickets, the cheapest in Thailand.

Pleasantly absent at this astonishingly low price are the droves of rambunctious teens that must be negotiated at the multiplex in the shopping mall. Thai Rama attendees are there for the sole purpose of watching a movie, not as an afterthought on a shopping spree.

Thirty minutes worth of onscreen advertisements prior to the show is likewise not an issue at the Thai Rama, in contrast to the big-name multiplexes. Instead, the erstwhile norm of a few previews and the cinematic homage to the King is all one sees.

High school students make memories in front of the old Thai Rama.

Verandah view

Monarchical marketing before the start of the film

Admittedly, for Bt20 - six times below the national average for a movie - there are some noticeable technical omissions. For one, there is no frigid air-conditioning as is common at the multiplexes. In fact, the Thai Rama has managed to cool its patrons for 35 years with nothing more than industrial-sized wall fans.

Nor will you find fancy seats with cup-holder armrests that can be raised to get closer to a date. The seats at the Thai Rama are metal framed, deep-pocketed and - though sufficiently comfortable -perform no function other than providing a place to sit, one person at a time.


But even if the rickety, two-reel projectors caused the picture to shake at times, and the antiquated sound system botched the audio during a few scenes, the overall movie-watching experience is pure joy. Maybe it is precisely this rustic imperfection, this down-home sense of community, that's so comforting in an age of superficial gloss and hyper-consumption.

Either way, at Bt20 a pop, it's hard to complain.