A friend of mine once had an afternoon to kill in Cairo, and stumbled across a cinema showing the film Independence Day. He bought a ticket and went inside, but was surprised to find that although the film was 15 minutes in, the house lights were still up, and the people in the audience were chatting, oblivious to what was happening on-screen.
For the next hour and a half, the locals showed more interest in my friend than in Independence Day; introducing themselves, shaking his hand and enquiring what he thought of their fine city. Then, suddenly, the lights dimmed and everyone hurried back to their seats just in time to see an alien spaceship crash at the foot of the Pyramids of Giza. At the sight of this, the crowd erupted into wild applause. Then, having seen what they came to see, they all filed out, leaving my bewildered friend to watch the final few scenes alone.
However you look at it, this is odd behaviour — paying to see a film just to catch a glimpse of a local landmark. It would be like me going to watch Bridget Jones’s Diary just to see Renée Zellweger walk across Tower Bridge. However, my friend’s experience fits in with a theory of mine — simply, if you’re somewhere unfamiliar, and you want to get a feel for the people and place, you could do worse than going to see a film.
Now I’m aware this might sound a bit middle-aged. I know many people think authentic travel experiences only come to those who explore backstreets or visit hill tribes. Well, forget all that — just get someone to point you to the nearest cinema and buy a ticket to whatever’s on. Chances are it will be an education.
The best thing about going to see a film when you’re miles from home is no one will expect you to be there. Cinemas aren’t obvious tourist attractions — as a result, no one will try to sell you anything, and you’ll get to see the locals with their guard down. In such a relaxed environment, my friend made three discoveries about the people of Cairo: they’re friendly; proud to be Egyptian; and they’d sooner socialise than pay attention to a terrible American film.
Cinemas also give you a sense of what constitutes permissible public behaviour in other societies. A colleague of mine once went to see the film Deja Vu in Trinidad. As the plot began to take bizarre turns, a middle-aged man in the front row started hurling abuse at the screen, to the general approval of the rest of the audience. He kept this up for the remainder of the film, yet no one seemed to mind. It’s hard to imagine this happening at home. If anyone started abusing Denzel Washington in your local Odeon, they’d be hit by a barrage of tuts and shushes.
My favourite place for movie-going has to be Mumbai. The first time I saw a Bollywood film there, I was struck by the amount of activity going on all around me. People were chatting, eating, arguing, talking on their mobiles — yet everyone must have had one eye on the screen, as they all laughed at the right moments.
Now this might sound like your idea of hell, but I found it exhilarating, and, since then, the UK cinema experience has seemed stuffy and strained to me.
In cinemas in England, people keep quiet so they and others can hear the film. This may seem civilised, but this unnatural hush brings all those smaller noises into unwanted focus — rather like the dreadful clink of cutlery during an awkward family meal. I spend so much time in cinemas being driven to distraction by the sound of people whispering, eating popcorn and rustling sweet wrappers. And when someone does start talking too loudly, it’s hard not to feel tense — not because you can’t hear the film but because you’re wondering if there might be a confrontation.
Yet in places like Mumbai, audiences do whatever the hell they want. And no seems to miss any of the action. I’m not saying they’ve got it right and we’ve got it wrong, but I know one thing — if I was ever forced to sit through Independence Day again, I know where I’d rather be.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)