With all the sky-is-falling talk about the death of film, it can be easy to forget that cinema is still something of a newborn art — barely a century has passed since the movies were born, and so (in art years) they’re really just learning how to crawl. How refreshing then to see a documentary like Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s “The Cinema Travelers,” a wise and wistful documentary that puts things in perspective by inviting viewers not to think of new ripples in the landscape (e.g. Netflix and VOD) as signs of decay, but rather as the symptoms of a form that’s simply shedding its skin.
Presented without any title cards or talking heads so that audiences might find their own way, “The Cinema Travelers” follows the traveling cinemas that have toured the remote corners of India for more than 70 years. Abraham and Madheshiya cast three tour guides for their journey into the past, each of whom inhabit a different role in this slowly dwindling world. Up first is the brusque and instantly endearing Mohammed, who sets up shop in the middle of an annual fair and runs his makeshift movie theater with the raucousness of a true carny. Wheeling his behemoth of a 35mm projector into town like the carcass of a dead whale (“Werckmeister Harmonies” comes to mind), Mohammed and his team are less like film exhibitors than they are mechanics, greasing their equipment and tending to its various parts like the pit crew of the world’s most hopeless racing team.
The enormous tent they bring with them is draped over a gnarled patch of dirt (patrons sit on the ground), and their projector — when it works — transforms that space into a walled kingdom of imagination. The audience doesn’t seem to care which films are playing or how scratched the prints might be, they just want to be under the thrall of the flickering light; surely, American audiences can relate to that. There are a number of lovely little details here that speak to the universality of cinema, none funnier than a Bollywood movie poster that boasts the hackiest tagline in all of Hollywood marketing: “The con is on.”
Next up is the comparatively contemplative Bapu, whose mobile cinema evokes memories of “The Spirit of the Beehive.” The least engaging of the film’s characters, Bapu is best expressed through the small details that define him. No image in this movie more poetically captures the transience of technology than that of Bapu trying a strip of amputated celluloid around the doors of his lorry in order to keep them shut.
Abraham and Madheshiya give the impression that Mohammed passes his prints directly to Bapu, but the actual relationship between their subjects is unclear, and the tantalizing notion that we’re following a particular batch of celluloid as it wends its way from place to place only continues to dissolves as the film unfolds. The idea is abandoned completely by the time “The Cinema Travelers” introduces us to Prakash, its third and final star. A humble projector repairman who’s been tinkering with these fussy machines for more than 45 years, it’s he, of all the film’s personalities, who most evocatively channels the bittersweet feeling of love and loss that has galvanized previous odes to the movies like “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (and, most of all, the euphoric final scene of “Sullivan’s Travels”).
There isn’t much in the way of structure to Prakash’s story, but it’s enchanting to listen to him talk about the old days when projectionists would come from around the continent and line up for hours so that he could fix their equipment. Now, his shop is an empty shell, and he has been forced to become a farmer. Meanwhile, Mohammed and his pals have finally resigned to the future, exchanging their 35mm contraption for a tiny digital projection that hums like a Cylon (and, in one hilarious aside to which Western moviegoers can probably relate, demands a software update in a village where internet doesn’t exist).
Gorgeously shot by Madheshiya (Abraham edited and served as the sound recorder), “The Cinema Travelers” is an effective enough eulogy for a way of watching, but the film would hardly need to trek into the farthest reaches of India in order to lament such losses; any multiplex tells that story well enough. While never quite equal to the sum of its parts, this loving doc is at its best when honing in on the restlessness of the natural order, bridging the gap between the unchanging wonder of the movies and the mutable nature of how we experience it. There’s an unshakeable irony to the fact that this movie was shot digitally, and will be projected the same way, making “The Cinema Travelers” itself a testament to the idea that we can preserve a love for yesterday while also making way for tomorrow.
“The Cinema Travelers” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.