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Sudan: From shack to silver screen

Inside South Sudan's first cinema..

By Peter Martell
BBC News, Juba

After years of war, the opening of a new cinema in South Sudan's capital is being welcomed as a step towards a return to normal life.

The 21-year bloody civil war left the south in ruins, as southern rebels battled government forces from the north.

This cinema portrays peace, it shows we can be like other countries
Cinema goer William Amacha

And it has been a long time since Juba's residents have been able to go to the movies.

A noisy tin shack packed with people has been the only option for most people.

But squeezed in tight in a darkened room, it is hard to make out what is happening at all on the flickering screen.

Those lucky enough to be at the front, tend to shout out what they think is the story to those further back.

So the new cinema has been causing great excitement.

"Better than TV"

King Kong, a tale of a giant gorilla loose in New York, was the opening show.

For many, it was been the first time they had seen a film on the big screen.

Cinema attendant in Juba
Juba's new cinema is a step towards a return to normal life in the region.

"The film was nice, but monkey was very, very big," said Lennana Johnson, emerging wide eyed.

"I have never physically seen an animal like that before, - we could not see such things in the war.

"It is better than television, it is very large!"

Juba's old cinema was destroyed during the bitter conflict - and has now been converted into a church.

Peace came four years ago, but the challenges to reconstruct the war-shattered region are enormous.

There is little reliable electricity - the simple film shacks are powered by noisy generators that drown out the sound.

But things are different in the new cinema, opening every weekend inside a cultural centre and seating several hundred people.

Comfy seats

The large screen, comfy seats, booming surround sound and cooling fans have had a big impression on those who have come to watch.

I want to see some American action movies at the cinema but the tickets are too much
Bellvu Ajok

"We hope it will make a change in the lives of the people of Juba," said the cinema manager Andrew Matsiko.

"Most of them have never seen anything beyond a small television screen, so if they see a movie on a nine by four metre screen, they are so amazed."

South Sudan - an area larger than Spain and Portugal combined, but where tarred roads remain a rarity except for a short stretch in Juba - is still struggling to develop.

New hotels and shining buildings of government offices are being built, but much of Juba remains a city of tin houses or thatch huts.

So the cinema represents more than just entertainment.

"The cinema portrays a kind of peace, because it shows we can be like other countries," said first-time cinema goer William Amacha.

"War destroys everything, but this shows that the peace has come now."

Coming together

Others said it showed a different image of a country known to much of the world either only for war or for a gross lack of development.

"Most people think that this is a remote part of Africa - that they don't have houses, only trees and animals," said Dusam Poni Sejerina, a Sudanese who spent the war in the United States.

The southern Sudanese city of Juba
Much of Juba remains a city of tin houses or thatch huts

"They don't think it is a place where we could have anything like a cinema."

Ms Sejerina said she believed that the cinema could help to bring people together in a common experience.

"We are coming together to just share a laugh, but we are also breaking that barrier of cultural differences," she added.

"We are coming together so that we can have that experience of 'oh, we're human' - rather than the differences of tribalism."

However, tickets cost $10 - 20 times the cost of a seat in the film shack seat - and are far too expensive for most.

Educate and entertain

"I want to see some American action movies at the cinema but the tickets are too much," said Bellvu Ajok, shouting outside a video-shack.

"But I have to go: The television screens are too small here for everyone to see."

Organisers say they hope to reduce costs to make it accessible to more.

They promise a wide range of films, from Hollywood blockbusters to African films and children's cartoons.

Cinema staff say they also say they will screen shows that could help to educate, as well as entertain.

Upcoming films include Warchild, a documentary about a Sudanese boy forced to fight in the civil war.

"We want to provide entertainment, but also want to show movies that are relevant to people in Sudan," Matsiko added.

"We can screen movies that could have a big impact on the people."

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