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Tanzania's art deco ruin, the Majestic cinema, inspires restoration campaign

Discussion in 'Jukwaa la Siasa' started by ipyax, Jun 3, 2011.

  1. ipyax

    ipyax JF-Expert Member

    Jun 3, 2011
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    At 'the Cinema Paradiso of Zanzibar' old films are watched under open sky – director Nick Broomfield hopes to put the roof back on

    Every Friday they come, seven or eight elderly men gathered in a ramshackle auditorium of cobwebs and broken chairs. Sitting under an open sky – the roof fell in long ago – they watch the flickering images of old films projected on a wall.

    "It's the Cinema Paradiso of Zanzibar," said Martin Mhando, director of the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival (Ziff), which takes place on the Tanzanian island next month. "Cinema Paradiso was heavenly compared to what's there."

    This is the Majestic, one of Africa's first cinemas, an art deco gem from the 1920s that lost its lustre. Mhando is leading a campaign to restore the ruin to its former glory, all the more vital, he says, because where Tanzania and its islands once boasted 53 cinemas, now there are only two.

    The effort in Zanzibar's Stone Town is backed by the award-winning British film-maker Nick Broomfield, known for documentaries such as Biggie and Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Battle For Haditha.

    Broomfield said he is inspired by the diehards who keep the Majestic alive despite its decline. "Even though the cinema doesn't have a roof, people are using it and setting up their own projector," he said from Los Angeles. "It probably has a lot of memories for them. It was the place where people went on dates and met their first girlfriends.

    "Cinema is a shared experience. As a film-maker, the most wonderful thing about watching with a group of people is that you can tell which parts of the film are working and which aren't.

    "It's a bonding thing, a way of holding a group or locality together. When I was growing up, everyone went to the cinema on Saturday morning to see the cartoons. It was social cohesion and that's one of the exciting things that could happen with the Majestic in Zanzibar."

    Broomfield will be running workshops at the Ziff and is set to shoot his next feature film in Tanzania. "East African film-making is going to grow and become more important," he said.

    "The Majestic is a wonderful piece of architecture. In terms of the east African film-making community, the relevance of Zanzibar would be enshrined in the Majestic. It would be an encouragement for people to take cinema seriously. It would also be a fantastic venue for the Zanzibar International film festival."

    The first Majestic, designed by colonial architect John Sinclair in about 1922, burned down after a projector fire and was rebuilt a few years later. With about 500 seats, it showed mainly Indian and Egyptian films along with some western favourites such as James Bond.

    The economic failure of the 1980s saw cinemas shut down all over Tanzania. The last of three on Zanzibar, Cine Afrique, recently closed and was converted into a supermarket. Even the Majestic is said to be under threat of being turned into an office block for civil servants.

    Mhando said the Ziff uses a cinema on nearby Pemba island but it does not operate full-time. That leaves Tanzania with two multiplexes in the capital, Dar es Salaam.

    "The economy got bad in the 1980s," Mhando recalled. "Tickets had cost $1-2, but we knew if it got to $3 the cinema economy would collapse and that's what happened. People could no longer afford to watch movies. Videos came along and they stayed inside. By 1996, all the cinemas were closed."

    Despite this gloomy backdrop, the Ziff claims to be east Africa's biggest arts and film festival since launching 14 years ago. "At Ziff we have full houses of 1,500 people every night. So we started thinking about rebuilding the Majestic. If it was refurbished properly, people could go to movies there on a regular basis. It still has beautiful art deco."

    Mhando hopes to raise awareness of the Majestic's plight with a view to making a cost assessment and raising funds. He would like to see it become a minimum 200-seat multipurpose venue with space for corporate events, seminars and workshops along with a cafe.

    Then, he hopes, the faithful who gather there each Friday will be joined by a new generation. "The old men still have their dreams of watching movies every week. They remember the old splendour of the Majestic and the moment of their youth. That's the relevance of cinema culture to them. Once you've been bitten by the bug, there's no escaping it."