The first question you’re probably asking yourself is, “What movie are they showing at this month’s Secret Cinema?” I’ll give you a spoiler / hint: I’m not going to say until it’s over. In fact, I think you can figure it out if you try hard enough, so I’m not going to make it easy for you.
It’s getting to the point where the Waterloo tunnels are becoming old friends, layered with meaning and memories from my many visits. It doesn’t hurt that the productions I’ve seen there have been really intense experiences that burn into your brain, and that the layout of the rooms and passage through them have been inextricable part of the creation of my emotional map of the various chambers. I was pleased to see that this was where the complimentary tickets I’d received from the latest incarnation of the Secret Cinema directed me to go.
The whole thing was very mysterious. I had heard of a few people going to Secret Cinema before and that it meant an immersive experience before a showing of a movie great. I wanted to know if this was actually going to be a movie I wanted to see and did quite a bit of online searching beforehand to see if I could figure it out. The first clue I took as the dress code. I went for a floral outfit with a scarf. To me, the clothing outfits gave me a time period for the film. Combined with the second clue – it was a foreign language film (people online were complaining about the subtitles) – I chose a national origin for the film. The third clue was the requirement that your national registration papers needed to be with you at all times. This to me indicated a time/place in which there was a police state instituted. Hmm. I managed to do a bit of thinking about how all of these things fit together and came up with the film correctly in one guess, but as the show is going until May 8th and the secrecy is part of the fun, I won’t give the answer away. Let me say, though, that in terms of timeliness, this film is spot on with today’s news headlines and concerns and a highly relevant film to watch; in fact, I’d chosen not to see it before when it had gone out in a nicely restored version (due to my general dislike of its topic) but now I wanted to get a better understanding of this period and how it relates to today. It was banned for years in its country of origin; for this reason alone it’s worth viewing in my book.
I arrived and was pretty immediately bothered by “border guards” checking my papers (I hadn’t bothered printing any out as I’m sort of horrible about remembering to read past highlighted information, i.e. the location of the event). They spoke to me in the foreign language I expected to hear; I responded in kind. I was allowed to pass without my papers.
Inside, I walked into a world of plastered white walls, elaborately latticed windows, tea stands, chess and backgammon games, shifty-eyed policemen, and white-robed women standing in doorways or engaging in various mundane tasks (i.e. making bread). We walked around enjoying the environment, then were beckoned inside a curtained doorway. Two women started talking to me, asking about my papers – then a policeman showed up and started hassling me very hard because I didn’t have them. How was it my husband had them (he is American) and I did not? I told him he’d gone one so that he could do research at the university and that I was simply travelling so carried no national identity papers as Americans don’t have them! I did however have my real passport with me (as it happened) that day. This seemed to flummox them and the game they were playing. Unfortunately as they spoke to each other in a third language I was unable to keep up with the dialogue.
The policeman left and another man quickly wrote me up some identity papers. Then one of the women hustled me out the door to what I think was a clandestine identity paper creating location. We walked through “streets” filled with food stalls (affordably priced, too, I could have eaten nicely for only £6) and many more obviously European types who seemed unaware of the political chaos simmering underneath their eyes as they made their ways toward bars and cafes. It all seemed very appropriate and reflective of how these things work: the locals are harassed and abused by their own and the cops/army while the Europeans are playing by completely different rules, like the most important decision of the day is whether or not to have a second glass of wine and not whether or not to risk your life by harboring a fugitive.
This bit of the evening I enjoyed very much. It was excellent interactive theater, like what I’d experienced at Masque of the Red Death only so much better. The “audience” did a much better job of creating an overall environment and rather happily slipped into their roles. Even later as the cops went for door to door searches and we were hidden in little back rooms, the “Europeans” were silly and “it’s all a game” ish: I mean, it was, but to me, the reenactment of this experience felt far more real than almost all of the Iraq war experience I got when I went to see Stovepipe.
Outside of this part, there was quite a lot of environment to experience and move around in; a bar where your door coupon could be exchanged for a white Russian; a much busier “real” bar; live military bands playing at random to keep our spirits up; a room where a man was being tortured. These things all fit well into the themes and scenes of the movie we were about to see; I wasn’t really able to understand this at the time, though. People seemed to be entertaining themselves pretty well. I manged to locate at least one of the places where the film would be shown; my husband told me there were a total of three.
We began to wonder just when the movie would start. Then, at about 8:15, a big speech started that we were all herded toward; some military type was telling us that they were really there to protect and help us. Then, it seemed, there was noise/chaos/smoke and we were all hurried away to safety amidst the screaming. We would up ascending a very narrow staircase, walking along a catwalk with a railing, then through a false wall to a spot where we could get to yet another walkway and then down again inside a cinema. It was a good experience for what it was really like to try to survive a police raid in closed quarters and a pretty intense lived prequel for the film.
Then, for about two hours, we watched our movie, in a fairly pedestrian manner, with popcorn, and with well-behaved (and well-dressed) fellow cinephiles. Toward the end, I could hear strange crunching and clattering noises outside the nice little area where we’d been passively entertaining ourselves; when we emerged, it was to an utterly changed landscape. Was it Tahrir Square, the streets of Beirut, the shattered city of Misrata, or even Abottabad? The misery and devastation seemed timeless and stateless; in these battles between citizens and the power of the state, even when you achieve your goals, devastation is what is left behind. It was a sobering message. I walked out feeling, not changed, but emotionally ravaged. In short, it was a more powerful experience than anything Punchdrunk has come up with in some time. The effect of taking such a powerful film and putting the audience into a situation where they could move beyond passivity into a living experience was quite remarkable. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to have been there, just as in my life I am grateful I’ve had the good luck to not have this be a part of my daily existence. Recommended.
(The April 2011 Secret Cinema continues through May 8th, 2011. I consider £25 a good price for this event.)