Alumnus documents disappearing theaters

An alumnus traveled to Southeast Asia photographing the remains of movie palaces.

Chiang Mai, Thailand, was a city of educational and creative development for Philip Jablon. After getting lost on a motorcycle ride in the city, he discovered a stand-alone movie theater, something he’d never heard of before.

When Jablon later returned with friends to see a movie, he found the remnants of the building’s demolition.

“And that was it,” Jablon said. “Then and there, I knew that it would be a worthy effort to document these [theaters] around the country.”

Jablon, a 2003 Asian studies and civilization alumnus, started the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, a photographic record of stand-alone movie theaters in countries like Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. His latest exhibition, “Forgotten in Plain Sight: Photographs of Southeast Asia’s Vanishing Movie Theaters,” was on display at PhilaMOCA until August 25.

After he graduated from Temple, Jablon moved to Thailand to study at Chiang Mai University for a master’s in sustainable development.

Jablon started the movie theater project in 2009. As he collected more images and stories, people’s reactions were encouraging, something he said gave him the confidence to start applying for grants. He was awarded his first grant from the Thai-based James H.W. Thompson Foundation in 2009.

Since then, Jablon has been back and forth between Thailand and Philadelphia to fundraise his project. While in Philadelphia, Jablon visited Temple’s Asian studies department to share LCD projections of historic theaters in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and discuss their use and preservation.

“We like to view the achievements of our graduates and extensive field study in multiple countries over a number of years like Phil’s is unusual,” Dr. Kathleen Uno, chair of the Asian Studies program, said in an email.

Jablon calls the abandoned theaters, which can also be found in Philadelphia, “riches.”

Jablon said the theaters are underappreciated and wants to change the public’s perception of historical buildings and emphasize their cultural value through his photography.

His project also relates directly to environmental concerns in Southeast Asia, which have become more prevalent in recent years. A stand-alone movie theater would only exist in “a pedestrian, low-carbon community,” Jablon said.

“This is in contrast to the way people go to movies in contemporary times, which is driving to a strip mall between towns and going to, like, a 16-screen theater,” Jablon said. “That whole act of living is not very sustainable.”

Jablon said theaters in Southeast Asia were essentially the “living room[s] of the community.”

“This is where people went not just to get information or entertainment, but where they came to meet,” he said. “It’s where they came to socialize.”

For those who visited his exhibit at PhilaMOCA, Jablon said he hoped they realize the communal and environmental aspects the stand-alone movie theaters represent are being destroyed.

The movie theater project is a way to forge connections between Asian and American cultures as well as between the past and present.

“There’s some famous writer that coined the phrase, ‘the need for ruins,’” Jablon said. “It makes us less inclined to just throw things out, dispose of our communities, and of our structures, and of our environment. We feel a deeper connectivity to it.”

Emily Scott and Grace Shallow can be reached at

Chelsea Zackey contributed reporting.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.