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Cinema returns to Somalia with first public screening in 30 years

Wednesday September 22, 2021

Built as a gift from Mao Zedong, the National Theatre in Mogadishu had been shuttered since civil war broke out in 1991

Photographers document the audience on a historic night as Somalia’s National Theatre hosts its first film screening since 1991. Photograph: Abdirahman Yusuf/AFP/Getty Images

Somalia has hosted its first movie screening in 30 years under heavy security as the conflict-ravaged country hopes for a cultural renewal.

The event was held at the National Theatre of Somalia, which has a history that reflects the tumultuous journey of the Horn of Africa nation.

It has been targeted by suicide bombers and used as a base by warlords – and until Wednesday it had never screened a Somali film.

“This is going to be a historic night for the Somali people: it shows how hopes have been revived … after so many years of challenges,” theatre director Abdikadir Abdi Yusuf said before the screening.

“It’s a platform that provides an opportunity to … Somali songwriters, storytellers, movie directors and actors to present their talent openly.”

The evening’s programme was two short films by Somali director IBrahim CM – Hoos and Date from Hell – with tickets sold for $10 (8.50 euros) each, expensive for many.

Mogadishu was home to many cinema halls during its cultural heyday, and the National Theatre – built by Chinese engineers as a gift from Mao Zedong in 1967 – hosted live concerts and plays. But the seaside capital fell silent after civil war erupted in 1991.

Warlords used the theatre as a military base and the building fell into disrepair. It reopened in 2012, but was blown up by al-Shabaab jihadists two weeks later.

The al-Qaida-linked Islamist group launches regular attacks in Mogadishu and considers entertainment evil.

After a painstaking restoration, the authorities announced plans to hold the theatre’s first screening this week.

For many Somalis, it was a trip down memory lane and a reminder of happier times.

“I used to watch concerts, dramas, pop shows, folk dances and movies in the National Theatre during the good old days,” said Osman Yusuf Osman, a self-confessed film buff.

“It makes me feel bad when I see Mogadishu lacking the nightlife it once had. But this is a good start,” he said.

Others were more circumspect, and worried about safety.

“I was a school-age girl when my friends and I used to watch live concerts and dramas at the National Theatre,” said a mother of six, Hakimo Mohamed.

“People used to go out during the night and stay back late if they wished – but now, I don’t think it is so safe,” she said.

The jihadists were driven out of Mogadishu a decade ago, but retain control of swathes of countryside.

Attenders had to pass through several security checkpoints before arriving at the theatre, inside a heavily guarded complex that includes the presidential palace and the parliament.

But for some, the inconvenience and the risks paled in comparison to the anticipation of seeing a film in a cinema after such a long wait.

“I was not lucky to watch live concerts and or movies in the theatre (earlier) … because I was still a child, but I can imagine how beautiful it was,” NGO employee Abdullahi Adan said.

“I want to experience this for the first time and see what it’s like to watch a movie with hundreds of people in a theatre.”


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