Emerson College faculty member Peter Flynn’s documentary about a fast-fading skill will light up the screen at the Rotterdam Film Festival next week.
The Dying of the Light, about the history and decline of analog film and film projection, will have its first European screening February 1, after its world premiere at DOC NYC in November.
“I love film and I love film history, and this is an aspect of film history that I, and most people, didn’t know much about,” said Flynn, senior scholar-in-residence in the Visual and Media Arts Department.
Emerson College faculty Peter Flynn (“The Dying of the Light”)
The film joins another Emerson faculty documentary, John Gianvito’s Wake (Subic), about toxic pollution around former U.S. military bases in the Philippines, which will screen February 3 in Rotterdam.
The Dying of the Light, which was shot digitally, explores the lives and careers of the people who have made their living projecting decades of dramas and comedies onto movie screens.
“They’re all great characters, for a start, all wonderfully passionate people, all totally committed to their craft.…” Flynn said of his subjects. “It’s a very sad loss, and a very personal one. I think for many, particularly the older projectionists who had spent the bulk of their career doing this, and the best years of their lives doing this, it was something very personal being taken from them.”
It has only been in the past decade or so that digital filmmaking has almost totally supplanted film, Flynn said. There are still some independent art film houses with projectors and reels, especially in the Boston area, he said. But you won’t find any of that in the mainstream multiplexes, which account for the vast majority of movie theaters in America.
The few projectionists left are becoming something closer to preservationists and archivists, and Flynn said he felt lucky to be able to document the craft and its practitioners while there’s still something to record.
Flynn said he was eager to see how Europeans react to the film, since so much of it is so closely tied to American movie history – the old picture palaces and weed-choked drive-ins.
But the story of the projectionists is universal, in the sense that there are many manual, analog industries that have been brought low by digital technology, he said.
Gianvito, associate professor in Visual and Media Arts, has made the second of two films about the toxic destruction of local communities left behind when U.S. military bases pulled out of the Philippines in the early 1990s.
Wake (Subic) follows families who have been left without livelihoods, and in many cases with horrible medical conditions, after the Naval base at Subic Bay – once one of the largest ship repairing facilities in the world – was decommissioned after the Philippine senate rejected a renewal of the leases. It is the follow-up to 2010’s Vapor Trail (Clark), which chronicles similar devastation in the wake of the Clark Air Base closing.
A still from “Wake (Subic)” by Emerson College Associate Professor in Visual and Media Arts John Gianvito
In both cases, the U.S. military left behind contamination by heavy metals, petroleum products, and other industrial waste, and in the case of Subic, asbestos. As per their agreement with the Philippines, the Defense Department was under no legal obligation to clean up the abandoned bases, Gianvito said.
What the families surrounding the bases were left with were birth defects, higher-than-normal rates of leukemia and other cancers, asbestosis, and crippling poverty, Gianvito said. Even as it was polluting, Subic had been a major employer of local residents, he said.
There hasn’t been a lot of independent scientific testing of the affected areas, Gianvito said, and he isn’t a scientist himself. His focus is to tell the stories of the families who live there.
“My approach is not to go to the typical so-called experts, but to look at people who normally aren’t asked for their opinions,” he said.
Gianvito said he decided to make the documentaries after visiting the country in 2006. The story initially was going to be one of several exposés included in a feature film/documentary hybrid he was planning. The story line would have followed an actor, playing a member of a fictional Boston-based media collective, investigating the real-life environmental crisis in the Philippines. But it didn’t take long for Gianvito to realize this story should be told on its own.
The nongovernmental organization Gianvito worked with to get information and access had been working with the affected communities for 14 years, with very little money or assistance.
“[I felt] if they could give up so much of their life for this, I could certainly give up…a few years to use what talents I had to help the cause,” Gianvito said. “The communities, particularly, were so impoverished, and there was so little possibility of them having any kind of local voice, let alone an international voice, around this issue, that also very much moved me. It was my first up-close, extended experience with extreme poverty.”
The film is not for the faint of heart or the short on time. At over four hours long, Wake (Subic) weaves personal portraits of struggling families with deep background on the history of the American presence in the Philippines, and tries to draw a line between the two.
Gianvito said he’s “not naïve” about the daunting run time, but said the complexities of the history and aftermath deserve the hours.
“For me, it’s a political act in itself,” Gianvito said. “It says, ‘This warrants the attention.’”