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Not all of Juba’s historic buildings have survived the real estate frenzy that gripped the South Sudanese capital at the end of the Second Civil War in 2005. The destruction that caused the greatest stir was that, in 2006, of the legendary Juba Hotel, an establishment built by the colonial administration when the city was created in the 1930s.
Other relics in Juba’s history have been a little more fortunate. Although it has lost its primary function, the building of the legendary Juba cinema has not disappeared. It survived the war, years of abandonment and demolitions, and today houses… a church.
It was a Greek merchant, Anthony Crassas, who built the Juba Picture House in 1953 and inaugurated it the following year, in a part of the city which was still at the time separated from the others by pristine nature. . In a work to be published by Editions De Gruyter, the historian Brendan Tuttle retraces the epic of this room that the inhabitants quite simply called “” The cinema “, since it was the only one in the city”, he notes.
“When the Juba Picture House opened on the border between the hospital and the Native Lodging Area [le quartier construit pour héberger les travailleurs locaux, clairement séparé de la zone habitée par les colons et administrateurs], it has attracted all segments of Juba society: families, lovers, intellectuals, entertainment enthusiasts, young people, children, ticket sellers and hawkers of all kinds ”, writes the historian.
Abandoned for twenty years
The cinema having quickly become a place of intense social life, it gave its name to this district today still called Hai Cinema (“the cinema district” in local Arabic), even if the cinema ceased to operate there. is almost forty years old.
In 1972, the original owner, this Greek who the regulars nicknamed “Anton”, had sold the business to a North Sudanese. “We called him Khawaja [nom local donné aux étrangers et surtout aux Blancs] because he had fair skin “, confides Peter Loro Paulino, in his sixties, now a member of the Juba city council, who went to the cinema a lot in his heyday.
This “Khawaja” kept the store running until it closed by order of the authorities in 1984. “There was an incident in which a grenade was thrown into the cinema”, he thinks he remembers. The cinema has lowered its curtain for good, as the second Sudanese civil war was just beginning.
The building was abandoned for twenty years, until a Dinka businessman – the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups are the two most numerous in South Sudan – Garang Deng Aguer bought it from his owners in the year of the comprehensive peace agreement, signed in 2005 between the southern rebellion and the power of Khartoum.
Converted into a church
In the process, “The elders of the Anglican Dinka congregation of Juba requested him and he agreed to give us the building”, says Reverend Peter Mading Deng, pastor in post for two years at the church which took up residence in the old cinema, the parish Emmanuel. “It was a totally rotten building when we acquired it”, he recalls.
Two years of renovation were necessary before the church opened in 2008. “We added two extensions, an altar and pews were given to us by Mama Rebecca”, the widow of John Garang, spearhead of the South Sudanese rebels who died in 2005. “There was nothing left inside and the few cinematographic equipment was in very poor condition”, explains the pastor.
The faithful are all from the Dinka community and Masses are held only in this language. But the pastor wants “Introduce a service mixing Arabic and English”, just as he hopes to open a radio studio, instead of the projection booth. This was at the back of the building and, high up, between the two balconies which are accessed by a double flight of stairs.
This is where the most expensive seats were in the days of cinema. Only the families of Arab, Greek, Syrian merchants and the city’s notables could afford to occupy them. The rest of the spectators were content with the second class, in the middle of the room, or even the third, the most populated: “Uncomfortable stools, practically glued to the screen”, remembers Wilson Mamur Kuyan, another member of the municipal council, native of Juba.
Some members of Emmanuel Parish, although from elsewhere, are old enough to have known those bygone days. Aluel Nhial Makol, a 52-year-old active church member, was a child when she arrived in Juba from her hometown of Bor in 1973 and was staying with an uncle who had a house near the cinema. The girl spoke only Dinka.
“I never left the house because I did not understand Arabic”, she explains. One day, her brother took her to see an Indian musical anyway. “It was the first time that I saw a film, and also the first time that I saw white people”, she recalls.
The session did not end very well: “Suddenly the man and woman started kissing onscreen, we’ve never seen that. With my sister, we started to cry and hid our faces until our brother got us out! “
She only returned to the cinema once, a few years later, braving the parental ban with two friends to see an Egyptian film, which they did not “Not understood the dialogues”. This was the last session for her. Her brother never wanted to take her again: “People who go to the cinema become drunkards, criminals, prostitutes …”, he had hit him. According to him, “If I went to the cinema, I could never be married”, she recalls.
Small ticket traffic
The young boys of Juba encountered the same reluctance from their parents, worried about the influence of foreign films on their offspring. “My father refused to let us go to the movies. He said that was going to make us violent and make us thieves ”, recalls Wilson Mamur Kuyan. “So I would sneak into the cinema during the day to see the films while they were preparing for the sessions, he continues. And then one fine day, my father agreed to let us go. “
Even the youngest managed to get tickets. Peter Loro Paulino remembers how “Four ‘big guys’ called Faki, Laki, Marfa’in and Loron managed to be the first at the little window through which tickets were bought. And they were reselling them for a profit! “. The kids were piling up at the front of the room and the magic could begin.
First trailers and then a fictional movie, usually a Hollywood western or a musical from India. “What attracted us, the guns, the clothes, these new civilizations… It was totally different from our lives! “, says Wilson Mamur Kuyan.
The man remembers perfectly the atmosphere which reigned in the room: “At the start of the movie you were quiet to figure out what was going on, and then once you started supporting a character you would automatically start screaming. You were trying to warn him when another attacked him! “
“Once a man brought a spear. And when the action got too dangerous for the hero, he threw it on the screen to kill his enemy! Then the spears were banned in the cinema ”, he remembers with amusement. Peter Loro Paulino confirms: “We thought what was going on in the movie was true. We were afraid that the horses would come off the screen! And then, often, we fell asleep before the end of the film when we had been waiting for this moment all week. “
Today the building resonates with other voices and other beliefs. But history seems to want to invite itself in this building which, in 1954, housed the founding convention of the Liberal Party, the first political party in South Sudan.
In May 2016, it was the painful story of the fratricidal struggles between the Nuer and the Dinka that disrupted the mass. Protesters had invaded the church to demand the resignation of the pastor considered too lenient with the rebels of Riek Machar. The latter had come the previous week to preach reconciliation to the faithful of Emmanuel parish, mostly Dinka.
Church authorities had stood their ground “To these provocateurs manipulated by politicians”, remembers Pastor Peter Mading Deng. For him, the church must “Change people’s hearts”. Finally, a bit like the cinema in its day.
The World Africa and his correspondents went to meet African cinemas. Those of a lost golden age as in Ivory Coast or Algeria where, a few decades ago, we thronged in the dark rooms to discover the latest action films or rediscover the classics of national creation.
“Cinemas did not survive the switch from analog to digital” of the early 2000s, regrets Ivorian film critic Yacouba Sangaré. There as elsewhere, the seventh art had to take side roads to continue to reach its audience. Video clubs – from VHS tapes to DVDs – have nurtured a generation of moviegoers.
Some today are trying to revive mythical venues and their demanding programming, as in Morocco or Burkina Faso. Others see in the series a new mode of fertile creation. From fans of the Tangier film library to the conservative cinema of Kannywood, in northern Nigeria, they make African cinema today.