He’s documenting history, one Asian movie theater at a time
July 1, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Three years ago, Phil Jablon (aka The Projectionist) started a concerted effort to start documenting the rapidly-vanishing stand-alone movie theaters and former theaters in Southeast Asia. Today his website, The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is a historian and movie-theater lover's dream. Jablon has captured the faded, the lost, the torched, the almost lost, the repurposed, the reborn, and the unbounded.

The photos that Jablon has taken outside. and in. document the various. styles. and structures.; the colors. and feelings. projected. back in the theaters salad days..

But more interesting is the life that is breathed into the photos by the answers, stories and photos (both old. and new.) that he collects when talking with current. wor.kers., former workers., neighbors., and people who were kids at the time of the theater's heyday.

The site brings images of buildings. to life. by bringing old stories (from those who loved them) to light.
"This is Mr. Phayungsak …as a child, his father ran an older theater in town made of bamboo and mud... " (Suwan Rama theater)

"The staircase led to balcony-level seating, the projection booth and the sound room, where live dubbers, sent by the film distribution company, would perform the voices for foreign movies." (Sri Pathana theater)

"Dawei was memorable for its colorful tag-alongs, like this guy, who prided himself in resembling Mr. Bean." (Mingala Thiri cinema)
To date Mr. Jablon has visited and written about scores of theaters in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Below, as on his site, are links to all of his posts broken down by geographic region:
posted by blueberry (6 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Oh my gosh, this project is great. I can't believe I'd never run across this before.

The only thing I'm not a fan of is the awkward way he talks about porn theaters (porn theater posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). On one hand, it's a hard thing to talk about and an even harder thing to research (links 1 and 7 both mention being groped in porn theaters). He also implies that some porn theaters might have connections to sex trafficking, which I can understand not wanting to get mixed up in. On the other hand, he makes it clear that it's extremely common for older theaters to end up as porn houses, so it's clearly an important phase of exhibition history there. It's interesting, too, that "porn theaters" are still a thing in Southeast Asia — in the US, they've been almost entirely replaced by the internet, but they used to be everywhere. Porn is an incredibly neglected, often untouchable subject for film historians and archivists — it would be cool to see him dive into the context and infrastructure of these exhibitors with the same enthusiasm he gives to the ones who aren't showing porn, instead of sensationalizing them as exhibitors of "filthy pornos" for "deviants".

But really, I shouldn't complain. He's doing a great thing; there's so much to learn about the history of culture, business, and technology from this kind of film history — film history focused on the people who watched & showed the movies, the places where they did those things, and the technologies and infrastructure that made them possible, rather than on the production of films. More like this, film historians!
posted by bubukaba at 2:13 PM on July 1, 2012

Wow, awesome project! Gonna be spending some time here. Plus, I've been to a few of these myself.
posted by PHINC at 3:26 PM on July 1, 2012

Many thanks for the generous review of my blog on Metafilter. My single day record for number of page visits was just taken to a new high on account of it.

I'd like to respond to Bubukaba's remarks about the porn theaters I've visited in the course of my work. You pose some important questions that I have not figured out how to appropriately address. The origins of this quandary go back to when I started the project. My initial thoughts were to simply create a photo archive with supplemental stats and figures pertaining to each theater. But as I pursued this method, I found it dry, repetitive and in those cases where I was not able to gather any hard data, sparse.

To remedy that, I gradually began to incorporate a travelogue aspect to my writings. The hope was to infuse the descriptions of each theater I visit - to the best of my ability - with my personal observations, musings and a sense of lyricism. To lend my voice, if you will, to the photos.

When I began to encounter porn and "cruising" theaters (most of them actually do not screen porn at all, they merely serve as hook-up, or, the slightly more pejorative, "cruising" spots) it wasn't immediately clear how to approach them descriptively. I did not want to romanticize them, nor vilify them, but I have also tried to steer clear of cause analyses. The latter would lead to lengthy investigations of off-subject issues. Needless to say, the porn/cruising theaters always made for the most cautious, hence stimulating subjects to research. On a few occasions, as I'm sure you've read, I felt threatened. So in keeping with my observational/travelogue formula, I suppose my writing tends to frame them negatively, if not sensationally, based upon my experiences therein and the gut feelings they provoke.

Ultimately, I have no intention to undermine, lampoon or otherwise assassinate their characteristics, or economies. They are pieces of the social history of Southeast Asia's cities and can tell us much about what phenomena are occurring and when. That being said, I have stopped entering such theaters when possible. I'll leave that task to more refined researchers.

Again, I hope that I've not caused any damage to their reputations or economies.

Lastly, thanks again for bringing it to light.
posted by SEAMTP at 5:06 PM on July 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been to some of these as well. It's a great escape from the mid-day heat.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:53 PM on July 1, 2012

I find most of these buildings lacking in architectural charm, but the blog is still a fun read. I wonder how much such big and old buildings cost . Probably a fortune.

When I was there, I had a chance to go to various movie theaters and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Thai movies. I also liked the concept of VIP cinemas, VIP seating, and all the extra amenities we don't get here in the States.
posted by Witold at 9:16 PM on July 1, 2012

[Artist's statement from a showing of his work at the Jim Thompson Art Center (PDF)]
The ‘Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project’
Philip Jablon1

Jablon, P. (2010). ‘The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project’. ASEAS - Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, 3(2), 278-286.

The ‘Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project’ is a one-person initiative to document the stand-alone movie theatres of the Mekong region. I began the project in 2008 in response to the demolition of the last two operating stand-alone theatres in Chiang Mai, Thailand – my home from 2006 to 2010. This event seemed to signify a sea change in the city’s social life, inspiring me to deepen my understanding of the civic role that these venues played. Through photography I have tried to build a visual archive of the architecture, spatial typology, and cultural life that the stand-alone movie theatres embody. They constitute physical representations of distinct eras in the region’s social and cultural past, while increasing the value of urban landscapes.

In addition to photography, I compile oral histories from area residents, former and current owners, employees, and patrons of the theatres I document, as a means of creating a multimedia ethnographic narrative specific to each theatre. Moreover, the regional scope of the project serves as a platform to compare and contrast the historical experiences unique to these venues in both cross-border and centre- periphery contexts. With an emphasis on breadth of research, I have conducted fieldwork in more than half of Thailand’s provincial capitals, most of Laos, and half a dozen cities in Myanmar.

The images exhibited here are just a sample of the many hundreds of theatres already archived by the ‘Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project’. Their varied states, from derelict and abandoned, to converted and still operating, speak to the wide political-cultural differences found throughout the Mekong countries. In Thailand there were once more than 700 stand-alone movie theatres nationwide. Today there are fewer than 30 still in operation, mostly found in district capitals in the Eastern and North-Eastern provinces.

Across the Eastern border in Laos, with its fewer urban areas, there is only one currently operating stand-alone theatre, used mostly for government functions. As of May 2010, the bulk of movie theatres in Myanmar cities between Yangon and Mandalay have been found to be in working order, though frequently with low customer turnout. For the next phase of the project, I will cover the delta cities and ethnic states of Myanmar, before turning my attention over to Vietnam.

As many of Southeast Asia’s cities are in the midst of or approaching sweeping changes in their social and physical structures, the time to document is immediately. In the rush to keep pace with change, policy makers frequently demolish a city’s out- moded buildings, overlooking the permanence of such decisions and the fact that the buildings can represent a city’s competitive advantage. In carrying out this project, I hope to cultivate an appreciation for stand-alone movie theatres in the Mekong region, before perceived redevelopment imperatives lead to their destruction.

1 Philip Jablon studied at the Regional Centre for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) of Chiang Mai University, Thailand. His current project on South-East Asian movie theatres is conducted with financial support of the Jim Thompson Foundation.
Contact: pjablon@hotmail.com
posted by blueberry at 5:41 PM on July 15, 2012

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