TIFF Review: ‘The Cinema Travellers’

TIFF 2016

5 mins read

The Cinema Travellers
(India, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Shirley Abraham, Amit Madheshiya
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)


One often hears of ‘the magic of movies’ but the cinema that enchants us in the West is really a nuts and bolts operation. Behold the power of film in the lovely new doc The Cinema Travellers. This wistful tribute to cinephilia will win over every doc fan and film buff around the world.

The Cinema Travellers chronicles the efforts of a devoted projectionist and his crew who traverse the corners of India to bring movies to the masses. This ramshackle film circuit is part of India’s larger network of “tent cinemas,” which are portable collectives of old film projectors and screens that bring motion pictures to outlying communities in India. The initiative holds considerable value as directors Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya show the masses flocking to travelling picture shows for a few rupees’ worth of entertainment.

Especially revealing is the pleasure the directors find in hearing a film in their own language, as The Cinema Travellers captures the joy of a young boy as he advertises the treat of a Marathi-language film screening in the village. (The Marathi industry is India’s oldest, but the popular movies of Bollywood are Hindi productions.) That rare enjoyment will resonate with Canadian film-goers, who should applaud TIFF’s own Film Circuit, which brings contemporary Canadian movies to small towns across the country.

The efforts of the men who run the “traveller cinema” are admirable as they brave rain, restless mobs, inexperienced volunteers, and aging equipment. Their truck is dissolving from rust and their projector isn’t a well-oiled machine no matter how many gobs of lubricant they slather on it.

The Cinema Travellers brings the traditional mode of screening movies into the unavoidable debate of film and digital projection. Abraham and Madheshiya’s doc shows that while digital projection has undeniably overtaken film, it has stripped cinema of several traits that makes it so accessible. The costly technology upgrades, for example, aren’t amenable to a service that charges just a few rupees for villagers to enjoy a show. Similarly, screening films in remote villages isn’t ideal for a mode of projection that requires a stable Internet connection and a massive file download. You can cue more cancelled screenings as The Cinema Travellers affectionately portrays the collective loss with the move from film to digital. The film celebrates analogue projectors as machines built to sustain an art form, as opposed to the ephemerality and disposability of digital cinema.

The Cinema Travellers harkens back to the days when movie going was primarily a collective experience. As digital cinema and video on demand overtake theatrical film going, the subjects of The Cinema Travellers resemble beasts facing extinction despite the obvious pleasure they bring to the crowds. The film offers an especially fine snapshot of the effusive joy of watching a film in a theatre as gorgeously composed still frames punctuate the action and show faces lit up by the aura of the big screen. The Cinema Travellers invites doc fans to be like Amélie Poulin and relish the reactions of fellow cinephiles as films transport them to new places and move them with fresh experiences. There isn’t a better film that encapsulates the pure bliss of going to the movies than The Cinema Travellers. Seeing it on a big screen in a house packed with fellow cinephiles is a duty to film buffs at festivals around the world.

The Cinema Travellers screens:
-Saturday, Sept. 10 at 1:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox
-Sunday, Sept. 11 at 9:45 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Sunday, Sept. 18 at 6:00 PM at Cineplex Scotiabank

TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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