Documenting Myanmar’s forgotten cinemas

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The first films publically screened in Myanmar in the 1920s were black and white and silent films. Fast forward to the Myanmar of the 1950s, 60s and 70s and something of a golden age for cinema was taking place with a healthy filmmaking scene and glamourous cinemas to match.

Bogyoke Aung San Street between Pansodan and Sule Pagoda Road had a strip of no less than eight cinemas, earning itself the name ‘Cinema Row.’ The following decades of junta rule saw the cinema industry bend and strain under military control and strict censorship. There was nationwide economic decline and the country was more or less cut off from the rest of the world. Mingalar Cinemas, established in 1989, was the company to take the brave move and buy out the country’s cinemas when the government decided to privatize them after decades of control and strict censorship.

In 2018 there are two distinct types of cinemas in Myanmar; the dated, often crumbling standalone cinema halls of the past, and the modern movie theatres in air-conditioned shopping malls. Today, Cinema Row is down to its last two cinemas—Waziya and Thwin.

Philip Jablon moved from his hometown of Philadelphia, USA to Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2006 to undertake a master’s degree in Sustainable Development. After three abandoned thesis attempts, he began documenting old cinemas as a kind of feel-good personal project to raise his spirits. He was surprised when he proposed and was given a green light to
write his thesis on the old movie theatres of Thailand.

“I was drawn to the architecture and the juxtaposition of the cinema theatres with the street and their role within the urban environment.” Philip’s first venture into Myanmar was in 2009 when he travelled over the border to document cinemas in Keng Tung in eastern Shan State.

“Myanmar was a great unknown to me. It was basically a black hole in my
knowledge of Southeast Asia.”

He was motivated by what he found and was still yet to learn. He was boosted by strong encouragement from people who knew Myanmar and the often dire situations the standalone cinemas were in. He received grants from the Jim Thompson Foundation for two month-long trips to Myanmar in 2010 and 2011.

“On my first night in Yangon, I walked down Cinema Row. In 2010 there were six theatres along that row. It was dark and there was very little street lighting and there were people everywhere on the streets. And I could tell that it was grimy and run down but it was fascinating to see these theatres all in operation.”

From there his project brought him on various trips across the country when he would visit towns, small and large, that were rumored to have a standalone cinema. His documentation brought him through towns like Bago, Taungoo, Thazi, Meiktila and Pyin Oo Lwin.

“In smaller towns, people were curious about what I was doing but they also seemed willing to help and that makes me think they care.”

Then in 2016, Philip held an exhibition of his photographic documentation at Myanmar Deitta Gallery and invited a number of figureheads in cinema and conservation to a discussion event. Through this he struck up a connection with the general manager of Mingalar Cinemas and learned that the company was in the process of acquiring old cinemas around the country with the aim of renovating them and giving them a new lease of life.

“That was an outlier to what the major national movie theatre chains are doing in this region. They usually go strictly the shopping mall route, usually at the expense of the old theatres.”

As he continued his project, he would pass information to Mingalar Cinemas and after some discussions, this year they agreed to support his last leg of his work. Thus the 2018 Myanmar Theatre Survey started rolling.

He spent February this year traveling around Upper Myanmar, venturing down dusty lanes and along busy thoroughfares of 21 towns including Letpadan, Pyay, Magwe, Natmauk, Pakokku, Mandalay, Kyaukse, Sagaing and Thazi.

Some cinema treasures he uncovers are still shining movie halls, operational and playing a central role in the community. His findings may be tall and mighty in a fashionable architectural style of another era—art deco of the 20s and 30s, or brutalist architecture of the 50s to 70s. Others aren’t much larger than a townhouse or may now be in use as a bank or warehouse. Too often, they have been reduced to rubble or totally replaced by a modern shop. He has painstakingly documented and photographed them all.

“In my mind, these old cinemas are part of the urban infrastructure and cultural institutions that were built at a time when the pedestrians ruled.” Going forward, Philip acknowledges that this is probably his last round of documenting cinemas in Myanmar. He intends to use the photographic material he has built up to produce a photography book. With Mingalar Cinemas eyeing his surveyed cinema halls for renovation potential, his legacy is sure to have an impact long into the future.

“The best case scenario would be that these cinemas all come back to life and that these communities they stand in treasure them and want to preserve them.”

Photos by Philip Jablon

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