Chad's only cinema dusts off its silver screen


It is still dusty and silent inside the shuttered Normandy, the only real cinema left in Chad and whose last picture show was 20 years ago, but its doors are set to open once again.

Two filmmakers from this war-scarred central African country have taken up the cause of promoting African cinema and rescuing theatres like the Normandy from the decay that has fallen on movie houses around the continent. "I saw my first movies here... I was nine or 10 years old," recalled filmmaker Issa Serge Coelo of his youth in the mid-1970s in Ndjamena. There was also another movie house, the Vogue. The other theatres closed one after the other."

In the former French colony ravaged by decades of war and dictatorship, the movie theatres that went dark either became hotels or businesses or fell into ruins. The Normandy had become "a dump, no roof over the toilets, a grimy place, something awful," Coelo said of the theatre built in the 1950s.

Standing inside the old movie house, the director of such features as "Daresalam" said watching the Normandy come back to life is something "we never thought we would see in our lifetime." The Normandy's revival was financed by the government of President Idriss Deby Itno which gave 1.5 million euros (2.1 million dollars) to the year-long project.

Deby inaugurated the movie theatre in January during Chad's celebration of 50 years of independence from France but it is only this month that it is set to start operating again. Ironically the closing of movie theatres and the dearth of African cinema was the subject of "Bye bye Africa", the first feature film in 1999 by Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, the other filmmaker involved in the revival.

Haroun brings some star power to the project after winning the prestigious Jury prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for "Un homme qui crie" (A Screaming Man). He has used his celebrity to campaign for African cinema, not only in Chad. The last movie house closed in Cameroon in 2009 and Senegal has seen the number of theatres drop from 78 to 18 in the past two decades.

In recent years people in major cities like Ndjamena have taken to watching DVDs -- mainly pirated copies from Nigeria of Bollywood films or South American soap operas. Or else they go to video clubs which show "violent films, not very good quality, or pornographic films with young children," said Coelo.

However the success of Haroun's films may have stirred a pride in African cinema and given his homeland a new image. At the first showing of his award-winning film in sub-Saharan Africa in Dakar last November, Haroun said he felt in Chad, like "a sudden twinge of conscience", the importance of cinema.

"At times, there are certain works which draw people around you," he said, giving the impression that his film had "brought together a nation." Coelo says Haroun's fame made the Chadian authorities realise that "winning prizes in a festival is just as important as winning a (sports) championship."

Starting April the restored Normandy plans to show six diverse films each month -- from America, Europe, India, China, Africa and the Arab world, one of them a children's movie.

Admission to the theatre, which holds 470 people, will be 1,500 CFA francs (about 2.30 euros).  Coelo hopes it will not stop there. He has more dreams for Chadian film -- including renovating more theatres in Ndjamena and starting a cinema school.

"We are very ambitious, we've only accomplished 10 to 20 percent" of our goals, he said, adding that he wants to get more young people involved in the art of the silver screen.