Film Projectionist at the End of the Reel

Originally published on 25 April 2012 at The Jakarta Post

Sudewo is the first film projectionist of Keong Emas IMAX Theater, Jakarta.

The lights inside the Keong Emas IMAX Theater at the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (TMII) park slowly dimmed. The opening surround sound blared out and the projector from the screening room above cast colorful lights onto a giant white screen—cues for the audience to sit in silence. The film was about to start.

To commemorate its 28th anniversary last Thursday, the theater screened Flying Monster, a new film about the pterosaurus, a prehistoric flying creature that lived about 200 million years ago. While the audience was absorbed in their experience of watching the film on an extraordinarily large screen, a middle-aged man in the overhead projection room was busy controlling the projectors to ensure the film ran without a hitch.

Sudewo, 54, has been a projectionist for 29 years, since the IMAX cinema was still under preparation. As the theater has a 29.5-meter by 21.5-meter screen, it uses 70 mm film reel, which enables movies to be projected at high resolution on a far larger scale than in normal theaters—which generally use 35 mm film reels.

Keong Emas, established in 1984, was the largest theater in Southeast Asia in the 1980s with its 840 seats. Sudewo landed the job when he was an intern in the Presidential Palace back in 1983 after graduating from a vocational high school. “In the Soeharto era, the easiest way to get a job was through a relative who worked in a government office. That’s how I got the job,” said Sudewo.

In preparing the Keong Emas cinema, Sudewo helped two Canadian IMAX technicians who had established the devices because of his high school educational background in electricity. “They asked me to learn to operate the projector and the audio synchronizer. It was confusing at first but I learned fast because they were very strict and disciplined,” said Sudewo, while pointing out that the visual and audio devices were separate so they needed to be synchronized.

During its early years, Keong Emas was the darling and pride of Jakartans. ”For the first three months after opening, people who wanted to watch were queueing up to the parking lot. The government even deployed policemen and provided emergency medical staff,” he said, adding that the theater had dozens of ushers.

The theater experienced a downturn when Indonesia underwent a monetary crisis in 1998. “Many people were laid off that year. We used to have six staffers in the projection room but now we only have three,” he said. Sudewo recalled how he was still nervous during his first years of working as a projectionist, especially when something wrong happened during a screening. “If there was a sudden blackout during the show, we panicked and the audience made it worse by becoming impatient and yelling at us,” he said, explaining that unlike a digital 35 mm projector in a regular cinema, it takes time to switch on an IMAX projector again.

According to Sudewo, although the cinema’s technology is advanced, the staffers sometimes perform manual censorship of certain inappropriate scenes to avoid protests from the audience. “Apart from the fact that IMAX films are expensive, Keong Emas is usually very picky in choosing films because the vast majority of its audience is children,” said Keong Emas’ manager, Purwanto. “For films like Spider-Man or Star Trek, we only close the projector so children won’t see the kissing scenes or we alter the scenes with flower images.” Keong Emas regularly screens both Indonesian and foreign films.

For Sudewo, being a projectionist is a major part of his life. Although he used to feel jealous due to many of his friends enjoying more successful careers, he is now content with his job. He said that what he has now is more than enough. “I’ve got everything here. I met my wife here and am able to be the breadwinner, thanks to this place,” he said, adding that his wife used to be a receptionist in the theater.

Next year marks Sudewo’s last working year in one of the rarest professions in Indonesia, and even the world. He will retire after 30 years of working for Keong Emas. “I just want to do the best I can and enjoy what I do,” said Sudewo, who was one of the TMII’s employees of the year in 2008.