Never had anyone seen so many people staring at that wall. Inside, there is a privately owned garage, but outside it’s just a white wall. It’s halfway on the main road going in and out of Rogil, one of the towns in the municipality of Aljezur, in the Algarve. The wall is ten meters long and three meters high. Right at the center, as if it had been meticulously measured, we see the main menu of the DVD with the film “The Gilded Cage”, by director Ruben Alves. 130 people await the beginning of the film.
António Feliciano is on the right side of the projector, from which a beam of light crosses the air until it reaches the white wall. The 75 year-old man dressed in a dark blue jacket with the inscription “CINEMA” in white letters sits on a plastic chair, picks up the remote and gives the command to start the film.
The viewers’ murmur ceases when Maria Ribeiro, the janitor in a Paris building, played by actress Rita Blanco, walks down the streets of the French capital. The sound of the accordion chosen to illustrate the opening scene echoes through the empty streets of Rogil.
António Feliciano was born in 1939, in Sabóia, a village of Baixo Alentejo, 35 kilometers from the sea. His family was poor; the three children depended on a carpenter father and a housewife mother. Like many of the other village children, they were bound to make a living off the land or, with any luck, aspire to work in a small business. Abundance was utopia, wealth was a rarity. Such was life in Alentejo. But António’s script began to change at age four, when the van of a traveling projectionist entered the village.
Usually, the van arrived with great commotion, with music playing while they announced the film that would be screened that night. As soon as the vehicle approached the village, the children would appear from all corners of Sabóia to join the show.
They would run alongside the white van until it parked next to the Community Meeting House, where the sessions took place. It was there that the children offered to help the projectionist unloading his equipment, in the hope that he would let them see the film for free. “I still remember that man, I will never forget him. He was tall and strong and would only wear black. He always had a very sad look, I never saw him any other way. There was a time when I was four or five years-old that the man turned to me, amidst all the kids who were around him, and thrust into my hands a lot of posters announcing the film playing that night. ‘Here, go spread these in the village. I will let you in for free.’” António did as he was told and made it back in time for the matinee. That day, he skipped lunch and dinner. He only went home after the soirée, to his parents’ relief. He hadn’t done anything wrong: he was just watching a film.
From then on, António would be the unofficial helper to that tall, strong and sad man whose name he never knew, whenever he held a screening in Sabóia. That continued until he stopped going to Sabóia after “two local guys started a travelling cinema business of their own,” creating a monopoly situation – they booked every week-end and holiday, leaving little room for other travelling projectionists.
António also offered to help them – he would sit in the back of the van, picked the music that went on the loudspeaker and announced the film that would be playing at the microphone for the entire village. The two partners, who “knew nothing about films”, were later bankrupt and fled Sabóia.
At 24 years-old, António, who was left there without any films, managed to get a partner who agreed to go with him to Lisbon to buy a Volkswagen van, “visually appealing but with a busted engine,” and a used projector. They screened films in Alentejo, Ribatejo and the Algarve, always afraid the van would give in. Once, they had an oil leak in Setúbal. The solution was to use olive oil and pray that the engine wouldn’t notice the difference. This lasted a year, until his partner said he “had enough of films,” and sold him his share.
It was from that moment on that António began his career of 50 years as a travelling projectionist. He did his job under a dictatorship and after democracy was established, in the twentieth and in the twenty-first century – each one of these periods brought different challenges. He owned 22 vans and, according to his calculations, made “over four million kilometers” to bring films wherever there was an audience.
When he was left on his own, he had to get a new license. And that required an authorization from the censorship commission, one they didn’t seem to want to issue. To accelerate the process, he turned to someone he knew, in the hope that he could help him: his father-in-law’s stepfather was close with the head of the Police station on Praça da Alegria, in Lisbon. It was there that António went to ask him if he could expedite the request. The initial reaction was not what he expected: “Are you sure you want to do this? Listen, you’re a smart looking and well-spoken guy, why do you want to be a travelling projectionist? Do you know what the police calls guys like you? Dogs without a collar. You’re so scruffy looking no one wants you around.” António insisted and shortly after he had his license.
“A nice pair of legs”
Prior to the Revolution, António was required to have a GNR patrol present during all of his screenings. They had to fill out a report which stated the start and end time of the film, as well as any unusual occurrence. The projectionist, who normally wouldn’t take any risks, occasionally made an exception in Cercal, another village in the coast of Alentejo.
At the time, distributors had to send the films they received from abroad to be approved by the censorship commission, so that they could be classified. Knowing the unyielding criteria of the censors, some distributors edited the films before sending them to be evaluated. All the frames that were removed to lighten the film – which generally showed naked or semi-naked women – were stored in lockers in the distributors’ warehouses. After gaining the trust of some of the employees from these companies, António would ask them for some of those frames with the promise to return them later on.
In Cercal, the GNR military in charge of patrolling the screening were not very bright, as António recalls. That’s why he chose that village as the perfect setting for his crime. With the banned frames added to the film, he would purposely put less gas in the generator. Right before it crashed, the screen showed “a nice pair of legs or boobs”, to the audience’s delight. The military would be baffled – the occurrence would have to be explained in detail in the report, along with the late ending of the screening. Not knowing what to do, the military would question the projectionist (“What impudence is this? How come there are naked women in the film?!”), but they never reported these incidents. “I think they also liked to see those prohibited images”, he explains.
In 1969, António moved to Lisbon with his wife and two children, where he got a job as a clerk at a car dealership. Always on time and with an exemplary behavior worthy of his employer’s accolades, he never gave up being a projectionist. On Friday mornings, he would go off to work in his projectionist van. At the end of his work day, he would hit the road and only stop in Cercal, just in time for the soirée. “He would get there, start all the commotion, call the people to the screening and then he would spend the night in Sabóia.” On the following day, he would hold a matinée in his hometown, in a venue he had built years before so there could be a theatre in the village. After that screening, he went to Monchique where he held the soirée on Saturdays.
On Sunday afternoons, he alternated between Carvoeiro and Estômbar, and in the evenings he finished his weekend tour in Vila Nova de Milfontes. He would sleep in guest houses or, ultimately, in his van. When this happened, he would always park alongside a stream, so in the morning he could take care of his hygiene. “I didn’t want to look like a dog without a collar.” After his last screening on Sunday, he would pack everything and return to Lisbon, where he always arrived around 4:00 a.m. The next day, he would return to the dealership.
This was António’s routine until the Revolution, in 1974. A year after the revolution, the workers at the dealership started clashing with the administration. This dispute forced the company to close and led the workers to the unemployment line. António had to make some important decisions. After “almost being forced” into marriage at 17, he got divorced at the age of 35 and left Lisbon with his projectionist van. “I returned to my Alentejo, which was what I wanted the most. I never should have left.” He wanted to stop being a “dog without a collar” and to have his own theatre, with walls, ceiling, chairs and screen.
A field of sunflowers
The first step was to invest all the money he had in buying a terrace in Vila Nova de Milfontes, in Rua Custodio Brás Pacheco, the busiest street in the village. He started screening films outdoors, but the venue proved to be quite uncomfortable. Only a few kilometers from the sea, the humidity was heavy and audiences showed signs of discomfort. First, he built a roof; later, he built a stage; after that, the walls came up. Step by step, the theatre was built until it became what it is today. He named it Cineteatro Girasol, since in that place there used to be a field of sunflowers.
As soon as he enters his theatre, António begins to clap and shout “Ah! Ah! Ah!”, as if the cries come from his stomach. “See? This has no echo, it has an incredible acoustics.” The ceiling is covered in cork, the walls are thick and dark. In total, there are 278 seats, two of which are extra-large, “for those who are too fat.” The red of the seats matches the curtain that covers the screen and the stage, now a makeshift warehouse for blockbuster posters, such as the parody “Scary Movie 5” or the animated film “Monsters Inc.”
The theatre is deserted apart from António and a cat that ensures there are no mice inside. The projectionist enthusiastically begins by making a tour of the venue. He shows in detail the projection booth, where he keeps an old coal projector, the first to be used in the theatre; he goes through the old bar and the storage room, where he stores the posters from all the films he exhibited; he speaks with pride of the current projection booth whose walls are lined with actor photos. António lives right next to the theatre, in a small one bedroom apartment, with a living room filled with DVDs, VHS tapes and CDs scattered all over the place.
He goes up and down the stairs at an unusual speed for a 75 year-old man. His legs or his face don’t give out his age – only his eyes show some wrinkles – and he keeps a thick head of dark hair. His face is similar to that of his namesake, the singer António Calvary, who, according to Wikipedia, is also 75 years-old.
Just like the career of the Portuguese participant in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1964, the Cineteatro Girasol has seen better times. The first difficulties came with the advent of VHS tapes, in the early 90s. The possibility of watching films in the comfort of their homes took people away from the theatre, something António had not anticipated when he contracted a series of loans to be able to build the venue. “At that time I thought that if I could not beat them, then I could join them.” He put on a suit and tie and once again took his van to the road, but instead of having the projector and film at the back, he now had hundreds of VHS tapes that António sold to video stores, at the time a growing business. “I would buy the tapes in Lisbon. Each one cost $500 and I took $150 commission for everyone I sold. I did this in the winter and never on weekends.”
Combining the sale of the tapes with the box office revenues of Cineteatro Girasol and his travelling projectionist business, he managed to pay off his debts. But the decrease in viewers was becoming increasingly evident – first came the DVDs, and shortly after the illegal downloads. And, on top of that, the economic crisis. “[In the late 80s] I was doing three screenings per day. In the matinées, I would fill half the seats, then at night I had a full house, and in the midnight session I could still have another half house. It was like having two full houses a day. Nowadays, I have the same three sessions, but combined they don’t bring half a house worth of audience.”
Presently, the Cineteatro Girasol is closed, opening occasionally during the summer. It’s been this way since 2011. Apart from the holiday period, when Vila Nova de Milfontes welcomes a good number of tourists, the theatre only opens “three or four times” during the rest of the year. In these occasions, most of the films shown on screen are those that Antonio decides to watch alone. He chooses a DVD and one of the 278 seats at his disposal. During the winter, to save money on heating, he takes a blanket with him and he wears a thick coat over several sweaters, topping it off with a cap.
The Alentejo stretches over 31 551 square kilometers, a slightly larger territory than Belgium. From Nisa, the municipality further north, to Odemira, by the sea, to Barrancos, close to the Spanish border, live no more than half a million people. They have only two commercial theatres available in the region: one in the port city of Sines and another one in Beja. Only the latter can show the premieres that delight the rest of the world.
António knows who to blame. Even more than the VHS tapes, the DVDs, the illegal downloads and even the crisis. He blames Lusomundo, now owned by the media and communications giant NOS. The word he uses is “monopoly”, and he picks up pen and paper to illustrate his argument. “They import, license, distribute and screen films,” he says, writing the sentence and linking each of the verbs with arrows. “Can you imagine?”
Films that have a good box office outside of this company’s purview are rare. He explains they have a monopoly with the major film producers worldwide. Renting a copy on opening day is unthinkable for António. He has to wait five or six weeks for the price to go down. Then, he pays 250 euros a day to be able to screen the film in his theatre. With tickets at 4.50 euros, António would need to have at least 56 viewers in his three daily sessions just to pay the rental fees. But that’s not it, because on top of that he still has to pay his employees (one at the box office, one at the door, a projectionist and an usher), as well as the maintenance costs, such as electricity, water and cleaning. In 2013, he only opened in the summer. At the end, he was 2400 euros in the red.
The end of movie distribution on film announced for 2015 will be the end of Cineteatro Girasol. António gives us the news first hand. A digital projector compatible with a venue the size of Girasol costs “around 60 thousand euros, if it’s used. I won’t make that kind of investment when I don’t have enough years of life to be able to pay the debt. That would only work back when I was making a lot of money with films.” António receives a monthly retirement pension of 400 euros, which is barely enough for the maintenance costs of the theatre. Apart from what he gets from renting some land, he has no other source of income than his work as a travelling projectionist. So when the municipality of Aljezur asked him to do three outdoor film sessions this summer in two of its three villages, António was quick to request the necessary DVDs to NOS.
30 minutes after leaving Vila Nova de Milfontes, António reaches the sign announcing Rogil. As soon as he crosses the village limits, he stops his white Renault Kangoo van with license plates from 2002 and opens the trunk. He takes out a speaker and places it on the roof of the car with the help of four ropes attached to the doors. He gets inside the car and turns the sound system he’s got under the glove compartment on and grabs a microphone. First you hear the voice of singer Paco Bandeira singing “João Saramago”. You can barely understand the lyrics. António soon starts talking over the music, while driving the car at 20 km/h. People stare at him curiously:
- “Today, at 9:30 pm, Rogil celebrates films. Outdoor session, free admission. Come see ‘The Gilded Cage’. A film made in France with Portuguese actors. People who feel, think and suffer like us, Portuguese who are having a hard time.”