Bruce Lee in Maputo

Cinematógrapho Santo Onofre, the first movie theater in Lourenço Marques, c. 1908 (From Lobato, Lourenço Marques, Xilunguíne, 1970)

The movies were a big deal in Lourenço Marques in the 60s and 70s. By independence in 1975, there were more than a dozen cinemas in town or in the suburbs. The Gil Vicente, the Scala, the 222 and its twin theater the Dicca, the Avenida. The vast majority of moviegoers were white or South Asian. But segregation in Lourenço Marques was not as clear-cut as it was in neighboring South Africa. The color bar was applied in different ways at different establishments at different times, and what was true in 1960 was not necessarily true in the early 1970s. Afonso Mapelane, who grew up in an inner suburb called Minkajuine, told me that in the late 1950s, early 1960s, before he became one of the scarce few Africans to legally “assimilate” as Portuguese citizens, the only way to go to the movies was to go clandestinely.

Teatro Gil Vicente (Photo: F. Mira, via wikicommons)

Mapelane worked in a garage, and when he went to the cinema he had to go with a white co-worker. Dressed in a suit and tie, and in white company, Mapelane was assumed to be “assimilado.” After the two bought their tickets, Mapelane would go up to the balcony, as he was expected to do, and his companion would sit in a row on the main floor. Four theaters were eventually built in African neighborhoods, though I’m not sure when exactly they opened. None of the four are in operation today.

Cinema Olímpia in Xipamanine, 2008

You will recall Dinis Marques, the subject of several previous posts. Sometime after Dinis returned from his service in the Portuguese Army, he got a job as a bookkeeper for Moçambique Filmes, which owned a number of the theaters in Lourenço Marques. The overthrow of the Lisbon dictatorship by radical elements of the military (a day after Dinis’s return to Lourenço Marques) also meant the end of censorship, and cinema fare changed almost overnight in Portugal and its overseas possessions. Mozambique would still have to wait more than a year for independence, but in the meantime audiences in Lourenço Marques were treated for the first time to Costa-Gavras, Bertolucci, Wertmüller, and Godard. “It was like a class in politics,” Dinis told me.

Dinis Marques and staffers from Moçambique Filmes, post-independence

Along with political films, sex and violence also made their first appearances on Mozambique’s movie screens. Even kung fu movies, with their cartoonish violence, had been prohibited under the dictatorship. When Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” finally came to Cinema Dicca for a limited run, the huge crowd broke down the entry door, and police had to restore order. Everyone was eager to know what it was about kung fu that had so worried the censors. Maybe unarmed underdogs taking on powerful warlords had resonated too much with the guerrilla war for independence.

Cinema Charlot, 2007

By independence in June 1975, most of the white population had abandoned Mozambique for South Africa and Portugal. Audiences were now predominately South Asian and African, and there was a Bollywood renaissance. There were two projectionists for each of these showings, one in the projectionist booth with the film reels, and another behind the screen—the subtitles projectionist–who turned a handcrank for hours on end, unspooling the Portuguese translation in courier type which appeared in a lighted box below the screen. This is still the system in use at the Cinema Charlot (formerly the Infante) in Alto Maé.

With white flight and the generalized collapse of the economy, most cinemas closed. The São Miguel, near the end of Avenida 24 de Julho, became home to Mozambique’s newly constituted national assembly. With Frelimo in power, censorship returned. The censor from the newly established National Institute of Cinema would get a personal viewing of whatever film was to premiere, and she would decide what was good for the revolution and what wasn’t. Sex and violence and kung fu movies were once again out, according to Dinis.

Within a few years, Moçambique Filmes was nationalized, and Dinis went to work as a bookkeeper directly for the Institute. For most of the next decade the Institute would be less focused on importing movies than on making documentary films of its own—a story that has been told, and told well.

Other movie theaters in Mozambique:

Cinema 333, Tete, 2009

Cine Teatro Nina, Island of Mozambique, 2007

Cinema Randorinho, Hulene B (Maputo), 2008

Cinema São Gabriel, Matola, 2007

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5 Responses to Bruce Lee in Maputo

  1. Carlos Nazareth-Ribeiro says:

    Delighted with this page (more than with the former one, Dinis sent me), I must state that, as far as I know, everything you wrote is true and correct. The photos made me travel back to my “golden teen-age era”. Thank you! The “cinematógrapho” of 1908, must be the same that turned to VARIETÁ about 20 years later, a most beautiful decoration in golden timber. Go on, go on!
    Best regards, Carlos Nazareth-Ribeiro, Maputo.

  2. Sol Carvalho says:

    David
    Congratulations about the historical reference of the cinemas.
    I am a filmaker and owner these days of Scala and Tofo cinemas. Some time ago i was doing a research about possible economic viabiliy for the cinemas and made photograhs of various. l would like to send you those photos and, of course, give you permission to use them on your site if you want to use them. It is a good contribution for the story of cinema in Mozambique.
    Best regards

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  5. Alan Fitz-Patrick says:

    Great to see a pic of Cinema São Gabriel in Matola. I went to many a matinee there in the late sixties. The days when going to the cinema consisted of a short (not always so short) and trailers followed by an interval then the main attraction. Although there was no strict racial segregation, there was a section in front where the seats cost less than in the other section. Economic segregation leading to racial segregation. I remember one occasion suggesting to a “mixed-race” friend that we buy tickets for there. He was appalled by the idea.

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