Reviving Zanzibar's Oldest Theatre

Volume 16, Issue 3  | 
Published 03/03/2020

By Billie Odidi

The once imperial building in the historic Stone Town of Zanzibar now stands dilapidated. It is a pale shadow of its once thriving stature as one of Africa’s first cinema halls. Unlike the busier times when it still screened, the Majestic is shorn of its grandeur; the imposing architectural masterpiece stands only as a monument to a bygone era when the cinema attracted film lovers eager to watch the regular blockbusters screened there.

The Royal Cinema Theatre, as it was known, was in 1953 destroyed by a fire but it emerged from its ruins. The hall was replaced two years later by a cinema hailed as one of best designs of the time, where locals thronged to watch mainly Indian and Egyptian films and some Western classics. Amidst the coconut palm fringed golden sand in this tropical island, the Majestic standing on the Indian Ocean island is sadly now desolate, with a leaking roof and broken chairs inside the hall, yet the state of the cinema has not stopped locals from watching films here.

This was the only remaining cinema on the island after another venue, the Cine Afrique, was recently closed and turned into a supermarket. As of now, plans are underway to convert the Majestic into an office block for civil servants.

No cinema halls

‘Even though there is no roof on the cinema at the moment, the local people often set up a projector of their own and screen films, even if it rains on their heads,’ says visiting English filmmaker Nick Broomfield. The award-winning director behind documentaries like Biggie and Tupac and Battle for Haditha, has been holding workshops at this year’s Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF). He has used this platform of East Africa’s biggest arts and film festival to launch a campaign to restore the Majestic Cinema to its former glory.

Despite having the longest running and most popular art and film festival in East Africa, the island of Zanzibar has no working cinemas. Originally called the Festival of the Dhow Countries, the festival now in its 14th year, attracted an attendance of up to 45,000 foreign visitors from 52 countries and more than 120,000 local guests to the twin islands of Zanzibar and Pemba as well as mainland Tanzania in 2010.

(Sent by Pushpendra Shah)

More in this category: « Bollywood Films in Kenya

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