It was 1988 when “Cinema Paradiso,” Giuseppe Tornatore’s elegiac tribute to the movie theater culture, hit European screens. The Italian director introduced the film-loving public to one of its most enduring heroes, the young Salvatore, whose friendship with the projectionist at his local movie theater gives him his entry ticket into the fascinating universe of cinema, in a touching comedy drama that took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Angelos Semelas was 13 when he saw the film in 1988, but remembers it as though it were yesterday. “People didn’t know anything about our job, so when movies like ‘Cinema Paradiso’ came out it was important because they showed a little of what we do,” Semelas told Kathimerini when we went to meet him recently in the wonderful foyer (which operates as a cafe in the morning) of the Astor in downtown Athens, where he has worked as a projectionist since 2015 when the cinema was refurbished.
People were already starting to come in for the first screening, at 6 p.m. If it had been a few years earlier, Semelas would have had to be up in the projection room by now, preparing the machines, but with digital technology that is no longer necessary. In theory, he could even start the screening from his laptop, working from home or the coffee table where we were sitting.
Father to son
Angelos Semelas is one of the last surviving film projectionists in Greece, treasurer of an art that is at risk of extinction, along with film reels. In 1988, he had already been on the job for three years – as an apprentice. “My dad was a projectionist and he broke his leg one day. He couldn’t take the day off, so he asked me and my brother to come in and help him. I was 10,” says Semelas. His father had been introduced to the job in much the same way, by his father.
“Most of us in the field were brought in by a family member or friend. Not because it was a protectionist profession, but simply because very few people knew it even existed. In the 1990s, for example, most people thought the movies in the theaters were on DVD and someone just pressed the play button,” he says. “If something went wrong, they’d say, ‘Rewind it a bit’ – something that’s almost impossible. No, people did not know what a film projectionist did and there was no reason why they should.”
Another reason for the low interest was the fact that there was no school in Greece for the profession, so projectionists had to be taught by other projectionists, on the job.
From day one, Semelas was fascinated. “I loved it. I loved watching the movies, but also the entire process. The films used to come in sections, so you had to splice them together to make a complete reel and then play it,” he says, explaining how he continued to learn the craft beside his father, working at different theaters.
He later went on to study electrical engineering, but never practiced, choosing instead the small dark room at the back of the movie theater.
In contrast to what many moviegoers believe, the transition from film happened quite recently. “The process only went completely digital in 2015. Up until then, we played film,” says the 43-year-old projectionist.
The process was quite often a nail-biting one. “Back in the day, there would only be a few copies of each film that had to be shown in dozens of theaters in different parts of Athens. We’d have, say, 10 copies, so there was a guy on a motorcycle who had to get the first part from one theater to another and then repeat the process with the second part. Sometimes a film was cut into three sections so as to be shown at three cinemas at once.”
The arrival of the Village cinema multiplexes put an end to this, as more copies were needed.
Semelas worked for Village Cinemas for 15 years before going to the Astor. “Even there at first, we’d start a film in one theater and instead of rolling it back into the machine we’d roll it onto another reel that we’d then take to another theater for a later screening,” he explains.
Hidden away in his projection room, his career has not been without adventures and delays. “The machine could get stuck, for example, and instead of being rolled up, the film would unravel onto the floor and you’d have to gather it up by hand and roll it up again. We’re talking about kilometers of film. A lot can go wrong – that’s why it takes skill. Another time we had to call a 40-minute intermission because the guy on the bike was late with the second part. The people were complaining, shouting, but there was nothing I could do.”
Despite the challenges, it was an exciting and creative job – until digital technology entered the picture. “Film is only played now during tributes to older movies. It’s in the same category as vinyl,” says Semelas. “If you ask me, you can’t compare a fresh roll of a film that’s just come out of the studio to a digital one; the analysis is just so much better. I literally had a hand in every film. If you had subtitles, for example, the film was thicker there and you had to change the focus. You had to keep an eye on everything – the focus, the colors, the sound – everything was manual.”
Digital technology also edged his father out of the business. “It wasn’t a small change for us. We had learned that if the bar is shut, the movie can still play; if the cashier was sick, the movie could still play; but if the projectionist wasn’t there, the cinema itself couldn’t work. The end.”