In his latest installment of “Stories from Dangamvura”, Chris Kabwato reminisces about the township and how it was gripped by the magic of cinema.
Before the grand opening of the Dangamvura Beit Hall by Mayor J.C. Burke on 20 November 1976, films were shown in the open with the images projected onto the white wall of the municipal superintendent’s office.
I say grand opening because the good mayor threw the mother of all parties to celebrate this auspicious occasion. Drinks by the crate, piles of biscuits and stashes of sweets had us competing to colour our tongues and show off to one another. Christmas had certainly arrived early in the township.
But something way better than the temporary filling up of the tummy was coming our way. We were in for an upgrade from watching films exposed to the elements and about to watch real movies. Previously, before the hall was constructed, the mobile film unit’s blue and white Land Rover would go around the township on the day that a film was going to be shown.
Someone would shout via the hailer that we should come watch the “firimu” that evening. But it was not exactly a movie. These were the Mataka and Tiki sketches that were rather poor imitations of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy skits. They were silent and the projectionist from the Rhodesia Ministry of Information provided the live commentary, embellishing the story as it rolled. They loved their voices, those characters.
But until we knew better, the sheer magic of the moving images was mesmerizing enough. Seated on the ground in the dark with that whirring sound of the projector beaming a white light that turned into the black and white pictures was witchcraft I heartily welcomed.
Mr Fero and a new cinema experience
Now we no longer needed to wait for that mobile cinema van. We just went to the gates of the new hall and looked at the khaki or green posters written boldly with “magic markers”. The films screenings were on Friday night and then there would be two screenings the following day (Saturday) – an 8am show and a repeat at 1pm.
In the new hall there was a proper screen room where a 35 mm projector had been mounted. A suave man called Mr Dave Fero was in charge of the film screenings and the sport and welfare functions of the hall. He ordered mostly action movies – I suspect he knew that we did not care much for dialogue.
Mr Fero created an experience for us. We lined up by the entrance, paid to enter and rushed to the front seats, if Markie Chingwerewere had not already beaten us to it and booked the whole front for himself and his buddies.
The whistling and shouting rivalled the Tower of Babel and we would only settle down when the lights began to dim dramatically, and then cut off completely. The long brown curtains covering the stage would open slowly to reveal the white screen with black edges that occupied the whole length of the stage. High up, at the back of the hall, was the screen projection room.
Out of one of the six small windows, the 35mm projector would beam a light that would hit the screen. A circle would be projected with numbers counting down from 10 to 1. Of course, we would show how clever we were by shouting out the numbers:
Niney Eight-ie Seven-ie, Six-ie Five Four-oo Threeee Twoo One YEAAAH! Clapping of hands, stomping of feet and even a rattling of the metal green chairs.
In those days, before the main movie, you would be served a series of short, animated cartoons. Our favourite was Popeye the Sailor featuring the pipe-smoking, spinach-eating character that always ended up in silly and ridiculous situations.
With the cartoons done there would be a moment of suspense and then the visuals and sound of 20th Century Fox or the MGM lion. The sound would reverberate in that hushed hall. But the quiet would only be momentary.
We are in the film too…
Ours was a study in participatory cinema. We shouted and screamed – it could be to warn the “champion” against a “guruvha” who was lying in wait. If there was a scene we took the obvious side and encouraged the main actor:
“Iwe! Iwe! Yeeeeeeeeeee!” We stood up, kicked in unison, clapped, and banged our chairs as the bad guys faced justice.
You don’t play with Terence Hill and get away with it – TRINITY IS MY NAME. You do not mess with Bud Spencer, that hammer of a fist will deal with you. We knew who we did not like since the villains were recurrent – appearing in movie after movie. In the Westerns, we hated Jack Palance. After all, we were buddies with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. Actually, we were cousins with Terence, whom we called Trinity.
In the kung-fu movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Angela Mao, the baddies were Zhori, who was the hwenyakwese or sly spineless spy, and Bolo – all brawn and a brain the size of a pea. But the most evil of maguruvha was Silver Fox especially in Jackie Chan’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and in Bruce Lee’s Game of Death II.
Picture the scene. We are screaming our lungs out as Jackie Chan finally confronts Silver Fox who represents the Eagle that wants to kill all those who use the Snake fighting skill. With Jackie’s teacher lying hurt on the ground, our hero now moves from being student to a master in his own right. He has been trained by the old master. He is ready. We are not in doubt. We are there to cheer him on as he points that hand as if it were the head of a cobra. He has also learnt the “claw of a cat” fighting skill.
The champion does not die
We took our movies seriously – too seriously. One time we did take matters too far. In one kung-fu film there was a character that tended to invade people’s gardens and eat the fruit or vegetables there. We did something similar one day – eating up tomatoes in the gardens of an area called “kumaTwo Rooms”. It did not end well.
Tarzan and his ape got us tying ropes on trees and swinging from one tree to another. We were at home with falling and getting hurt. You just did not show your tears and or tell your mother.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in GREASE gave us some dance moves as we brushed our kinky hair backwards in imitation.
We loved our movies silly, funny, and cheesy. Any movie that resulted in the death of the main actor was an unnatural act. Thus, we debated endlessly the ending of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Bruce Lee leaps into the air, there is a loud gun shot, the screen freezes and the credits roll. We agonized that Bruce Lee could have been killed for real in the movie. This was rather too much, as our darling co-actor Jim Kelly, with his Afro and his kung moves, had also died in the movie. What was happening?
Rorenzi acts in his own movie
Lawrence “Rorenzi” Kagonegone was the enfant terrible of our time. Loud, brash, and fearless – he was fun and a nightmare, depending on where you stood with him. He loved the movies too and was always the first in line as we waited to pay to enter the hall.
One time we were watching a Western movie which was probably called Blind Man Checo, although I have failed to find a film with this title on the internet. Rorenzi turned up at the hall riding a pony belonging to Mr Chipinge. He had gone towards Sakubva River and taken the horse without permission. He rode it straight into the hall with the cockiness of impunity. If he was going to watching some cowboys, he might as well join in the fun. Years later Lawrence would become a very well-respected sensei.
Hyperinflation and deflation of joy
There was some consternation when the cinema entry fee rose from 1c to 5c. This was well before we knew there was something called hyperinflation, but some evil person thought hiking the fee by 400% was fair to the street urchins of Dangamvura.
Fortunately, you could still get a bun and a cent-a-kool for under five cents. We had to devise ways of surviving this – one was sneaking through a boys’ toilet window but this was too risky because as you came out of the loo you were in direct sight of the municipal police fellow or cinema attendant. The other was simply to wait for the final 15 minutes of the film when the gates were opened for the “indigent” to enter.
Having watched the ending, we would then go to our griot Richard Chaguma for a narration of the whole movie. Seated outside the verandah of his house, Richard would give a blow-by-blow account, even doing the sound effects and dramatizing parts of the movie. His favourite movie was Death Wish starring Charles Bronson. You could watch a whole movie and still ask Richard to retell it. He was that good.
When television was a privilege
The cruel hiking of the cinema fee was not mitigated by television simply because this was a luxury of the very few in the Dangamvura of 1976 to 1980. In my street, only two families were proud owners of magnificent black and white television sets – the Chimhau and Sibiya families, respectively.
To watch TV at the Sibiya family home, I had to be nice to their only son, Cornwall. To watch TV at the Chimhau family was a bit more complex. I will politely put it that some courtship unfolded. Being granted access to watch my favourite programmes – Bonanza (a Western series), The Six Million Dollar Man (sci-fi), Wonder Woman or Lassie – meant being given the permission to stand outside by the window with the curtain slightly open.
The rare privilege of being allowed inside the house and sitting on the carpet came with a number of conditions such as excusing yourself if the family was about to have supper, ensuring one has taken a thorough bath… Clean feet do not mess up the floor.
Graduating to finer things in life
With independence in 1980 things began to change. Secondhand televisions were now on the market, and we managed to acquire some huge and heavy Telefunken that had double screens (one being a protective glass shield). Much of my youth between 1980 – 1983 seems to have been spent “tuning” the TV and shifting the arial so we could catch the airwaves.
The lovely mountains of Dangamvura were not helping my noble mission to enable my parents to watch their beloved JR in Dallas and their all-time favourite series – Who Pays the Ferryman?
Soon my mates and I were disgruntled. We heard that in Harare some prominent people had recently acquired colour televisions. One of them, a famous radio DJ then, had even been charged in court for not declaring his television set after a trip abroad. The very thought that television could be in colour was mindboggling – real futuristic stuff.
With the freedom to move, we were discovering that there were even better movie places. At the instigation of Kevin “The Kitten” Masamvu, the Rainbow Cinema in the city became a favourite haunt and in 1984 we memorably watched Prince in Purple Rain. The magic of cinema, as we were discovering, required etiquette and money for popcorn, sodas, and chocolate. And some company.