Gilbey on Film: Foyer-voyeurs

Cinemas are turning their cameras on the audience.

I visited a multiplex last week. There was a small screen mounted in the foyer wall, next to the ice-cream counter. My daughter and I went over to the screen. We noticed it was showing black-and-white CCTV pictures from inside several of the fifteen or so auditoria. We exchanged a conspiratorial glance, sipped the sodas we had just bought, and watched. I thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr Ripley, spying on Matt Damon spying on Jude Law, and asking him: "How's the peeping, Tom?"

Screen 1 was shown to be so spacious that it required two separate camera angles, one from the left side of the auditorium, the other from the right. It was packed with bodies, all of them dazed and compliant, the faces gawping at a screen that was just out of shot. It reminded me of the footage found in documentaries about sleep disorders, night terrors and so on. Time-lapse photography comes into play in those cases, so that a typical amount of nocturnal movement can resemble a severe epileptic fit. There was something comparably eerie about the in-auditorium film. The general stillness of the audience ensured that the slightest twitch or fidget registered as a jarring disruption. We saw a couple nestle closer to one another under their coats in a "love-seat", that double seating space achievable by raising the armrest. A woman steered a floppy-armed child along a row of knees, each of which bobbed or swerved in turn to allow the sleepwalking escapees to pass. They plodded down the steps, toward the camera, and were gone. Then the angle switched, so we could see them vanishing into the dark corridor toward the Exit sign.

Four or five more screens got the peeping treatment. One was completely empty -- was it between showings, or just a bad movie? In another auditorium, the audience members were scattered across the seats like rag dolls dropped from above: lone viewers in the upper rows, the odd couple here and there, a trio of bored-looking boys in baseball caps slouching down the front. Their eyes showed up as bright, pupil-less spots of white light. They were zombiefied. We can't have looked much healthier, stood there watching a film of other people watching a film, slurping our drinks as the figures on screen did the same. At least they had paid for their pleasure, and were enjoying themselves unselfconsciously. We were not so pure. We were the foyer-voyeurs.

In my childhood, cinemas still showed short films before the main feature -- I saw everything from Balham: Gateway to the South (a spin-off from the Peter Sellers sketch) to a documentary on the medicinal properties of snake venom, which played before Conan the Barbarian. The screen serving live images from the auditoria served the same purpose, I felt, as a pre-movie short. This was an appetite-whetter. As we were going in shortly to see The Artist (my third time; my daughter's second), which features many images of cinema audiences crammed together in the stalls, it seemed an especially apt and vivid taster. Perhaps in an hour's time, another father and daughter would be standing in the foyer watching us watching a movie which invites its audience to watch a cinema audience watching a movie.

Sadly I don't think there were any cameras in screen 15, where The Artist was playing. Perhaps, with the advent of CCTV transmission in cinema foyers, audiences are auditioned just as any other performers would be; maybe it was felt by the management that cinemagoers who see The Artistsimply don't provide the same entertainment value, the necessary voyeuristic thrill, as those glued to The Grey or Man on a Ledge or The Muppets.

I don't know how many of the people caught on CCTV knew that the cinema was in the business of turning its audience into entertainment. There is all sorts of capacity for trouble here (the person who sees their partner snuggling up to an unidentified neighbour in Screen 4 when they had sworn blind they were going to the office today) as well as for increased safety (the eagle-eyed foyer-dweller who spots something afoot in the image, à la Blow-Up or Snake Eyes). It is all very complicated and unsettling and even naughty, and consistent therefore with the sort of experiences you would expect to have in a cinema.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times