Inside the Fight to Save Southeast Asia's Historic Movie Theaters

Tun Thiri Cinema in Myanmar

Myanmar's U.S. ambassador believes cinemas "are symbols of free speech, creativity and self-expression from a bygone era."

Nestled down a sleepy street in the historic Rattanakosin district of Bangkok, Thailand, the Nang Loeng Cinema was built in 1918 by the Siam Cinema Co. The theater closed its doors in 1993, around the time that shopping malls and modern multiplexes were popping up across Thailand, driving the country’s quaint single-screen neighborhood cinemas out of business. The ‚ƒƒ400-seat antique movie house is made entirely of Thai teak, except for its original galvanized iron roof. For years, the Nang Loeng Cinema was used as a warehouse for a nearby open-air market.

Now, a group of conservationists, film lovers and the Property Bureau of the Thai monarchy have come together to revive the theater, which organizers hope will be back in service by 2018, in time to celebrate the structure’s centenary. The conservation effort was kick-started by Philip Jablon, an American photographer and sustainable development researcher who has been chronicling the state of Southeast Asia’s heritage cinemas for the last six years via an undertaking he calls the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. With modest financial support from the Thai Film Archive, Jablon has been traveling across Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, photographing and cataloging an estimated 300 cinemas.

“Old movie theaters tend to be the first thing to go during development,” says Jablon, “because they have a large footprint and usually occupy prime real estate.” The same forces of economic development that are raising living standards and making Southeast Asia a bright spot on the global movie distribution map also carry a bitter irony for the region’s cinematic heritage. Jablon says he has returned to many towns and cities in Myanmar and Thailand to find beautiful midcentury movie theaters already replaced by box stores or shopping centers.

Jablon’s goal was to create an archive of the region’s cinematic architecture before it disappeared. “But the hope was always that the project could help foster some conservation efforts,” he adds. His belief is that once the boom era subsides, Southeast Asian cities will go through the same process of urban rediscovery Western cities have, turning away from suburban sprawl to revive heritage architecture in city centers.

To his delight, the past year has brought positive momentum. “There’s been a sea change in the way people are looking at architectural preservation in Thailand,” says Jablon. Along with Nang Loeng Cinema, the Prince Cinema in one of Bangkok’s riverside districts has been targeted for revival by a city government project. Built in the ’30s, the theater has fallen into disrepair and operated as a porn theater in its final years.

Jablon made his most recent photo mission to Myanmar, photographing dozens of theaters in the country’s southern regions. Nowhere in Southeast Asia is changing quite as fast as Myanmar, where the military government began instituting democratic reform and opening the country to international investment in 2011. Many of the cinemas Jablon had heard about already were gone, but his trip ended on an optimistic note. After an exhibition of his photography at a local art gallery, a panel discussion was held on the topic of conserving and restoring Yangon’s Waziya Cinema, a Beaux Arts movie palace that dates back to the late 20s. Jablon reached out to an influential local conservation group called the Yangon Heritage Trust, as well as the U.S. Embassy to Myanmar, which both have thrown their weight behind the conservation effort.

Adds Derek Mitchell, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, in a statement: “Waziya Cinema stands as one of the few remaining symbols of free speech, creativity and self-expression from a bygone era when film informed and enriched people’s lives here with stories from Burma and around the world.”