Comrades in Dreams is a documentary about people who operate very small scale movie theaters in local communities around the world. Four such theaters are highlighted, with the film switching back and forth among them every few minutes. They are located in India, Burkina Faso (the former Upper Volta), North Korea, and the United States, with the last being in small town Wyoming.
How small scale are these theaters? Very. The one in India is a mobile theater. The proprietors travel around to rural villages in a caravan of vehicles, and then they set up the screen in an old circus tent at each stop. The Flick in Big Piney, Wyoming (population about 500) is a converted barn. When you call to find out what’s playing, instead of an automated system playing a recording, the proprietor Penny Tefertiller herself answers your call.
The charm of the film is that these folks are true fans of the movie experience and love what they do. None of them are getting rich doing this, or if somehow they are it’s incidental.
Not surprisingly, the creepy one of the four is the one in North Korea. (“Comrades” in Dreams indeed.) The horrific oppressiveness of the North Korean regime is the unacknowledged elephant in the room. The film never addresses that context, even to sugarcoat or deny it. The North Korea segments are played straight, as if these folks are not minions of a slave state, showing propaganda films as ordered, knowing they could be tortured and killed if they deviate in the slightest from what the state requires of them.
But if you have any background knowledge of North Korea, it’s hard to think of anything else while watching these segments. I kept thinking, do they look broken and scared, like slaves who know they have to obey or else, or do they seem to have internalized the regime’s values and to be freely and willingly serving it like cult members? (They come across more like the latter, by the way.) I take nothing they’re saying at face value.
No doubt a great deal of what the mass media says about America’s “official” enemies is self-serving bullshit, but I really do get the impression that North Korea is a nightmarish, Orwellian society. I’m not saying that living in Burkina Faso, say, would be a picnic (I think they’ve been governed by a series of military dictators), but North Korea takes totalitarian regimentation to a whole other level.
How in the world did these filmmakers get permission to film in North Korea of all places (or even think to try)? Not that anything is said that is in any way critical of that regime, but they tend to be so secretive I would think that just on general principles they wouldn’t allow some Westerner documentarian into the country with a camera.
That story behind the film might be as intriguing as the film itself.
Mostly when the North Koreans are just talking about movies, you probably wouldn’t pick up on the creepiness if you weren’t looking for it based on your background knowledge of what a peculiarly oppressive society this is. But occasionally it comes through more blatantly, most notably when the woman who runs the theater thinks back on the death of despot Kim Il Sung in 1994, and tearfully recounts how devastating it was, and how all she could do was hope that in some small way their showing inspiring, patriotic movies could serve as a tribute to the great man and his legacy, blah, blah, blah.
No, see, he’s not a great hero to be cried over; he’s a bloodthirsty dictator who ruined countless lives, enslaving whoever in his society he didn’t get around to killing. But she really does seem sincere, i.e., clueless.
Anyway, aside from the kooks in North Korea, these movie people are generally likable folks. I particularly liked the enthusiastic, personable young fellow who runs the Indian mobile theater. Evidently it’s a family business that he took over from his parents. They hoped for bigger and better things from him, but he has a genuine love for the movies and the movie business.
I also found the small town Wyoming folks appealing, from the kindly elderly people to the dorky but sweet 11 year old girl being gently teased about whether she wants to one day marry someone like the movie stars in the films they see at The Flick (“Well, you’re sure pretty enough to,” as she blushes), to certainly Penny the proprietor herself. (Then I remind myself that 99% of people like this somehow combine the mostly humane communitarian values you see on display here with the most vicious hateful right wing politics and religion. Talk about people who are hopelessly perverted by propaganda.)
I like the idea behind Comrades in Dreams, and there were moments here and there that drew me in or gave me a good feeling, but it just isn’t something that held my interest for an hour and 42 minutes. I don’t think it’s particularly poorly made or anything; it’s just that a lot of it dragged for me.
Probably the moments that I found most meaningful were when you got some personal insight into these people and how movies affect them. Like the reactions people in different countries had to Titanic.
There’s a very brief segment of Penny from Wyoming right near the end of the film, for instance, where she’s having a friendly discussion with some moviegoers about the romance between the two main characters in Titanic. Reading between the lines from earlier in Comrades in Dreams, you gather that she is not currently with anyone, and that her love life and family life in general have probably not worked out too well—I think they may have said she’s divorced. As she speaks of the fantasy romance of Titanic, you see a certain wistful sadness in her eyes, an awareness of what’s lacking in her own life and of her loneliness. It’s a bittersweet moment that made me feel closer to her, made me wish for the best for her, made me hope that she gets some joy in her life in exchange for all the joy she brings to her tiny Wyoming community in the sticks by owning and operating one of the unlikeliest movie theaters you’ll ever see.