Founders of the Movement for the Occupation of Cinemas have, of course, no rights in the place, but they have no obligations either. Since the first of them crawled down that duct system, they’ve been showing, on average, three films a day, having repaired one projector and brought in another one, and, despite a leaky ceiling, they continue to sell tickets and popcorn.
If the Belgrade activists don’t all see eye-to-eye on exactly what they’re doing in the Star (is their occupation a political act ? a cultural one? is there a difference?), the recent loss of more than half of Serbia’s fine old cinema buildings — bought low and sold high by fat cats, to be retrofitted as supermarkets, gymnasiums and gambling clubs — has, for the moment, unified them.
“As a kid I came here and watched movies,” says 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 the Star’s auditorium this winter, another little nip of deja 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 theater, 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 hoped to be.
But there is one really really important difference between the Serbian effort and ours: These people actually slept (still do?) in their unheated theater. Now that’s going to the line for what you believe in. To the tiny miraculously-still-open Star cinema in Belgrade, I wish an early, warm. spring.