The Guyanese Cinema Experience

With underwhelming new releases on offer this week, I opted to veto a review in favour of examining something more intriguing–the cinema experience itself. Who is going to the movies? Why are we going? And what are we doing when we get there?

“Caribbean Cinema” has not quite emerged on the world scale with the same enthusiasm of our Latin American neighbours. There is no Pablo Larrain like in Chile. No Daniel Ribeiro like in Brazil. Not yet. But a still burgeoning film industry does not mean a lack of interest in cinema beyond the traditional studio fare in the Caribbean.

I asked a film enthusiast friend in Guyana if they go to the cinema often. “They don’t really show anything proper, anyway?” they scoffed. “And people at the movies spoil the experience anyway.”

I like going to the cinema. Even when the movie is bad, it’s a good chance to stave off the real world for a few hours and focus on the screen without interruption. But, I understand his point. Sometimes the interruptions are within the screening room.

Last week, my viewing of the mostly impressive Alien: Covenant was punctuated by an obnoxious woman. She spent the first ten minutes of the film on her cell phone, and the next ten relaying the conversation to the friend she came with. It’s not an isolated incident. A few weeks before, I sat a few seats behind a man who checked his phone every five minutes during The Lost City of Z, marking the moody photography of the film and the darkness of the room with the light from his screen throughout. It becomes frustrating when the real world you are trying to escape in the cinema follows you in. It’s why the privacy of home viewing seems attractive for so many.

No, not piracy. Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz last week was commenting on the safeness and general comfort of home-viewing versus the cinema, where audiences can get unruly. Audience behaviour is not a purely Guyanese issue. And, companies like Netflix and Ama-zon Prime are catering for audience’s disillusionment with the cinema experience. They are working towards streaming new releases simultaneously in theatre and the blowback from the gatekeepers is expected and understandable. Really, nothing can compare to seeing a film in theatre but seeing Netflix (and Amazon) as opposition to the ideals of cinema is problematic, even as it’s a current hot-button issue for film critics around the world.

News from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, one of the longest running film festivals which is this year celebrating its 70th anniversary, brought the streaming/studio issue to the fore again. Before the festival began, there was news of a division among the ranks. Netflix, the entertainment company that specialises in stream and on-demand video, in trying to edge its way into the original film production world had caused disharmony among the jury, with chair Pedro Almodóvar arguing that he would not give the Palme D’Or (the festival’s highest prize) to a Netflix-produced film.

Almodóvar’s overt point is not an unusual one, or even necessarily wrong. He argues that Netflix should premiere its films in French theatre before their Netflix release (and not simultaneously) to be eligible. Beyond his actual words, there is a larger contention looming: Netflix is being seen as the destruction of traditional and legitimate cinema. The Cannes controversy is dividing critics on whether streaming new films at home is the inevitable future or if real cinema must be saved from outside forces? To be fair, arguments against Netflix as the potential keeper of all films has value – no entity should control access to everything. But avenues like Netflix are essential for those persons living outside of New York and L.A., people like us in Guyana, and the Caribbean.

For film lovers living on the fringes, more nuance is essential. The next Almodóvar film or the next David Lynch film is unlikely to see a release in cinemas here. The numbers for less popular releases in Guyana (this year’s Lost City of Z, last year’s Nocturnal Animals) is small. Doubtlessly, these small numbers for films that are less family friendly or aren’t blockbusters is a signal to the theatre owners in Guyana to choose carefully what they show. It’s a business, after all.

There are no small arthouse cinemas for foreign language films, or expressly independent films in Guyana. The returns for business owners aren’t assured. And this isn’t only in Guyana or the Caribbean. Beyond specific cosmopolitan places in key parts of the (mostly western) world, new releases tend to be more populist than offbeat. And, for now, that’s okay.

Why do I bother going to the cinema? A home experience can never replace the thrill of a darkened room and even if audience around you are more on the cursory film-lover spectrum, then you work with what you’ve got. So, if during one of those requisite scenes where Jack Sparrow takes a perfunctory swig from his bottle of rum, the man next to me decides to launch into a brief sidebar story on the dangers of alcohol on your kidneys, “My brother-in-law used to carry on the same way with de drinkin’. Jack Sparrow better watch out,” well, I’ll take what I can get. At least he’s not having the conversation on his phone.

Have a comment? Write to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com

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