Out of Africa
South Africa hosted the continent’s first picture show in Johannesburg in May 1896, and Durban can claim Africa’s first permanent cinema.
The Electric Theatre opened in 1909 with less-than-convincing scenes of Boer guerrillas taking on the British, inexplicably filmed on Hampstead Heath in London.
Kenya’s Theatre Royal, British East Africa’s first cinema, opened in Nairobi in 1912.
It attracted international titles, including the African premiere of DW Griffith’s biblical epic, Intolerance, in 1916.
House of the Devil
Ethiopia’s first cinema arrived in the 1920s with the Club de l’Union, a notorious bar and dance hall in Addis Ababa that was soon known as Saitan Bet—House of the Devil. The cinema is still in use, part of the less poetically named Mega Theatre complex.
Eritrea’s capital Asmara is a cinematic treasure, having enjoyed a movie theatre boom under Italian rule in the 1930s when 10 Art Deco cinemas with names such as the Roma and the Croce Rosse were built. The intimate, low-key Cinema Dante was already there in 1910, the oldest in Asmara and one of the earliest in Africa.
Morocco’s Vox in Tangier was Africa’s biggest cinema when it opened in 1935, with 2?000 seats and a retractable roof.
Because Tangier was in Spanish territory, the theatre’s wartime bar heaved with spies, refugees and underworld hoods, securing its place in cinematic history as inspiration for Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.
Hope for renewal
Ghana’s petite Rex Cinema, opened in 1937, is Accra’s only alternative to its brash new multiplex. Its status is indeterminate, with a visitor as likely to witness a prayer meeting or dance as a film.
Chad’s government has spent £1.3-million refurbishing the country’s only cinema, the Normandy in Ndjamena, which until April had been closed for 20 years. The 1950s’ building is not Africa’s oldest or largest theatre but it does signal
hope for renewal of Africa’s cinematic heritage. —