Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya on The Cinema Travellers
Full Frame is proud to present the following Q+A with directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya . The Cinema Travellers will screen for free on October 19 at the Cary Theater in Cary as part of the Full Frame Road Show Fall Series, presented by Capitol Broadcasting Company, Inc. and American Tobacco Campus. The free ticket reservation window opens to First Team on Monday, October 16 at 9 am, followed by Spotlight Members on Wednesday, October18 at 9 am and the general public on Thursday, October 19 at 9 am. See the Event page for more details.
For seven decades, villages across India have gathered to await the wonder of the traveling cinemas, and the magic of the movies that they bring. In the Cannes prize-winning documentary The Cinema Travellers, directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya journey across India with traveling cinemas. As lorries deteriorate, projectors crumble, and film becomes scarce, the times see audiences being lured further and further away by the juggernaut of digital technology. Filmed over five years, The Cinema Travellers accompanies a shrewd exhibitor, a benevolent showman, and a maverick projector mechanic as they bear their increasingly pressing, but beautiful burden—keeping the last of India’s traveling cinemas alive.
Q: This film establishes a wondrous sense of place, through its dedicated subjects and heartfelt ode to the cinema. What drew you to this story and filming these men?
A: (Shirley) Back when we graduated from college, many single screen theatres were shut down in the cities, giving way to malls and multiplexes. Decades-old theatres were razed. This saddened us and also stoked our curiosity. How are people watching movies in the villages? How is their big screen experience affected by this change? Is there a resonance of this moment in rural India? So we set out on a journey, traveling the breadth of India. It was an instructive experience, not only about the modes of exhibition but also about the bond people share with their cinemas. An elderly man was showing pieces of film on a hand cranked projector under a tree in West Bengal. A small group of entrepreneurs were carrying shiny new portable digital projectors in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh. Elsewhere, college students were taking Charlie Chaplin and Satyajit Ray to the farmers. Closer to home in the state of Maharashtra, there was the most fascinating and heartwarming sight of all. About ten bulbous tents were hitched to the back of gigantic trucks. In the belly of the trucks, age old cinema projectors whirred away. Thousands sat crouched by the beam, drinking in the magic. We stood there gasping, as if transported back in time. Traveling cinemas are believed to have become a part of the mythology of cinema and we took in this sight with a mix of disbelief and wonder. We wanted to know everything.
Q: You’re filming people at a very vulnerable time—from the showmen to the projectionist, all are tirelessly working in a profession that is disappearing. What was your approach to establishing trust with your interviewees and your overall shooting process?
A: (Shirley) A lot that happens in documentary film making is a gift of time. We spent a long time traveling with the showmen before we began filming. Apart from establishing trust, we wanted to have a conversation about why must one tell this story. We spoke about how cinema came to the people as it was introduced in the world, the showmen of Maharashtra as one of the last holdouts of this legacy, and the continuance of this tradition and the place of these traveling cinemas in the world of today. At some point, we arrived at a shared sense of value in creating this film.
Q: There’s a tough moment in the film when the viewer sees film prints getting damaged in the rain. Can you talk about the state of film archives in India and how, if at all, this film might contribute to the preservation of Indian film?
A: (Amit) We have a strong National Film Archive, but for a country that produces so many films, it’s not sufficient. It doesn’t have the infrastructure and facilities to be doing the exhaustive and meticulous level of archival work that we need, so a lot of these films are being lost. At one point, we visited one of the most respected labs in Bombay, and saw a hallway full of prints that were being sold or trashed. I asked the people working there, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you try to preserve these films instead?” And of course, I was told that no one has the money to do that. Prakash tells a similar story so poignantly in the film, of showmen who fell on bad times and had to abandon their cinema projectors. We need a much more concerted archival effort. At the same time, I’m reminded of something that Umberto Eco says: culture is a strange thing, and you’re never sure what it will take and what it will reject. Human beings can’t remember everything, and forgetting is an important part of how a culture functions.
About the Directors
Shirley Abraham began loving movies after she was prohibited from watching them. Every Saturday, Shirley and her siblings would be put to bed (there was Sunday church service the following day) before they could watch the movies that aired on Saturday night television.
As a child, Abraham feared the anger of angels on Judgement Day. Her first film, The Angel, showed her a different, more benign side of angles. She watched with a dark cloth covering her television, keeping in the light.
Interested in how cinema could give forms to the many faces of the human imagination, Shirley began her career in film. She has directed documentaries for The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and Doordarshan India. Her work has been supported by the Sundance Institute, Bertha Foundation, Filmmaker Fund, PMA WorldView and Asian Cinema Fund. She has been a fellow of the Sundance Institute, Cluster of Excellence “Asia Europe in a Global Context”, Goethe-Institut and TasveerGhar.
One winter night, Amit Madheshiya snuck out of his grandparent’s home to a movie screening in his school’s courtyard, where a village wedding was being celebrated. He crawled inside the white wedding tent to find his friends, plumes of smoke, and a huge screen lit with images. In the morning Amit’s grandmother found him, asleep in the loose flaps of the tent. His grandmother pulled him out of the swaths of canvas and touched his forehead for signs of fever. He was fine, and punished for his indiscretion. All afternoon, Amit worked on compost being prepared to plant mango saplings. Since then, Amit has found the musty smell of the compost indelibly intertwined with his first memories of cinema, rooted deep in his grandmother’s mango orchard.
Amit Madheshiya is a photographer and filmmaker. His photographs have won awards from World Press Photo and World Photography Awards, and have been shown in solo and group exhibitions worldwide. He is a fellow of the Sundance Institute, Goethe-Institut, India Foundation for the Arts, Arts Council of England and the University of Heidelberg.
Shirley and Amit founded Cave Pictures in 2015. The Cinema Travellers is their first feature length film production.