Starring in Illusion Town

A visit to the Film Archive is a journey through the history of cinema

Stepping into the compound of the Film Archive, I find myself among backdrops of Thai and European architecture that surrounds a cinema camera and dolly track. Most visitors pose for pictures among these beautiful settings, while others who venture inside the building will find more amazing things to explore.

Called Muang Maya, or Illusion Town, the facades are outdoor exhibitions, behind which are permanent exhibitions where visitors are transported to the early age of cinema.

The journey starts at the corner of the compound, with 19th-century-era New York buildings. On the ground floor, 10 boxes with peephole viewers on top await visitors. By inserting a 10 baht coin, a light is turned and a strip of film begins to whir and rotate and the pictures begin to move.

Invented by Thomas Edison in 1888, these boxes are Kinetoscopes, an early motion picture exhibition device that went on to become the standard for all cinematic projection. The first Kinetoscope was installed in 1155 Broadway 27th St. New York in 1894.

"Just this was enough to excite people more than a century ago," a member of staff at the Film Archive says. "It was probably the Cock Fighting movie that King Rama V saw. He was the first in Siam to see a motion picture."

In the adjacent building is a replica of the Grand Café in Paris. Behind the elegant facade is a coffee shop with a room in the basement that serves as a theatre.

A child passes beneath a replica facade of an early Thai cinema.

The room in the basement (Le Salon Indien) of the Grand Café was where the first public movie screening in the world was hosted, on Dec 28, 1895.

At the entrance of the basement, a small exhibition shows pictures of 10 short movie clips produced by the Lumiere brothers, as well as other memorabilia.

"On the first viewing, there were only 33 members of the audience," Film Archive staff member Piyathida Phornpitchyapong says. "After that, it was packed. A number of people came to see the motion pictures, which was exciting technology at the time."

The 10 movie clips, which are around one minute long, feature aspects of daily life such as exercising.

"Film at that time was 12m long because the desk they worked for cutting the film was that long," she explains while rolling the acetate back into the machine.

Cinema developed from one minute motion pictures to longer ones, and became a new form of entertainment that excited people around the world. This led to the construction of permanent theatres. The first cinema in the world, Nickelodeon, was in Pittsburgh, US. It was not a purpose-built cinema, but converted from shops and also used as a venue for plays, concerts or other performances for the locals.

In Muang Maya's Nickelodeon, visitors can expect to be entertained with the first American action film, The Great Train Robbery. The 1903 American silent short film used a number of techniques for the first time, namely composite editing, on location shooting and frequent camera movement. 

"Thailand accepted such kind of entertainment quite fast. Shortly after the world knew cinema, Thailand had it," Piyathida explained.

Thailand's first permanent cinema was Rong Nang Yi Poon, or Japanese Cinema. The theatre was established in Bangkok in 1904 by Japanese businessmen. Its success led to the establishment of Thai cinema shortly after.

Travel info

- Film Archive is a public organisation that is located on Buddha Monthon 5 Road, Salaya, Buddha Monthon district of Nakhon Pathom. For more information, visit thaifilmarchive.org or call 02-482-2013-14 ext. 111.

- Muang Maya is open from 10am-5pm on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays.

A Film Archive staff member prepares film used in the replica cinematograph.

A child looks through a Kinetoscope.  

About the author

columnist
Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter