In open air: Cinema Khartoum

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Khartoum, Sudan. A photographic research project exploring the relationship between architecture and cultural traditions, as seen through the cinema houses of Sudan’s capital.

The work relies on my experiences in Sudan, covering the country’s cinematic history through the life of pioneer filmmaker Gadalla Gubara, using a Mamiya 6×7 medium format still camera. Before introducing Gadalla Gubara however, I will say something about Khartoum and its cinemas.

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The city, which was founded in 1823 by the viceroy of Egypt Mehmet-Ali Pasha, took advantage of its strategically important position. After having experienced siege after siege by British and Egyptian forces trying to quell local uprisings, the city was in a very poor state. From 1910 onwards, Khartoum was entirely rebuilt according to the plans of a British architect, Mr McLean, and under the personal direction of Lord Kitchener. From then on, the town became the capital of Sudan. Kitchener laid out the city’s streets in a Union flag pattern as a symbol of British dominance.

But what is Khartoum like today? The great life-giving Nile River divides it into three towns: Khartoum, the colonial wide-street city; Omdurman city, the labyrinthine Arabian world; and Khartoum North, the present day industrial city. After the 1950s, when the British left Sudan, the urban area of Khartoum extended to new suburbs such as al-Riyadh and Arkawet. Also, from the 1980s, new poor suburbs such as Hajj Youssif, Sahafa or Soba Aradi emerged with the arrival of the displaced population of war-affected areas of Sudan.

Over the years, Khartoum has become a city in perpetual evolution, as a result of political and social changes, and humanitarian crises.

Until recently, Khartoum and its surrounding districts were made up of an agglomeration of at least four million inhabitants. Since the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, a large number of Southerners returned to the south. Over the years, Khartoum has become a city in perpetual evolution, as a result of political and social changes, and humanitarian crises.

If you look for Khartoum’s glorious past, you can see that the core of the city still has a unique character based on its colonial infrastructure. Old Khartoum still contains British and other colonial buildings, such as the Presidential Palace, Khartoum University, the Old Post Office, Comboni College and the Roman Catholic Missionary School, established by the Italians in 1929. Today, many of the country’s old buildings have fallen victim to either new infrastructures or a non-existent preservation campaign. In 2007, the biggest development project in Khartoum took place where the two Niles meet, at a location known as al-Mogran. This confirmed the lack of interest and support for its historical cultural landscape.

Nowadays, Khartoum’s cinemas offer mainly a selection of Indian Bollywood films, with the occasional American production thrown in from time to time. The cinemas, which were set up in the 1940s and 1950s by the British, were at that time frequented by the city’s European population – Jewish, Armenian, Italian, Greek and middle class Sudanese who were sufficiently well off to go there. There were two performances, one at 7pm and another at 9.30pm, where the classic titles of the day were shown on the silver screen.

Nowadays, Khartoum’s cinemas offer mainly a selection of Indian Bollywood films, with the occasional American production thrown in from time to time.

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The open air cinema buildings of Khartoum such as the Coliseum (in Souk al Arabi), Halfaya and Watania (in Khartoum North) or Watania (in Omdurman) can still be spotted, but the audience and population which used to come has now been replaced by crowds of young men. Independence in Sudan pushed away the entrepreneurial European class, and later on, the strict implementation of Sharia-based laws kept women away from public life. In addition to the historical and social changes, the evolution of television and multimedia technology enables families to enjoy entertainments at home.

Through its cinema houses, it is possible to analyse the relationship between the physical environment and those who live in the city. Stepping through the doors of these historic buildings, the visitor glimpses the social and cultural nature of Sudanese society. Today, cinema houses are for the young people of Khartoum, who are looking for a cheap night out, with less regard to the quality of the films. Slowly, the buildings are falling apart and they eventually end up closing down.

Slowly, the buildings are falling apart and they eventually end up closing down.

The cinema theatres were built in different styles, according to their districts and the year of their construction. The city’s cinema houses used to be considered as representatives of both audio-visual arts and architecture. Today, there are still a dozen or so of these open-air cinemas functioning, mainly to provide entertainment for those who can’t afford the services of the private clubs, such as the Sailing Club, the German Club, the International club and others.

Going to see a film in Khartoum used to be a journey in itself. Now however, the cinema houses can be seen as an element of urban life that highlights both a past cultural heritage and a dying collective memory. For some, it can lead to a nostalgic voyage discovering the history of the country, for others, it is simply an open air performance beneath the stars.

Going to see a film in Khartoum used to be a journey in itself. Now however, the cinema houses can be seen as an element of urban life that highlights both a past cultural heritage and a dying collective memory.

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