Africans improvise the movie house
Surround sound, it’s not. But a bamboo-and-mud hut is all it takes to draw film audiences ready for entertainment at 40 cents a ticket.
Gorongosa, MozambiqueSkip to next paragraph
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Soon after the sun rises over the rolling hills of banana trees, Paulo Manuel Caetano leaves his grandfather’s mud-walled house and walks straight toward the center of town.
He passes the vegetable sellers piling tomatoes and avocados on handmade reed mats, and the women carrying buckets of corn kernels on their heads toward the mill. He walks by other barefoot teenagers making their way to the dusty soccer field across the only paved road in town. And then, not far from the informal traders setting up their stalls of plastic sandals and tissue paper, he stops at a bamboo-and-mud walled hut and surveys his options for the day:
Mr. Caetano approves. “I like the ones with fighting,” he says. “I get here very early in the morning to find a movie.” And with that, he pays the equivalent of about 4 cents to Santos Fernando Casão, the gatekeeper, and ducks into the cinema – a sweaty-smelling room with six wooden benches, a dirt floor, an old Supra television set, and lots of teenage boys. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly listed the ticket price.]
Movies are popular here. This town, the center of a sweeping district of about 95,000 people, mostly subsistence farmers, boasts more than 20 small cinemas – a figure that might surprise an outsider looking at the mud huts and goats wandering around, but one that seems normal to locals, and unsurprising to film experts.
“They’re all over,” says Russell Southwood of the movie houses. He is the chief executive of Balancing Act, a research and consulting firm focused on Internet, broadcast, and audiovisual media in Africa, and has written about the phenomenon. “With pirated videos, they have effectively replaced cinemas.”
The film industry is booming here. Many countries in Africa have produced critically acclaimed films, including South Africa’s Oscar-winning “Tsotsi,” and most host at least one regional film festival. Nollywood, the low budget, soap-opera-style movie genre from Nigeria, has also exploded in popularity.
Movie venues, however, are still few and far between. Like Gorongosa, much of the continent is just too poor and too remote to have its own Cineplex.
“Getting prints across the continent is hugely difficult,” says Lara Preston, the producer of the Africa On Screen Film Festival. “The big studios won’t ship digital prints because of pirating – they want to ship reels. And that’s hugely expensive.”
Some film groups and nonprofits have started using mobile movie theaters to reach the viewers. This style of movie showing, which was common decades ago in the rural United States, is also popular in other developing regions. The Eighth International Indigenous Film and Video Festival held in Oaxaca, Mexico, for instance, used mobile theaters to bring entry films to the region’s remote villages. In Africa, groups such as the Zimbabwe-based International Video Fair Trust will travel around the region screening films on a variety of social topics, from HIV/AIDS to domestic violence to microfinance.