Culture. The Somali National Theater was one of the most renowned performing arts venues in Africa, until it became ‘the symbol of a broken nation with a hole in its heart.’ But after 30 years, the theater has opened for the screening of two local films.

Mogadishu returns to the cinema

There is a 2017 short film by Somali filmmaker Said Fadhaye about what Mogadishu’s National Theater was like before the civil war. “It was a place where good things happened. Somali language and culture were preserved here,” Abd-ElKarim says in the video as he walks on the still-derelict stage. He is the former writer for the historic band Waaberi, which was most famous in the country between the 1960s and 1990s, and he has played there often in the past. “It was like a city on the move 24/7.”

Then, the short features Binti Omar Ga’al, the renowned singer of Waaberi, who is filmed as she’s watching archival footage of one of her concerts at the theater. Gripped with nostalgia, she runs her hand over her face as soon as the clip of her performing ends: “It reminds me of the good times when I first sang this song, how I felt at the time and the people who were sitting in front of me,” she explains in the documentary. “People were passionate about art. They would stand in line during the day to buy tickets, which would even run out while waiting in line, and they would be told to come back tomorrow.”

The Somali National Theater was one of the most renowned performing arts venues in Africa, until it became for three decades “the symbol of a broken nation with a hole in its heart,” as Fadhaye calls it. It was closed in 1991, at the beginning of the second phase of the internal conflict, when rival militias began to clash after the fall of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre. It was also used as a base by fighters, and the roof collapsed within a year after the clashes began.

But on Wednesday night, the public got a glimpse of what life was like in Mogadishu 30 years ago. For the first time since then, a public film screening was held in the theater, now reopened since June 2020. On the program were two short films by 28-year-old director Ibrahim CM, titled Hoos and Date from Hell. The ticket was $10, not among the cheapest for the place.

The films were a horror movie and a love comedy. “The public appreciated what the two shows represent more than their plot. A historical moment,” explains Ismail Dalmar, a 53-year-old patron who has been back in the capital for a few months, visiting after leaving it in 1986. For him, who lives in Denmark, this was a “breathtaking” event. In his mind’s eye, he goes back to his youth, a time when going to the cinema in Somalia was normal, while in the last years the only thing he’s seen of his country has been images of rubble. “We had girlfriends, we went out, we felt safe and religion was not an issue. We were seeing Indian, Italian, some Somali and even American films, in Italian.”

However, today’s Somalia is more conservative than in the past, and its government is in constant armed conflict with Al-Shabaab, an Islamic terrorist organization. Although the jihadists were driven out of Mogadishu a decade ago, terrorist attacks continue to be in the local news and the return to the cinema was organized with heavy security measures. “I was overjoyed as I stood in line to get tickets, but once inside, I prayed that nothing would happen,” Dalmar says. In 2012, for instance, the theater was bombed two weeks after an initial attempt to reopen.

The building, which was built by Chinese engineers as a gift from Mao Zedong in 1967, is now the only official platform where Somali filmmakers can try to present their work, “because there isn’t a single cinema in the country,” explains Abdihakan Basheir, the organizer of the screening of the films of Ibrahim CM, one of his colleagues and peers. “I had never been to a cinema in my life, same as all the young people who were in the theater. In the city, there are only the so-called “Bollywood movies,” which are improvised rooms in the backs of stores where Indian films are shown on a television and the spectators are sitting on oil bottle crates and such.”

While Indian cinema is widespread in Somalia, as it is in many parts of Africa, this is because it’s typically an entertainment genre, easily available in other languages beside English, while Wednesday night “was the first time ever that Somali films were screened at the National Theater,” Basheir explains further. But despite the value of this event for the cultural life of the country, it was not easy to organize.

According to the organizer, they had to pay $3,000 out of their own pocket for security and a one-time commission of $300 for the approval of the short films to the Somali Film Agency, a state body created in 1975 under the then-regime and put in charge of importing, distributing and censoring films in the country.

Even as less than half of the 1,300 seats of the theater were occupied for the occasion, the young director’s enthusiasm remained high, even though he was not in the capital on the day of the screening. “It’s still a privilege, and now my films have one more credential for future release,” says Ibrahim CM. “And for young Somalis, the rebirth of cinema is like a door opening. Like the future calling to them.”

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