On November 21, 2014, in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, a small group of film buffs, armed with crowbars, walkie-talkies and flashlights, broke into an old Art Nouveau film house known as Zvezda, (the Star) after scaling a tree that enabled them to crawl through a ventilation shaft and enter the building. Once inside, they broke the lock that had kept the derelict theater’s doors closed to the public for more than seven years and, forty-five days later, began showing movies.
There are at least a dozen reasons why this would probably never happen in the U.S., but commandeering a movie house feels just about right to me at this moment, so let’s play on.
In April, 1976, we — by which I mean myself and a small band of entrepreneurial zealots — settled in for a stay at the St. George Theatre, a 2672-seat movie palace in St George, Staten Island. Our occupation of (and in) the theater may have had the fanaticism of a movement, but it was (at least initially) legal: we had a lease on the musty gold plaster and red-velvet that graced our acoustically perfect auditorium. Saving an ornate sanctuary of dreams by whatever means possible had been our quest (or “business plan?” — take your pick). The differences between what we did and what the Serb film buffs pulled off are worth noting, along with some odd similarities.
Founders of the Movement for the Occupation of Cinemas had, of course, no rights in the place, but they had no obligations either. After crawling down that duct system, they commenced to show, on average, three films a day, having repaired one projector and brought in another, and, despite a leaky ceiling, at least as of March 2015, they were selling plenty of tickets and lots of popcorn. As of 2020, they were still going strong.
“As a kid I came here and watched movies,” said Luka Bursac, 26, one of the theater’s lead occupants and a student from Belgrade University’s school of dramatic arts.
It’s the memory of old well-worn seats, the inevitable smell of popcorn, the comfort of a sweet light coming from high over your shoulder and hitting the screen, that makes the shuttering of old theaters so like the closing down of the imagination itself. Like the magnificent Michigan Theatre in Detroit whose still-existing dome arches over a parking garage, or The Ritz here in Staten Island , sliced and diced into a furniture warehouse, Belgrade’s cinemas are more than real estate, and so was — and is — the St. George.
Apparently you can see your breath in winter, in the Star’s auditorium, another little nip of déja vu, reminding me of that long-ago winter, 1977, when I warmed my palms in the theater’s popcorn machine. Our landlord ignored our pleas to turn the boiler on. Letters to Belgrade’s twenty wealthiest citizens for money to heat the movie house garnered no responses either, with one important caveat. If you’re doing civil disobedience, at least you don’t have to sell enough tickets to make the rent.
The word “occupy” has many shadings. Forty years ago, on account of the St. George Theatre, my husband was hauled into criminal court — roughly every six weeks. Once there, he was routinely fined and fingerprinted, acquiring over time a criminal record, because of certain gaps inspectors continued to find in the theater’s fire sprinkler system. These flaws had gone unaddressed by — who else? — our negligent landlord. Apparently, despite a legal lease, we had no right to be in the building in the first place — which is to say we lacked what is called a “C of O” (Certificate, ironically enough, of Occupancy!). So there you go: perhaps we were dissidents after all, mere squatters in the eyes of the law, and not the entrepreneurs we claimed to be.
Who knows, given what’s happening in Ukraine, and Serbia’s disappointing response to Russia’s actions, whether the Star Cinema survives? If it does, I hope it’s screening Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin!