Third World Theater: One Writer’s Experience at the Movies in the Philippines

Ah, movies! A universal pastime! No matter who you are or where you are in the world, anyone can appreciate the rush of getting swept up into an epic adventure on screen, especially one so epic as The Hobbit. That is what I thought as I sat in the back of a pedi-cab (bicycle with a 3-wheel cab attached) with some of my new friends on our way to the only movie theater located in the small town of Ozamis, Philippines. I didn’t realize that this would be one of my strongest moments of homesickness that I would experience on my 5-week stay in Ozamis.

A pedi-cab driver with his passengers

My mom warned me not to go, she told me I should just wait to watch it when we get back to the States. As the tale usually goes between mother and daughter, I didn’t listen to her. I wanted to experience it for myself. I don’t care about the urine smell, I told her. I don’t care about the bed bugs in the seats, I said. I really believed it at the time, but in hindsight I can see I was trying to convince myself. Growing up in America is hard to undo—not that I necessarily want to undo it. No good can come from shaming our culture and wealth, because that would be throwing away the immense privilege and unrivaled opportunity that comes with being an American too. Sometimes though, I am slightly embarrassed at how bad I am at “roughing it” out in the world. Let this article be public proof that cultural differences can be really hard to adjust to! Otherwise, I wouldn’t have found all these differences to be insufferable whilst I tried really hard to enjoy one of my favorite movies. I wish someone had taken a picture of my face during the many phases of this fiasco. I was not prepared.

Here are some tips to help you be more prepared than I was if you ever find yourself going to see a movie in a third world country:

1. Bring toilet paper and anti-bacterial hand wash.

Running water and toilet paper are luxuries you will not find in the bathrooms there. Also, ladies, you better bring a friend and practice your squatting skills, because toilet seats and stall doors are luxuries too.

2. Don’t worry about where to sit.

You could choose the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the movie… but it won’t matter. Because right before the movie starts a theater employee will come and kindly force you to move up to the front rows of the theater. Even though there are only 20 people in the whole theater and there are like, hundreds of seats. And even though you will now have to crane your neck to watch it the whole time, which means you will have to rest your head on the back of the seat which may or may not have lice in it. In case anyone cares, I didn’t get lice.

3. Bring snacks.

There are no concession stands there. On the bright side, they do not strictly enforce the rules against bringing your own food and drink inside, so Jollibee it is!

4. Be okay with lots of noise.

If you expect to watch the movie in peace, you will be sadly disappointed. Go in without these expectations and your experience has already improved so much! They were doing construction to improve the theater inside the theater. It was heavy construction too, as in hammering, tiling, buzz sawing, welding and workers communicating. It was all going down right there, and it was not quiet. Also, the other movie goers who we were forced to be cramped into the first few rows with were holding full-on conversations—and not using their inside voices. In America, if this was happening, you could shoot them a dirty look and they would at least know what you were getting at, even if they don’t shut up. No such etiquette exists there. If you shoot people dirty looks, you’re just being rude.

5. Being on time is optional.

People were streaming into the movie at all times, all the way up until it ended. About halfway through the movie, one of our friends began texting and calling, asking if he could join us. I told him not to come since I didn’t see the point in coming halfway through because… well obviously, what’s the point in that?  I accidentally offended him and I ended up apologizing and paying for him to come anyway. What I didn’t know was that they continuously show the movie throughout the day, and many people make a day of it and stay there all day, which is what he did. Who knew?

6. View it as a thrill ride rather than a story.

Being there was like being on an amusement park ride: during all the suspenseful parts people would scream (I mean scream!) like they’re on a roller coaster or as if they are the ones actually being chased by a dragon. It’s crazy. This one confused me the most, until I realized that they don’t really understand what’s going on. They do understand English, but when they hear it spoken so quickly (or so fancifully as in the Hobbit), they can’t keep up. So the real enjoyment is in the suspense.

7. Bring a book or game to keep you occupied during the “brown outs.”

What’s a brown-out you ask? No, it doesn’t have anything to do with poop. A brown-out is what we Americans would call a black-out, in which the power goes out. But they happen so frequently during the day and night that they call them brown-outs, and reserve the term black-out for a city-wide extended loss of power. If you plan on seeing a movie in the Philippines, be prepared for brown-outs at random, which can last up to 30 minutes. During our movie, there were three.

There is nothing like cultural immersion in an Asian country to show you just how ethnocentric you really are. I believe Americans are raised with a deeply ingrained sense of ethnocentrism (thinking that our way is the best way), and that’s wrong. Traveling and immersing yourself in another culture is the best cure for that. I have had many strong doses of that and have had to reevaluate my cultural paradigms over and over. However, I must admit that I really really missed our movie theater etiquette that I had always taken for granted. In the case of going to the movies, I know we do the movie experience better and have it best! What do you think?


Rachel Sipe

Rachel hails from Virginia Beach but frequently daydreams of living on every continent of the world (sometimes Middle-Earth and Westeros find their way in there too). Rachel has many things in common with Winnie the Pooh: soft, cuddly, loves a boy, can't resist sweets, and when the going gets tough, it helps to sit on a log and think, think, think.