Cinema Paradiso: excerpt from The Lights of Pointe-Noire, a memoir

by Alain Mabanckou

There are no cinemas left in this town, not since the 1990s, when the spread of the evangelical churches hijacked most of the buildings dedicated to the seventh art. The Cinema Rex, once a mythical venue for the projection of films, became a Pentecostal church called ‘The New Jerusalem’, with pastors in their Sunday best heralding Apocalypses like there’s no tomorrow, predicting the flames of Gehenna for wrongdoers, and miracles and good fortune for their flock. Disillusion is written on the faces of the blind, the deaf, the dumb and the lame. They loiter outside in the hope of divine healing.

Here, though, we would gather and wait every morning for the poster to be put up for the film to be shown in the early afternoon. Here we applauded the adventures of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill in They Call Me Trinity and Trinity Is Still My Name or Super Fuzz. The doorman, a professional boxer with a face like a gangster in a Wild West movie, called all the shots, telling us where to stand in the queue. He worked with his boxing gloves strung round his neck and at the first sign of unrest in the crowd he pulled them on. We were his subjects, who must yield to his will, comply with his whims, or we’d get an uppercut that would send us straight to the Adolphe-Sicé hospital. He would eject you from your seat if he felt like it, to make room for a member of his family, or someone who’d bribed him, and you just had to sit on the floor. He let children in to showings reserved for ‘over 18s’, in exchange for a hundred CFA franc coin. As far as I recall, he was the person responsible for most of the brawls that took place outside and inside the cinema, taking advantage of the venue to apply what he learned in the training gym. Since he was ugly, we promptly nicknamed him ‘Joe Frazier’, Muhammad Ali’s most stubborn opponent.

He would eject you from your seat if he felt like it, to make room for a member of his family, or someone who’d bribed him, and you just had to sit on the floor.

With the arrival in the capital of the first martial arts films, our local Joe Frazier realised no one was scared of boxing now, because a fighter, unlike a karateka, couldn’t fly into the air — what we called ‘lift-off ’ — landing behind his opponent, and dealing him a fatal blow. We didn’t realise these ‘lift-offs’ were just cinematic tricks, the actors were ordinary people like us. Overnight, posters of Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon or The Game of Death replaced the ones of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. We lost interest in the spaghetti western actors, with their guns, which we could never own, and their horses, which we’d never seen up close. To us, karate seemed more accessible, you just had to learn the different katas and the philosophy of Master Gichin Funakoshi, the inventor of Shotokan Karate-Do. A number of dojos opened, where we handed over all our pocket money to Master Mabiala, who had proclaimed himself a black belt, 12th dan, and promised to reveal the secret of Bruce Lee’s ‘lift-off ’. We all eagerly awaited the crucial moment when we would fly into the air, emitting a cry that would terrorise our opponent, but the so-called master dwelt instead on physical exercises that left us so exhausted that the number of pupils diminished every day. The truth was, we were his servants, he made us sweep out the dojo and his house, prepare his food, do the washing up or wash his clothes in the River Tchinouka. When people grew impatient and asked him when we were going to actually learn how to do the famous lift-off he would reply:

‘You haven’t finished learning all Master Funakoshi’s katas yet, and even when you have, there’ll be more katas, ones that were added by his disciples, in memory of him! So stop complaining, a bird can’t fly the day it’s born, its wings have to grow! It’s the same with you, you have to allow the wings of your spirit to grow. One day you’ll lift off without even realising!’

A number of dojos opened, where we handed over all our pocket money to Master Mabiala, who had proclaimed himself a black belt, 12th dan, and promised to reveal the secret of Bruce Lee’s ‘lift-off ’.

The brave souls who continued to take his classes did finally manage lift-off: Master Mabiala put them up on the roof of his house with the aid of a ladder, and told them to jump, while doing Bruce Lee’s battle cry from The Big Boss

Comedies did survive the breaking wave of the martial arts films, thanks to the energy and droll mannerisms of Louis de Funès in the saga of The Gendarme of St Tropez or in Fantomas versus Scotland Yard and Fantomas Unleashed. The French actor played the role of Commissioner Juve, who is obsessed with capturing Fantomas, public enemy number one. The anti-hero spends his whole time taunting Superintendent Juve, then melting into the crowd, to the applause of the cinema audience. It was one of the rare times we cheered a baddie; we would never do that in a spaghetti western, where everyone booed Clint Eastwood’s enemies, demanding their money back. We particularly disliked it when villains Clint Eastwood had killed in a previous film appeared again in the next one. Since we took what happened in the cinema to be real, we were shocked and decided they must think we were too stupid to realise this was a piece of trickery designed to get us to hand over our money.

The Indian films escaped unscathed, thanks, no doubt, to the interminable love stories that were their hallmark, as well as to the physical strength of the actor Dara Singh, not to mention the magical world of The Magician from Hell, and above all the music, which made us weep. We dreamed that we would one day go to India, where we would marry Indian girls, adorned with the same jewels as the actresses who adorned the screen. India was our Peru, the place where our dreams would come true, with a little bit of magic, learned from what we saw at the cinema. We would express ourselves with ease in Hindi or Urdu, since we already sang along in these languages with the actors from these countries, even if we didn’t understand the words. Of course we’d be poor, but we wouldn’t mind, because in these films the man with no money always ended up marrying the beautiful girl, beating the rich man to it. We would insist on kissing the women properly, none of that modesty we found so irritating, and which obliged you to work out for yourself that the main actor and his sweetheart must have finally slept together…

We dreamed that we would one day go to India, where we would marry Indian girls, adorned with the same jewels as the actresses who adorned the screen.

The projectionist at the Cinema Rex was a young womaniser who took a different girl up to his box at each showing. He picked them from among the young ladies who stood in line with us. In order to get chosen, they dressed up and put on lots of make-up, as though they were going to a party. We watched as they fluttered their eyes, to catch the attention of the technician, who took his time making up his mind. They’d bicker and insult each other over who would be the chosen one, privileged to watch the film through a little hole, right next to the one the images came through. Certain mishaps in the projection of the film were caused by the operator who, in order to impress the girl, explained all the tricks of the trade and what he called ‘the enchantment of cinema’. Since he talked rather loudly, the spectators at the back could hear him explaining that a film had twenty-four images per second, and that a shutter closed off the light beam in between them to create an impression of fluid movement on the screen. Suddenly the young woman would get overexcited and ask to be allowed to replace the reels, and send out the images upside down, by mistake. You could hear them giggling, running off into their hidey-hole and starting to make out, to the applause of the crowd. We bore no grudge against the projectionist, since we knew the enchantment came from him and his skill in handling the 35mm projector.

The young man’s work was not limited to what he did up in his box. You’d hear him hurtling down the stairs and dashing outside to receive the reels delivered from the Duo and the Roy, on the other side of town, in a little Renault 4L van. In fact we had to wait till the two other places had finished at least two reels of fifteen to twenty minutes each. This meant that for long films — like The Savage Princess, which lasted over two and a half hours — the courier had his work cut out, as did the projectionist, who got booed by the spectators if there was a delay and the showing got cut off in the middle of some thrilling piece of action because the van had broken down, or the other cinemas had had a hitch. Cool as a cucumber, the operator would simply show us an advert for Cadum soap, over and over again…

The two protagonists would meet in the amphitheatre of the law faculty in Paris. We would hold our breath reading the passage where the white girl decides to introduce her black husband-to-be to her parents.

Outside the cinema a number of vendors spread their merchandise on the ground: comics featuring Tex Willer, Rodeo, Ombrax, Blek le Roc, Zembla, as well as the novels of Gérard de Villiers and San-Antonio. Sometimes you would come across an anthology of poems by Rimbaud, Baudelaire or the complete works of some author, published by Pléiade, bearing the stamp of the French Cultural Centre. Not something easy to sell, since in the ‘bookshop on the ground’ the most popular title was African Blood (volume 1, The African; and volume 2, A Woman in Love), by Guy des Cars. We were captivated by the two protagonists of African Blood, who were bound in a mixed marriage: a French woman, Yolande Hervieu — with her rich, racist ex-colonial parents — and the orphan from l’Oubangui- Chari, Jacques Yero, born into a poor family, adopted by whites who sent him to France to study in the 1950s, a time when the Negro was still struggling to prove to the world that he was a man like any other. The two protagonists would meet in the amphitheatre of the law faculty in Paris. We would hold our breath reading the passage where the white girl decides to introduce her black husband-to-be to her parents. We would be touched by the courage of the Frenchwoman, who would follow her husband to Africa, aginst the wishes of her parents, who were naturally opposed to their union. Throughout the first volume of African Blood, it was our own story we were reading, for the life of the couple on the black continent coincided with the independence of several francophone countries, and with l’Oubangui-Chari becoming the Central African Republic. The second volume showed us a couple in which the man had risen to a position of political power, arousing jealousy among blacks, as well as those whites who still liked to foster the view that their own race was superior. Later, when I arrived in France, I realised that Guy des Cars was an underrated author, so much so that his works were referred to as ‘station bookshop novels’, and the author sometimes nicknamed ‘Guy des Gares’. But this in no way diminished my admiration for a man who, without a doubt, had inspired a whole generation of Pontenegrins, not to say French-speaking Africans, with a taste for reading.

The ‘bookshops on the ground’, which were often to be found outside the Roy and the Duo, were dependent on the cinema clientele and therefore did not survive the demise of the cinemas. Times change; outside the Cinema Rex, traders have set up a makeshift telephone booth, offering calls for fifty CFA francs, selling mobiles and top-up cards. Others sell petrol in used pastis bottles they’ve collected in the centre of town. If the faithful of the New Jerusalem respect the spirit of the Bible, perhaps one day they will lay into these street traders, as Christ challenged the merchants in the Temple of Jerusalem.

***

It’s early afternoon and I’m standing outside the building that delivered our dreams, bringing fictional heroes from all over the world to our neighbourhood. The Cinema Rex looks tiny to me now, though at the time it seemed vast, immeasurably so. Is that because I have since been to bigger cinemas in Europe and Los Angeles, or in India, where the cinemagoers actually become actors themselves?

The Cinema Rex looks tiny to me now, though at the time it seemed vast, immeasurably so.

I look at our old cinema, and can scarcely conceal my disappointment. A banner announces that a festival of Christian music will take place in the building. Two members of the congrega- tion of the New Jerusalem, one tall, one small, are standing at the entrance, and give me a challenging look, as though they have guessed I’m planning on coming in. I approach the entrance and the taller one steps aside. Perhaps he thinks I have an appointment with the pastor. In the doorway I turn round and wave to my cousin Gilbert and my girlfriend, who are outside the Paysanat restaurant opposite. They cross the Avenue of Independence to join me.

At the sight of my girlfriend’s camera, the little one frowns and rushes up to her:

‘What’s that, madame? This is a place of worship, no filming or photographs allowed!’

At once Gilbert comes to her rescue: ‘My cousin’s from Europe, he’s a writer, he’s writing a book about his childhood memories and…’

‘Out of the question! Anyway, non-believers aren’t allowed in here, writer or not!’

‘Non-believer? You don’t even know him, and you call him a non-believer?’

‘I can tell by looking at him! If he was one of God’s children he wouldn’t turn up here with a video camera!’

‘It isn’t a video camera, it’s just a camera…’

‘Same thing!’

At a loss for arguments, my cousin decides to cut to the chase:

‘Bollocks to your religion! Why do you film your Sunday masses, then, to get on TV, if God doesn’t like images?’

The tall one intervenes: ‘That’s enough, now beat it!’

Furious, Gilbert pushes the little one aside and comes through to join me in the auditorium. My girlfriend does the same, while the two congregation members stand there like pillars of salt, shocked by our cheek. They come on through as well, and stick to us like glue. The tall one complains loudly while my girlfriend takes pictures: ‘Stop filming in the house of God!’

A young man dressed up to the nines appears at the back of the worship area.

The little one growls like a cooped-up dog:

‘Pastor, we couldn’t stop them! We told them they mustn’t enter the house of the Lord, but they came in anyway!’

In a calmer tone, the pastor asks us: ‘Do you have the owner’s permission to take photos in here?’

‘Who is the owner?’ my girlfriend asks.

‘He lives just at the back, I don’t think he’s going to be too happy about what you’re doing, you’re violating private property. You’d better come with me and explain yourself. He will make you destroy the pictures you’ve already taken. It’s not the first time this has happened!’

We exit in single file, the pastor at the front, and walk round to the back of the building. We find ourselves outside a plot where a man with a shaven head in a pair of bermuda shorts and vest is sitting in front of one of three doors in a long building up for rental.

The man notices us, opens his eyes wide in amazement when he sees me, and gives a great yell, leaving the pastor stunned: ‘It’s the American! I can’t believe my eyes! You came to see old Koblavi!’‘The Lord has forsaken this town, and in doing so He also turned His back on the Cinema Rex… Sometimes I go into the auditorium, I close all the doors, and I sit down in the middle, just to remember the

‘The Lord has forsaken this town, and in doing so He also turned His back on the Cinema Rex… Sometimes I go into the auditorium, I close all the doors, and I sit down in the middle, just to remember the old days, when it was packed full…’

The pastor murmurs something in his ear, but Koblavi pushes him aside: ‘No! No! No! He belongs here! He can photograph whatever he likes! You know the little street opposite the cinema, rue du Louboulou, that was his uncle who made that!’

The pastor stands with his arms drooping, his head on one side, and offers his apologies. Retracing his steps, he stops three times, to bow. Koblavi points to a chair at his side: ‘Please, take a seat, little brother! Gilbert and madame, you go and film the cinema while I have a chat with my American…’

As soon as Gilbert and my girlfriend are gone, Koblavi assumes a pained expression: ‘I’ve seen you so often on the TV, talking about your books. I’m sorry, I’m ashamed, I’ve never read them… One day in an interview you even mentioned the Cinema Rex, I can’t tell you what pleasure it gave me to hear that!…’

He looks up at the sky: ‘The Lord has forsaken this town, and in doing so He also turned His back on the Cinema Rex… Sometimes I go into the auditorium, I close all the doors, and I sit down in the middle, just to remember the old days, when it was packed full. I can hear the noise, the shouting, I can still see the dreams of those young people floating up above their heads, forgetting their everyday troubles, just for an hour or two…’

‘There are video recorders now, DVD machines, they can still have their dreams and…’

‘That’s all garbage, Mr American! How could that replace the atmosphere we had at the Cinema Rex? All these new things, it’s the age of individualism! We’ve forgotten the true meaning of cinema, little brother! A film you watch at home doesn’t affect you like a film you watch with a crowd at the cinema!’

He brushes away a couple of flies buzzing round his head and continues:

‘You’ve come from America, let me recommend you watch Becky Sharp! Now that’s real cinema, you take my word! And it’s not just because I like Miriam Hopkins, though I have seen her before, in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde! She’s quite marvellous!’

He stands up, goes into the house, comes back a minute later with a photo of the American actress and hands it to me:

‘Look at her, wasn’t she beautiful? I insisted we show every film she’d ever been in at the Cinema Rex! Of course, people would rather watch shoot-outs and native Indians and Louis Funès fooling about, and all those idiot actors in the martial arts films. What can you learn from a martial arts film?’

He practically snatches the photo out of my hands and blows on it.

‘I’m not having any dust on my idol’s picture!’

He goes to put the photo back inside, and comes back with a bottle of beer and two glasses. I tell him about America, since he asks me. His eyes shine, he’s almost like a child who’s thrilled with a present:

‘So you’ve actually seen Miriam Hopkins’ two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?’

‘No, sadly, I haven’t… I don’t know that actress. I wasn’t paying attention when I saw Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde…’

His face stiffens, as though I had just committed sacrilege. With eyes half closed, he murmurs: ‘That’s my dream, to go to Hollywood. I can’t believe you live in the city of cinema and you’ve never found time to go and see Miriam Hopkins’ two stars…’

Resigned now, he launches into a diatribe against the political authorities who failed to help him, obliging him to rent the Cinema Rex out to a religious congregation: ‘Those politicians, they killed the cinema! And it’s the same everywhere, little brother! Even in Brazzaville there are no cinemas left! How will young people ever get to know Miriam Hopkins? The cinema was something magical; wherever there was a picture house, the neighbourhood took its name. We’ve got the Rex district and the Duo district and the Roy district, but those politicians understand nothing about that kind of impact!’

‘Those politicians, they killed the cinema! And it’s the same everywhere, little brother! Even in Brazzaville there are no cinemas left! How will young people ever get to know Miriam Hopkins?’

Out of pure modesty, Koblavi avoids mentioning his historic and prestigious family name, the name of his Ghanaian grand- parents, who, in the late 1940s, dominated the fishing trade in Pointe-Noire. But the thing their descendant is apparently most proud of is the cinema, whose demise he continues to bewail. He’s almost apologising for having done a deal with these servants of God who sell tickets to paradise to their flock, unaware that many children in Pointe-Noire will never taste the atmosphere of those darkened movie houses, the succession of adverts and the opening credits of the film, followed by the applause of the audience. Noticing the little chain with a cross on around his neck, I say nothing critical about religion. But he touches it and tells me: ‘Ah no, I don’t belong to the New Jerusalem, I’m still a Catholic in the strict sense of the word…’

And finally he talks about my mother, whom he knew, about Uncle Albert, who was a friend of his father. As though speaking his last words, he murmurs very softly: ‘I know my origins are Ghanaian, by my parents, but I’ve always felt Pontenegrin. D’you hear my accent? No one’s more Pontenegrin than I am in this town! I’ve never been made to feel an outsider here, by anyone. This is where I live, this is where they’ll bury me…’

***

Gilbert and my girlfriend are back now. They’ve spent over half an hour taking photos of the old Cinema Rex, and as they show them to Koblavi his features, sunk in nostalgia till now, light up with a smile. He even allows himself to be photographed, with his broadest smile: ‘You should never look sad in a photograph, you don’t know who might look at it in ten years’ time, or twenty, or thirty, or forty, or fifty!’

He comes with us as far as the exit to his plot, and watches as we walk away.

We pass by the cinema again, where the two worshippers are still standing guard like a pair of Cerberuses. This time they don’t dare look us straight in the eye. There’s even a shadow behind them: the pastor, who watches us closely as we cross the Avenue of Independence…

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