I’m at The Rivoli Cinema on Broad Street for the first time. What a pleasant surprise. The screen is big – a real, full-sized movie screen in perfect condition. Some of the seats are not too sturdy, and some have tattered upholstery, but they are all in place. It’s a real movie theatre, and, thank goodness, six of the 13 ceiling fans are working.
I am breathless with anticipation. Upon This Rock is the first Liberian film I am going to see. The film poster says “Zayugar, The Most Feared One Can Destroy And Kill Anybody, Anytime. Can His Wrath Stop Father Peter From Constructing The House of God?????!!!!!!” I have attended FESPACO three times and seen films from all over Africa, but never one from my own country. Liberian documentaries, yes, but narrative films, no. All those question marks and exclamation points have raised my hopes.
The show is supposed to start at noon. At 12:40 someone in the sparse audience yells, “Your start de sho na!” A few minutes later, someone else yells “Your please hurry up!” By one o’clock people in the audience start begging the projectionist to change the first show. “The first show?” I ask the two friends who came along with me. They tell me yes, there will be a movie before the African feature. Apparently, many people have seen the first show before and they’re complaining that it is too long; we’ve already lost an hour of our afternoon and we’re anxious to see this new Liberian film on its opening day. I consider leaving and coming back. Some people – including me – want to just cancel the first show.
Unfortunately, the projectionist doesn’t listen to us.
Fortunately, it is an Indian movie.
I love Indian movies, and it’s been a long time since I saw one. Today we are going to see Baghban, by Ravi Chopra. (Tagline: “Can you depend on your family?”). The color isn’t coming through too sharply, so for the first ten minutes people in the audience complain loudly. My favorite is the girl who yells angrily “Day can’t break in dis sho!” I don’t mind the noise too much because the film is subtitled. My eyes are glued to the screen and by the end of the first song, I am totally enthralled. I love the poetic language and the melodrama. The story is captivating, the people are beautiful, and I consider (just for a moment) incorporating some cute dance numbers into the screenplay I am writing.
An hour into the movie the projectionist fixes the length problem by skipping a huge chunk of the movie. But it’s a smooth transition and I only know what he did because the people who have seen the movie before make sure to tell us all. Soon, I am jolted out of my mesmerized state by someone in the aisle asking, “Cold soft drink? Cold Vimto?” Later someone else comes by disturbing us with plantain chips. It’s easy to ignore the sellers – until someone comes by offering Jollof rice. Jollof rice?! At the movies?? I have to laugh out loud. But by the time the girl selling milk candy comes around, I can’t laugh even if I want to. Raj Malhotra and Pooja are being treated terribly by their selfish and ungrateful children, and I am crying too hard. Dis Indian sho sorrowful o! I am so glad I stayed.
A full four hours after our arrival at the cinema, after we have cheered the Bollywood actors with thunderous applause, Upon This Rock finally begins. The footage is so jumpy and grainy it almost looks artsy. I am optimistic. But the audience knows better. They begin their loud complaining again, and this time it doesn’t subside. The film is not subtitled, but I don’t mind the noise this time either; I probably wouldn’t be able to make out the dialogue in the film even if I was the only one in the theatre. Perhaps it’s because the movie was shot on VHS in Slow Play mode, as the data on the screen reminds us every now and then. As people trickle out of the theatre – including the two friends who came with me – so does my optimism. I stay until the tape freezes at the halfway mark and then, while the projectionist fiddles with Part II, I walk downstairs and out into the bright sunshine vowing two things: 1) that I will never show a film of mine with anything by Ravi Chopra, and 2) that I will be a much better daughter to my parents, for they are indeed, as Raj Malhotra says, the soul of my life.