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A Majestic experience

The revival of Zanzibar's cinema culture is being pinned on a bughouse and a handful a diehards.

Every Friday they come, seven or eight elderly men, gathering 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, the director of the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival, which takes place on the Tanzanian island next month. ‘Cinema Paradiso was heavenly compared with 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 because, whereas Tanzania and its islands once boasted 53 cinemas, now there are only two.

The effort in Zanzibar’s Stone Town is being backed by the award-winning British filmmaker 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 was inspired by the diehards who kept the Majestic alive despite its decline.

‘Even though the cinema doesn’t have a roof, people use it and set 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.

A bonding thing

‘Cinema is a shared experience. As a filmmaker, 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 run workshops at the festival and will shoot his next feature film in Tanzania. ‘East African filmmaking is going to grow and become more important,” he said.

‘The Majestic is a wonderful piece of architecture. In terms of the East African filmmaking 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, but also some Western favourites, such as James Bond.

Replaced with videos

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

Mhando said the festival makes use of a cinema, which was not used full-time, on nearby Pemba island. That left Tanzania with two multiplexes in the capital, Dar es Salaam. ‘The economy got bad in the 1980s,” Mhando said. ‘Tickets cost $1 to $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 Zanzibar International Film Festival claims to be East Africa’s biggest arts and film celebration since it was launched 14 years ago. ‘At the festival 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 [features].”

New lease on life
Mhando said he hoped to raise awareness of the Majestic’s plight, which would lead to making a cost assessment and raising funds. He said he would like to see it become a minimum 200-seat multipurpose venue with space for corporate events, seminars and workshops—and with a café.

He said he hoped the faithful who gathered there each Friday would 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.”

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