Angola Cinema book review (WoA)

A three-way creative and restorative partnership between the Portuguese actor and director Miguel Hurst, photographer Walter Fernandes and the Goethe-Institut Angola has seen the publication of a glossy, and undeniably important coffee table book that traces the unique history of Angola’s movie houses. Beautifully put together, the publication, which is simply titled Angola Cinemas, showcases over 150 colour prints of former cinemas, many still displaying old neon or metal signage. The book’s explanatory text is written in English and Portuguese.

Hurst’s former position as director of the Angolan Institute of Cinema, Audiovisual and Multimedia plays a big part in the fact that the Goethe-Institut is currently engaged in a project to renovate a handful of Angola’s theatre buildings. This activity is happening as a way to bring much of the country’s cinema and architectural history to life.

From the 1930s to the 1970s it was bright times for Angolan cinema – or at least for the venues that showcased a range of international movies. Fifty theatres for a population of just under six million wasn’t at all bad, and the venue designs – which spanned over 40 years of unique constructions – inspired high levels of conviviality that put Angola’s cinemas firmly on the continent’s map.

From the modernist 1930s-style structures to the uniquely tropical open-air cine esplanades that dotted Angola’s landscapes, the decades of the’50s, ’60s and ’70s were each significant eras for southern Africans who were regularly viewing a number of Portuguese, but mainly Hollywood reels the likes of Ben Hur, My Fair Lady, Samson & Delilah, The Three Muskateers and Casablanca. It wasn’t all about the films though. Cinemas were places for social interaction, with terraces given over to dance groups, music recitals or art exhibitions that were displayed before or after the movies. These were times when families and intergenerational communities would find receptive spaces for seeing and being seen, showcasing stylishness, meeting, loving and socially bonding.

That’s not to say that things were socially utopian. Sections of Luanda were dotted with cinemas exclusively for white patrons or for the assimilado colonial elite who had apparently demonstrated acceptable levels of ‘civility’ to acquire Portuguese status. The suburbs had fewer cinemas and were established for the capital’s African population.

However, by 1975, things were changing for all moviegoers. This was the start of the Angolan war that lasted, with a few pauses, until 2002. The lead up to and the resulting conflict ended the artistic era, which ultimately saw the maintenance and renovation of the country’s cinemas coming to a definitive end. It’s the faded glory of the movie houses that are poignantly captured within Angola Cinemas, many of the images highlighting the kitsch or shabby chic elements of their former glory days. Luanda’s Cine Atlantico, which was built in 1964 by architect Antonio Ribeiro dos Santos was popular with young crowds who’d hold rock festivals at weekends.  The art deco Cine-Bar Tropical has a missing history as to who designed it, but with a capacity for 688 people, it’s one of Luanda’s smaller venues and was popular for its upper floor veranda that ran the whole length of the building’s front.  Fernando Batalha designed Cine-Teatro Monumental in Benguela in 1952 as a response to the local dissatisfaction with the fact that there were no elaborate cinemas in the area. Consequently, the three-story building was constructed with a lower auditorium with stalls for 884 people, an upper floor with nine boxes, a balcony and event room and a top level where the projection and fire officer’s rooms were located.

Overall, Angola Cinemas is more than a coffee table book. Good looking as it is, this 237-pager also works very well as a historical document of the tectonic style of the country’s silver screen history.

Angola Cinemas is published by Steidl and Goethe-Institut.

All images are copyright of Walter Fernandes.