Local helmers re-open venue after two decades

Nearly two decades after its screen went dark, the last of African nation Chad’s movie theaters has once again opened its doors with the help of two local helmers.

Last month, the Normandy theater screened its first film in almost 20 years, shining a ray of hope in a country that has been crippled by decades of conflict and military dictatorships.

The project to renovate the decaying theater was spearheaded by the Chadian helmers Issa Serge Coelo (“Daresalam”) and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Cannes 2010 Jury Prize winner “A Screaming Man”).

Haroun brought a special passion to the project, having explored the challenges facing African filmmakers and the closing of Chad’s movie theaters in his 1999 feature debut, “Bye Bye Africa.”

Reopening the Normandy, he says, is the first step in reviving Chad’s fledgling film biz. According to Haroun, the government is working to renovate two other theaters in the capital, N’Djamena.

The director says he’s also working with Coelo and the government to establish a national film school, which he hopes to open in 2013.

Haroun maintains a production company in N’Djamena, which aims to nurture local filmmakers. Because the country has little cinematic history, though, he says that most of Chad’s young artists “don’t really have a basis for storytelling in cinema.”

Chad, a vast, sparsely populated country on the doorstep of the Sahara, has been plagued by decades of strife since the first shots of its on-again, off-again civil war were fired more than 40 years ago. The conflict an unrest in the country led to the gradual shutdown of dozens of theaters dating from the French colonial era that once dotted N’Djamena. As in much of Africa, many were converted into hotels, supermarkets and churches.

The Chadian government has funded the Normandy’s revival to the tune of more than $2 million. President Idriss Deby Itno inaugurated the theater in January, during celebrations marking the country’s 50th year of independence from France.

The Normandy, notes Haroun, was once a vital part of the social scene in the capital.

Today, though, the theater faces stiff competition from informal movie halls, with cheap admissions, as well as the pirated DVDs.

Haroun says the Normandy would screen pics from around the world, offering an alternative to the Hollywood and Nollywood movies that flood the city’s markets.

He hopes that with time, the theater will jumpstart a film culture that might spur the next generation of Chadian filmmakers.

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