The role of cinemas in Georgetown's social development

By Terrence Roberts
Guyana Chronicle
May 28, 2000

WHEN the Empire Cinema, one of Georgetown's oldest and finest cultural landmarks, was demolished a few years ago, the event went unnoticed publicly.

Of course, the most obvious reason for this that comes to mind is that the Empire had been left idle and decaying for years prior.

But if we look deeper behind this indifference, we will discover that the old social custom we once had of maintaining public awareness of such civilian services, through essays, photos of cinemas and attendance, and multiple cinema roundup reviews published in the Chronicle, Graphic, Argosy and Evening Post, has largely vanished.

Citizens of Georgetown, over the past decades, took for granted such an essential journalistic tradition in the city's lively pleasurable social life.

After the political turmoil of the 1960s when an exodus of citizens and families began, many innovative and cultured business people sold out and departed as well, leaving the general public to slowly and painfully realise that the high standards of what they had been enjoying had been provided by responsible civic-minded citizens without the public having to demand it.

Such is the key to successfully upkept and pleasurable cities: a constant offering of individual talents and knowledge towards the general good.

The fact that we always had a vibrant Theatre Guild never substituted for good films.

New, younger generation residents of Georgetown cannot be expected to keep up the past high standards of the city, if, coming from elsewhere and younger, they haven't a clue of what Georgetown was like in prior decades.

They would have to consult the newspaper archives for that, and be motivated to do so. But, in fact, they might even cite TV and rented videos as simply the new movie-viewing process today.

So, let us ponder what this means, in the light of the public's past dependence solely on cinemas for film-viewing.

Would they, the public, reflecting now in hindsight, preferred to have stayed home and seen most, or all of their films on TV or rented videos, give the opportunity to do so in a less `old fashioned' Guyana?

Or was there something extra, something like a social value attached to public movie-going they enjoyed?

Something like dressing up, going out, dating, meeting new people, making new friends on a similar wave-length at the cinema's social convention, dining before or after the show.

In short, socialising pleasurably in a civic environment that was theirs, and was enjoyed and upkept as theirs, because cinemas helped to make it so.

The clean upkeep, proper management and high standards of films in public cinemas, affect the popularity and attraction of cinemas.

When cinemas decay, then neighbourhood Restaurants, Bars and Cafes lose half their life and clientele as well, and the civic vicinity is affected negatively.

Compare today's lacklustre Church and Waterloo streets cinema stretch today with its hectic general commercial excitement of past decades.

That's why, even today, when TV and videos saturate the world, audiences in highly developed cities still attend the cinema, lineup for movies that are old, obscure, or new, and indulge in all the other extra social activities that accompany public cinema-going.

Yet, in much poorer countries like ours, many new foreign processes, upon importation, are wholeheartedly adopted as better than previous ones, without proper foresight.

In areas like medicine, healthcare, food, telecommunications, automobiles, computerisation, etc., this may mean an improvement, but not in the case of our public cinemas which carry a far wider practical, civic function than the personal convenience of our private TV sets.

Let us see why this is so. When our cinemas were built, their individual locations, design, facilities, etc., were not intended as temporary comforts or pleasures for a temporary audience.

The public is never temporary, and cinemas weren't built as stand-bys for TV and videos.

The public is always with us because each of us is the public. But the public which looks only at TV and home videos no longer contributes to the upkeep of civic structures like public cinemas, which are exemplary and multi-functional creations.

The result is that these creations decay then fade into oblivion, often never to be replaced by buildings of equal beauty, pleasurable public service, or human history.

Can a small society like ours afford this sort of extravagant indifference?

We are not citizens of wealthy North American and European cities with hundreds of cinemas, many of which they can afford to demolish or shut down because many, many more still function.

We have only seven city cinemas today. We have lost two great old ones recently, Hollywood and Empire. Such demolition for us is like a one-way trip, since TV videos are instantly promoted as the naturally intended replacement.

Whereas, for North America's and Europe's populations in the millions, TV and videos were never intended as a threat to their public cinemas, but mainly as processes of transferral for the accumulation of film-reels that obviously keep piling up with passing time.

Those films transferred to those processes are by no means regarded as washed-up or worse films than today's, but often as far and away better.

Abroad, vast sums of money are made by arranging the great films of the past, the great stars of the past, and not so past, into all-week programmes in public cinemas.

This, too, we once enjoyed, and have stopped, thus damaging the appeal of cinemas.

By showing only new features all week, we made our cinemas barely noticeable, their future perhaps uncertain. This is so because routine and sensational films - invented by Hollywood mainly because commercial TV films cut into their profits by substituting for the quantity of past high quality films - cannot alone sustain a genuine interest from our public.

Our cinemas are no longer using their total capacity as outlets for the vast and exciting variety of films made, past and present.

Cinemas were intended as magic boxes full of changing surprises at 1 p.m, mid-week, and weekend shows.

Meanwhile, a monumental amount of brilliant, intelligent, educational, and exciting older films are denied the new public that is out there for them.

Most of these films can be found on video, and I have been told by a studio consultant abroad that they can be rented, at the same rate as reels, from their production representatives, and shown by those cinemas with a video apparatus.

When this is allowed, some of the 144 films Georgetown once enjoyed each week in their nine busy cinemas, may very well lead to the gradual return of our city's tranquil pursuit of social development, and stimulate the return of life to depressed and listless areas of our city.

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