World Cinema - South Africa, October 2015

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 speaking to Sean Landberg who came to Chesham in 2006 but is originally from Durban  in South Africa. You may think the name is familiar because I interviewed his wife, Ines for the very first ‘World Cinema.’

Sean is a dental technician and was a keen surfer in South Africa. Durban is designated a surf city and Sean took full advantage. His mother was seamstress from Wales as was his grandmother, so it is no surprise that his hobbies include sewing and painting using both watercolours and oils and he still finds some time to paint despite having three sons aged 7, 5, and 1. However having brought his surf board to London he threw it away when it became old and yellow. Sean feels that his hobbies, combining as they do science and art, led to his career in making teeth.

Sean arrived in the UK in 1996 aged 23 to further his career and now works as a partner in a Harley Street practice.  He met Ines when she was selling alloys for teeth and walked into the practice.

Sean learned how liberal his parents were when he was allowed to go to beach to surf alone. This was in the days of segregation where there was a blue bus for white people and green one for the black people.  Sean preferred to travel on the green one despite it being made difficult at times by some of his friends, but Sean felt that the best laughs were to be had amongst the black people on the bus where the atmosphere was so much better.

His parents took him to all the art galleries and film festivals where more alternative films were shown and only later did he appreciate how his parents had educated him.

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

Sean - The biggest difference was that films were shown at a Drive-In, outdoors, rather than inside a building. It was a large complex about 1.5 times the size of a rugby pitch. It was triangular in shape with the screen some 10 metres off the ground and 30 metres x 40 metres so the screen could be seen from the motorway.

The ground was raised in a curve radiating out from the screen and cars were parked on the raised ground, pointing upwards so cinema goers had an uninterrupted view. The first thing that you would do was to drive around to find a speaker that worked as not all did. Next you had to arrange the car, so, if it opened at the back you would turn the car around and open the back up then arrange the cushions and any food that you had brought. A lot of the vehicles were vans with a removable canopy so these would be made comfortable with cushions etc so you could enjoy the film in relative comfort

At the back of the projectionist was a restaurant that served trays of food that clipped onto the side of the vehicle

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

Sean - My first memory is of going to the drive-in with parents. They were quite strict about what type of film that I could see as a child. However before the film started we were allowed to run between cars. which just added to the atmosphere. Similarly people talking between the cars very loudly also made the place seem special. When we arrived there was still a bit of light and I can rememeber thinking that this would never work as the picture would be indistinct, but once the movie started it was pitch black and the stars just added to the scene. No matter how old I got, this feeling never left me and it was always a magical moment when the light disappeared and the film started.

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

Sean - Star Wars was the first one and you can imagine how that seemed to a young boy gazing an enormous screen surrounded by inky black sky and bright stars

4) How expensive was it to visit the cinema?

Sean – I can’t remember because I was taken there as a treat though it was probably cheaper than in the  UK. Later on it was more on a par with the prices that you would pay here.

5) What is the etiquette in the cinema in South Africa?

Sean - Black people never had the wealth to visit the cinema so stood outside the Drive-In and watched through the fence but without speakers and even if they had money they would not have been allowed in.

Apartheid came to an end slowly and is best described as a blend as the ideaology slowly changed. Cinemas were for whites only and they could see the way things were changing and so built white only cinemas in the new Malls that were springing up in the white suburbs.

Originally white people came into the business district to watch films but as the Malls and cinemas were built they stopped coming. Understandably film going wasn’t high on the black agenda, other things were more important to them. So without the new audience and the old audience staying in the suburbs a lot of businesses had to close down including the cinema and the Drive-In.

In the new Malls, cinemas are much more like our own and now the audience mix is much more reflective of the population.

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?

Sean - We had trays at the drive in that clipped to the side of the car and the best tasting popcorn in a huge box. Even today I have never tasted better pop corn.

We also had something called Boereowst, which translates as Farmer’s sausage and is like a hot dog made from a coil of sausage which is chopped up and put in a roll.

To drink we had Fanta Grape which is a grape flavoured fizzy drink that you can’t get in the UK. Otherwise the food is very similar to here.

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

Sean - We had the same film releases as here and sometimes before the UK release. Films were usually only shown at the drive-in on Wednesdays and Saturdays and of course only at night. There were only two showings of two different movies but if it was a big block buster they would show two showings of the same movie.

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

Sean - With three small children trips to the cinema are more restricted. However I first came over to UK on a family trip when I was 16 and saw the second Star Wars film here. It was a totally different experience because it was autumn so there was rain and drizzle and it was cold. The cinema felt more crowded. My cousins had all the Star Wars merchandise which I had never seen and there were life size cardboard figures of the main characters in the foyer so it was a complete sensory overload and an absolutely amazing experience

By the time I moved to the UK the cinemas in the Malls in Durban were similar to the experience here except for food. The range of food here was incredible, everything from Nachos to Slush Puppies and the range of sweets was mindblowing.

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

Sean – No because Christmas is at the height of summer so any audience is at the beach not the cinema. Watching a film is the last thing on our minds so I have no special Christmas films though now I look forward to those films my wife likes to watch at Christmas.

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

Sean – No question it has to be Keano Reeves in Point Break because of the surfing connection.

11) Finally your favourite film here or in South Africa?

Sean - Léon because of the story and because Gary Oldman is amazing in it. When time allows I do enjoy visiting the BFI on the Thames where I like to watch more abstract films and I am so looking forward to introducing my children to the cinema.

Sean Landberg thank you for sharing your experience of cinema