The Lost Movie Houses of Southeast Asia

A photographer chronicles a dying art space

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When Philip Jablon arrives in a new town, the first thing he does is ask someone for directions, not to a hotel or a good restaurant, but to the nearest independent movie theater.

Just like in cities and towns in the West, one and two screen theaters have been slowly disappearing across Southeast Asia, giving way to mall-based multiplexes. And that, Jablon says, is a shame. "Everything is funneled into these giant malls and away from the community," he says.

The theaters of Southeast Asia also represent a particular type of architecture. "They were works for art," he says. "I try and document how they all have these different styles even if they all have the same theme."

Jablon's interest in the topic springs from his own film-going experiences. When he was a graduate student at Thailand's Chang Mai University, he'd go see movies in his spare time. One day, he happened upon a charming older independent theater that he vowed to visit. But by the time he got around to it, the theater had been demolished.

He's since spent the last three years chronicling similar theaters on his blog, the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. Already he's crossed Thailand, Burma and Laos, capturing 200 theaters in various states of disrepair.

He doesn't have any formalized plan to find his subjects, he just sort of shows up. "I know what I'm looking for in every town," he says. "I show up in a town and ask around ... I ask local business owners if they know about the theater. After a few tries, I'll get on the right path."

Most people are happy to direct him, but some find his project mystifying. "A lot of people don't have the perspective to think of these things as special yet," he says. "They're just old buildings that just have negative associations—old and dirty out of date."

Asia's robust film festival circuit has, however, taken notice. Already he's shown his photos at a handful of festivals. When I spoke with him, he was at the second annual Luang Prabang Film Festival exhibiting his work. He's hoping this interest will translate into financial support for trips to shoot in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Below, a collection of some of Jablon's photos, with captions in his own words:

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.