Portugal’s Last Traveling Film Projectionist Practices a Dying Art

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In the rural villages of Portugal, the arrival of a man in a small van with the word CINEMA painted across its side marks an exciting event. As Antonio Feliciano unpacks his equipment, an otherwise unremarkable space in a far-flung little town begins its transformation into a movie theater. As The Atlantic reports, the 75-year-old Feliciano is perhaps Portugal’s last traveling film projectionist—the only person remaining with the skill and dedication to bring movies in their traditional form to the distant places that have no other access to them.

Over the past sixty or so years, Feliciano estimates that he has traveled 2.5 million miles to spread his love of cinema across the country. It is a true passion project; Feliciano works full-time during the week as a bookkeeper in Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon and brings his show on the road during the weekends. Despite the exhausting requirements of travel in what would otherwise be a working man’s resting hours, Feliciano knows firsthand the joy he’s spreading, having been inspired, as a child, to become a film projectionist by the presence of one in his own rural village in Portugal’s Alentejo region. After an early stint as that projectionist’s assistant, announcing the weekend’s showings over a loudspeaker in the village, Feliciano was soon off setting up his own screenings in music halls and bullfighting rings across the country—anywhere with space for a film projector, a screen, and an audience.

In the pre-digital age, film screenings by Feliciano and other traveling projectionists like him brought entertainment to populations who lacked access to TV or radio, and to uneducated residents who lacked the ability to read. As the son of a beloved but recently deceased film projectionist recalls to Reuters, there was a time when “it was at the cinema that people would see Lisbon, the colonies, even the sea, for the first time.” With the rise of TV, Internet, and digital film distribution, the art of film projection is no longer in demand as it once was. However, Feliciano maintains that there is value in his old-fashioned methods of showing movies from spools of celluloid.

As with any new technology, digital projectors have given rise to a debate about the merits of old school versus new school approaches to art, and directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and Zack Snyder are steadfast in their belief that the traditional form of shooting and showing movies is the best. For certain auteurs, digital technology and digital projection are to film what a photograph of a painting is to the original painting itself. Feliciano might agree about the superiority of film projection on technical grounds, but his devotion to the form derives more from a sense of the community it engenders: “Sometimes I feel like I 'am' cinema. At a screening, here's the machine, the screen, the audience, all concentrated together, we laugh, cry together. And without me it doesn't work. Thrilling.”

Feliciano’s one sorrow is the knowledge that he may be the last of his kind. He has no young apprentice to teach the craft to, and he laments “that this important cultural expression is lost, that when I die there will be no one left to go from village to village to show a film.” For now, he’ll keep taking his show on the road until the film runs out.

[h/t: The Atlantic, Reuters]