World Cinema - The Gambia, February 2016

Michael Rowan, a member of Chiltern Film Society's committee, is finding out about how people from different countries experienced cinema in their homeland.

With one exception I have only ever visited the cinema in the UK and had always assumed that mine was a universal experience. One day a chance conversation made me wonder if perhaps I was being naïve and so I set myself the challenge to find out what people living in Chesham but born in another country recalled about cinema in their homeland. I am very grateful to everyone who gave up their time to give me such an insight often reviving memories that they had forgotten.


Today I am with Alikali Fofana who hails from the Farafenni, which is a town in the Gambia smaller than Chesham. Alikali moved to the UK in 2003 to go to University in Exeter and the University sent him to Strasbourg as part of his course. It was whilst in Strasbourg that he met his wife. Back in the UK he lived in Langley before moving to Chesham in December 2015 ( See how hard I work to get you the scoops?).

Currently Alikali is the manager of a store in Hounslow but is shortly taking over as manager in a charity shop in London. He is currently training to be a Life Coach but in the meantime he has settled well in Chesham with his wife and almost 3 years old son.

Alikali is 43 years old so his memories of cinema in the Gambia are from 20 years ago and of course as a child of eight.

1) How does the cinema here differ from that in the Gambia?

It is one big cinema hall but there is only ever the one screen so it is completely different to the multiplex. It can be hot in the summer so the building was cooled by ceiling fans which makes a continual background noise which meant that the sound track was always played loud.

2) What is your first memory of going to the cinema as a child?

Fankanta was the name of the cinema which was the first in the town where I lived but later there was also one called the Odeon which was in Serekunda.

My Dad thought that at 8 years old I was far too young to go to the cinema mainly because unlike the UK, in the Gambia there are no age restrictions saying what film is suitable for what age group and he worried that I may see something unsuitable. I went with a group of boys who were all the same age. In the Gambia there isn’t the same level of fear concerning unsupervised children playing together and because of the weather adults and children go out much more in their own social groups rather than in mixed ages.

We play in groups defined by age and so we would go to school together, play sport together and play together and of course going to the cinema together.  The children are much freer in the Gambia.

My father worked at the cinema and would keep out an eye out to make sure we didn’t sneak in.

3) What was the first film that you recall seeing?

I recall a film called ‘Sholay,’ which means ‘Justice is Blind’ which was about injustice that is inflicted on the poor. [Not sure but this may be Sholay (1975) directed by Ramesh Sippy] It was a Bollywood film with full on singing and dancing. The hero is a man who works in the forest and seeks to protect the trees but who is framed by the rich capitalist who wishes to destroy the forest. I remember that film so well because I loved the song which is the same as the title and because I saw it so many times.

In my youth there were more Indian and Chinese movies but later Hollywood began to dominate, I cannot remember the name of the films I saw but I can recall the names of my favourite actors and actresses for instance Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini and Dhamendra.

4) How expensive was it to visit the cinema?

I didn’t used to pay because my Dad worked at the cinema so when my friends and I arrived and said that my Dad worked there they let us in free. In the Gambia parents don’t tend to give details of what their work entailed but I do know that he was sometimes on the door and sometimes in the projection room.

I was responsible for my friend’s enjoyment to the films as I was always the one that chose the film and I always wanted to explain the film and what it meant.

5) What was the etiquette in the cinema in the Gambia?

There was a lot of audience participation and the audience would make a noise at certain points in the movie - so when the hero is winning there will be cheering and if the hero is suffering the mood is quiet and suppressed.

Sometimes if the copy of the film was old or of poor quality with scratches and cuts (not intended by the director) the cinema could erupt and there would be shouting, this was frightening for a small boy.

6) When I was a child the only food eaten in the cinema was tubs of ice cream or choc ice, Orange Juice and hot dogs. What kind of food could you buy at the cinema?

Grilled peanuts, bananas, orange and apple all purchased at the door of the cinema or sold from stalls outside the cinema also cigarettes. Some food was sold from the shop across the road - presumably he had an agreement with the cinema.

Traders would put a covering on the floor on which was displayed the goods or sometimes a table in which case there would be a lamp on the table so people could see the wares – night time was most popular for cinema because most people are working during the day so they had no time for the cinema.

Inside the cinema there was a foyer containing the ticket office and other sellers of food would hire a space or maybe a relative of the cinema owner was looking to start earning a living so he would be allowed to set up a small indoor market, a bit like a car boot sale only selling food.

7) What sort of films were shown in the Gambia? Was it the usual blockbuster? Walt Disney or something else?

Indian and Chinese films but now more American and Nollywood (Nigerian movies) are becoming more popular.

8) Do you go to the cinema in UK – if so what were your first impressions?

Before I came to the UK I lived in Switzerland so my European film going experience started there. The difference was fascinating; it was a more powerful experience and more comfortable with sharper images and more modern presentation so that the films were much clearer.  When I came to the UK it was a similar experience to Switzerland.

In the Gambia people mostly sat on benches and these were all on the same level but as the screen was high enough that everyone in the audience can see.  Most parents wouldn’t take their children to the cinema so we only went when we were 14 or 15. There are no restrictions on movies shown on the TV and the whole family would sit down to watch, age appropriate or not, but my father would change the channel if he felt that it was showing something we shouldn’t see

In the cinema if a sex scene came up the projectionist would fast forward the film to a more appropriate scene.

9) We have certain films that are shown every Christmas, is that the same in your country and if so what?  Perhaps for Christmas or another festival?

The Gambia is predominantly Muslim so there is no similar equivalent. All the public holidays were inherited from the British so there are more family parties over Christmas but we do not have this tradition in the Gambia.

10) And what film character would you like to be?

A character that inspires for good in life, someone like Tom Hanks in The Green Mile or Denzil Washington in The Manchurian Candidate. Also wise heroes, Amitabh Bachchan was my hero when I was little but I can’t remember why. Perhaps because he was always doing good.

11) Finally what is your favourite film?

I have too many to just pick one. Sholay, obviously and I like detective movies such as Brotherhood of Roses though that may be a TV movie so possibly doesn’t count. Disco Dancer was an Indian movie and a particular favourite of mine I remember.

Thank you Alikali for your insight into cinema going in the Gambia it was good to meet you.