It has indeed come a long way. When first introduced, cinema was such a novelty for residents of Addis who associated it with the Evil One, so much so that the very first movie theater was referred to as “the Devil’s House”. Over time, the medium became more and more popular, and foreign films of Italian, American, Indian and Russian origin were screened at cinemas not only in the capital but also in many provincial towns. Save for a brief time during the reign of Emperor Haile-Selassie when people experimented with a drive-in variety, cinema has always been an indoor affair here. In a new development, Mebrhit Communications and Events recently launched a weekend open-air cinema in the lush and verdant lawns of the Ghion Hotel. In this week’s issue of The Reporter, Meheret-Selassie Mokonnen traces the cinema scene in Ethiopia, including its new outdoor setting.
Like most Sundays during the city’s wedding season, Ghion Hotel was recently packed with newly-weds and their attendants posing for pictures. Adjacent to the water fountain where nuptial rituals have traditionally been taking place, a novel event for the business premises, and the whole of Addis for that matter, was stirring.
A passerby cannot help but pop in to check out the huge screen and sound system in the middle of the hotel’s compound. Few couples are sitting on mats, holding hands and drinking wine. While some groups are enjoying beer, some others are sipping coffee. Everyone is also having popcorn. Here is where the passerby figures out what the novelty is — an out-door cinema. Watching movies at manicured lawns, in moonlight, tucked in blankets, is a dreamy proposition for many residents of Addis. Not any longer. Being aware of the need for such an amenity, it has now been a month since the founder of Mebrhit Communications and Events, Mebrhit Mehari, launched an open-air cinema within the premises of Ghion Hotel.
The outdoor cinema, with an entrance fee of 70 birr, takes place every Saturday and Sunday with a selection of movies appropriate for couples and family night outs. In a city with few public spaces where folks can have a break from their hectic work lives and relax, an open-air cinema might just happen to be what people have been waiting for.
Even though the experience is somewhat new for Ethiopians, cinema was introduced to the country only three years after the world’s first film was projected in Paris on December 28, 1895 by the Louis Lumiere brothers. Considering that most cultural and religious events are held outdoors, such activities as open-air cinema might not be too novel an idea for Ethiopians.
The first film screening in Ethiopia occurred during the reign of Emperor Minilik II; and like other modern technologies introduced to the country, cinema too faced some resistance and those who rejected it somehow associated it with a paranormal activity. Consequently, the first movie theater was labeled ʽYeseytan Betʼ (The Devil’s House).
According to Kindeneh Tamene’s research paper, entitled “A Brief Overview of Ethiopian Film History: From Early to Contemporary,” during the Italian occupation, the power of the new medium was used for the glorification and promotion of Italian culture and politics. However, when cinema halls were built in Addis Ababa, Dessie, Dire Dawa and Jimma, American and Indian movies became popular. During the Derg regime, with the nationalization of the movie theatres, it was a period when Russian films peddling communist propaganda hogged the screens.
Tamene, commenting on the contemporary scene, said, “The current state of the industry is amorphous; it is not institutionalized, and there is a lack of expertise. Film production is still in its infancy.” Even though many agree with this remark, there is a glimpse of hope as the number of movie theatres, screening both Ethiopian and foreign films, is increasing from time to time.
Foreign films are gaining popularity with the thanks to of film festivals such as the Addis International Film Festival and the European Film Festival. To accommodate the needs of an ever-rising number of moviegoers, open-air cinemas can be an alternative venue aside from the growing number of movie theatres.
A digital or analog movie projector and an inflatable movie screen and sound system are required while setting up an outdoor or open-air cinema. Viewers usually sit on rugs wearing blankets. In other countries, movie screenings can take place in parks, cemeteries, parking lots or any other public place.
Mebrhit said it took her a year to set up the open-air cinema owing to the dearth of ideal spots in the city. “People need a variety of venues to enjoy movies. Outdoor cinema is a friendly space where the youth can have fun. But neither the government nor private stakeholders care to open public spaces,” she noted.
It is difficult to find greenery in Addis Ababa, which seems to be on a march to turn itself into a concrete jungle. Condominiums popping up here and there lack playgrounds for kids as well as recreational centers for grown-ups. Open space being vital for human development, its absence has a psychological effect as well. “We need places where we can sit down and collect our thoughts even while waiting for a taxi. These places can be multi-purpose. For example, they can be used as cinema venues on weekends,” Mebrhit explained.
Currently, Ghion Hotel is among the few open spaces hosting various activities. Among arts- and culture-related events that take place there, last week’s African Music and Culture Exchange Festival (AMCEF) and the upcoming Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s concert come to mind. Ethiopia, part of the “young continent” Africa, is in need of such spaces.
In other African countries, open-air cinemas are used for various social activities aside from entertainment. A recent piece in Open-air Cinema website states that in Africa movies can be more than a night out; they can be a step up. Producing and watching films can change lives and empower individuals with information and ideas. Outdoor cinema, which can be set in any open field, is an ideal medium for people in many parts of Africa and is growing in its use.
The article goes on: “The inflatable screens, projectors, speakers, sound equipment and generators are easily transportable. For example, in Rwanda, Open-air Cinema has partnered with the Rwanda Cinema Center which has a program to showcase the talent of local filmmakers at several locations across the country.” Open-air cinema is also being used to deliver messages on the prevention of deadly diseases as well as to champion human rights.
A film fanatic, Abenezer Abraham, noted that watching movies in a comfortable setting takes the experience to a whole different level. He watched “Hunter’s Prayer” for his first open-air cinema experience at Ghion. “I heard about it from a friend and I decided to check it out. I watch movies indoors, either in a cinema or at home, but nothing compares to watching a movie under the stars,” he commented.
“The idea would certainly appeal to the youth, who currently have few options other than hanging out at bars and cafes every evening. Such alternatives are welcome in addition to other forms of entertainment,” he added.
Martha Ayalew shares Abenezer’s opinon and notes that such arenas should be promoted so that the idea can go beyond few communities. She usually hangs out at cafés, and she wants to extend her horizon by attending events like outdoor cinemas. “Space matters. What I loved about open-air cinema is sitting on a freshly-cut grass,” she elaborates.
The Ghion event is currently taking place on weekends, but Mebrhit said she would like to turn it into a themed event. She explained, “People like the idea of watching movies outside, but we have to incorporate various movie genera for different age groups. We will make it a themed event based on family, drama, action, comedy or other kinds of movies we screen.”
Viewers are more attracted to the idea of watching classic movies from the 70s and 80s. In terms of local movies, she said her company is in the process of getting film-makers on board and have them give consent to screen their movies. Nonetheless, there are some concerns as the location of screening might expose the films for piracy. Presently, they screen movies from different industries, including Hollywood and movies made in England and Australia as long as the films do not contain unsuitable content.
Some countries’ open-air cinema grew into an international festival after starting out as a community gathering. The Outdoor Cinema Food Fest in California, Oshkosh’s Fly-In Theater and Sunset Cinema in Australia could be cited as examples. Prestigious film festivals also add outdoor movies to their regular screenings. “Shark Tale” had its world premiere as an outdoor event at the Venice Film Festival in 2004.
There are also private open-air cinemas sometimes as part of pool or backyard parties. Some unusual locations to show a movie outdoors include skyscrapers, rooftops, screens floating on a lake with viewers sitting on boats and screenings where guests watch a movie in hot tubs or drive-in cinemas on the top floor of a parking garage. There are rooftop Movies on the River clubs as well.
Mebrhit is looking for a space that can accommodate many cars at a time to start up a drive-in cinema, and said her team is working on popularizing it using mainstream as well as social media. Peter Brimer, a professor of dentistry at the University of Toronto currently on a fellowship at Addis Ababa University, said the country needs more of such venues. “Being outside imbibing fresh air, eating popcorn, drinking beer and watching a good movie is ideal entertainment for family and friends,” he explained. He hopes more people would get to enjoy the outdoor event, as do his fellow country folk.
The Stylist website recently named the 20 best outdoor cinemas in the world at which South Africa’s the Galileo Open Air Cinema ranked 12th. It is set against the backdrop of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, a massive area of South African flora that forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Number one in the world, the Vivo Open Air Film Festival is often referred to as “a mixture of sensations, where the pleasure of sounds is mixed with an explosion of images.” It is followed by Cinespia Cemetery Screenings of Los Angeles, which is the city’s oldest burial ground where renowned film-makers such as Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Janet Gaynor are buried. Beijing’s drive-in cinema has a giant 3D screen and it can house up to 800 cars. The century-old Sun Picture Garden is the world’s oldest outdoor cinema, located in the Chinatown district of Broome, western Australia. Originally a tin-fronted store selling imported Asian foodstuffs, it opened as an outdoor cinema in 1916.