Plaza Cinema’s two faces: today an RCCG, once the center of modern urban leisure in Lagos. Photo © Connor Ryan
The streetscapes of Lagos are packed tight with a jumble of new and old structures, commercial exchanges of every type in any space that can support them, and what one notorious architectural theorist described as the “friction” created by millions of people passing through the city. Most of Lagos’s historical structures get buried as the city rushes to keep pace with and accommodate the needs of its exploding population. The cinemas halls offer one example.
We hear often that Nigeria’s cinema halls, once a center of modern urban leisure, disappeared into oblivion with the crash of the naira (due to foreign pressure for Nigeria to accept economic “structural adjustment” (SAP)) and the rise of home video. As the story goes, when the cinema exhibitors were pressed out of business, the new wave of evangelical churches moved in comfortably with a few renovations. We often forget that Lagos is a remarkably young city, both in terms of built environment and population. Most Lagosians were not around to experience cinema at its height. With time the cinemas have faded from popular memory, even though their physical structures remain as landmarks. The buildings continue to evolve with the neighborhoods they used to serve, but they also still retain a trace of the past. These cinema halls are examples of what Rajeev Patke calls an “archive of involuntary memory” (p. 7). They are somewhat like the Brazillian architecture that spots Lagos Island, immediately recognizable to the eye and indelibly linked to a period of the city’s history. One is struck by a flash of memory walking past the Plaza Cinema near Tafawa Balewa race course (image above), a visual trace of the Post-Civil War/Pre-SAP years, the height of cinema culture in Lagos.
So what have the cinema halls become today? Of the 13 I managed to track down only two had be demolished outright, whereas the majority now serve several purposes at once: church, market, warehouse, residence, viewing center. The Plaza Cinema, for example, is occupied by Redeemed Christian Church of God, as well as a restaurant, travel agency, and petty traders. Ajegunle neighborhood’s God Dey Cinema, constructed in 1978, once accommodated up to 2000 viewers. Today the stage, screen, and the 400-capacity “reserve seating” balcony remain in good condition. It continued showing films until 2008 when the cost of operating the hall exceeded what the exhibitor could recuperate from tickets sold at N100 a piece. Today, the grounds outside the cinema function as a warehouse for tires, refrigerators, and cars imported and unloaded at nearby Apapa Wharf. Also in Ajegunle, Onishowo Cinema has become a school where the old seating has been arranged into five classes under one roof. The balcony, where big screen TVs have been rolled in, still serves as a viewing center of 30-40 seats. On the other side of Lagos in Agege one will find Pen Cinema, converted now to a fast food restaurant, and Danjuma Cinema, the only facility I visited that still operates as a cinema. Unfortunately, the site has in effect been surrendered to area boys and the risk of theft or assault makes the spot a no-go for all but the young men who enjoy pirated Hollywood and Bollywood films there at N80-100.
The buildings left are material structures, but in their heyday these cinema halls supported an “immaterial urbanism” (Larkin), which is to say an intangible but immanent experience of the city. It is increasingly difficult to find Lagosians who frequented cinemas in the 1970-80s and can recall the experience in detail. Perhaps there are some readers out there who could fill in the history a bit.
*Patke, Rajeev S. “Benjamin’s Archades Project and the Postcolonial City.” Diacritics 30.4 (winter 2000), 3-14.