This week at the Wellington Film Society: a love letter to independent cinema owners the world over.
The ever-excellent Goethe Institut programme during the Wellington Film Society season ended with German documentary Comrades in Dreams. It’s a film that casts a much wider eye over the world than its German backing suggests, encompassing small-scale cinema operators in Wyoming, provincial India, Ouagadougou, and North Korea. This pleasantly amusing and enjoyable film captures the magic that cinema possesses, and highlights its importance in communities during a time when multiplexes, 3D glasses and Blu-Ray discs are becoming the dominant forms of consuming the medium.
Comrades in Dreams draws parallels between the four locations, even if, on the surface, the countries couldn’t be any more different. The filmic traditions of India and the United States are so well known that they need little explanation. Burkina Faso and North Korea, on the other hand, do not jump out as cinema hubs. Burkina Faso is however a centre of film production in West Africa, and its film festival and movie attendance is tied into the country’s overall embracing of film. North Korea is even more of an unknown in the film world, though Kim Jong-il is reported to be a huge film buff, even having written his own treatise on film criticism in the 1970s.
While the locations may be contrasting, the four cinemas share striking similarities. The cinema operators are all sad and lonely in a way, living a life in which film becomes a surrogate for some displaced emotion. They use their cinemas to enhance their idealised community—the American woman who uses the cinema to get to know her small town, and the North Korean woman who uses the cinema to ostensibly sell the state message, aren’t all that dissimilar from each other. Perhaps too much is kept mysterious—parallels are drawn between the characters, but little is explained to really capture a sense of the individuals in question. The juxtapositions are a little awkward (despite the main recurring motif of Titanic and the various reactions to the film reaching their peak during the North Korea finale), and the narrative construction does feel at times ad hoc. That said, there are a number of small pleasures to be found, from the North Korean melodrama screened throughout the documentary (indeed, seeing anything about North Korea detach from the usual propaganda, was fascinating) to the Burkina wives who complain about their cinema-running husbands working too hard. What Comrades in Dreams conveys above all though is how a shared humanity is created by the wonderful illusions in a cinema no matter what the location, and how even a film like Titanic can unite a remarkably disparate group of people.