As I wandered back to the mission catholique after a day exploring Bamako, I bumped into Steve and Oliver. They were going to the movies, so I tagged along.
The Vox cinema on Rue Bagayoko is an event in itself. Before the ticket booth opened, Oliver asked the patron if we could check out the projectors, and with glee he led us around the back, up some crooked steps, past a man boiling a teapot on a charcoal stove and into the projection room, where two monstrous projectors stood, each loaded with a massive roll of cracked and dusty celluloid. The projectionist was busy cleaning the mechanisms, an ongoing job in the dusty dryness of Mali, and he laughed throatily as we wowed at his babies and peered through the exposed frames at the tiny writing Paramount Présente.
The film we excitedly paid CFA250 to see was none other than Danger Immédiat (or, in English, Clear and Present Danger) starring Harrison Ford. We'd all already seen it, but none of us had seen it in French or in an African cinema; we'd definitely have remembered if we had.
The ticket booth opened its shutters at 9pm, and the film was due to start at 9.15, but by 9.30 there were still no signs of life except for a single bulb shedding murky light on the proceedings and some distinctly Cuban-esque music blaring from the distorted cinema speakers (Cuban music has been a major influence on West African pop music for decades; the mix of Cuban rhythms and African vibes is hypnotic, especially when blared out through completely distorted speakers, which seems to be the preferred method of broadcast). I idly wondered if we were going to have to wait for the cinema to fill up before they'd show the film, but I figured even the craziest tout couldn't wait that long; there weren't many people about.
To pass the time I counted seats and heads. The cheap seats, where we'd ended up without really noticing, took up the front half of the cinema, where there were ten rows of 30 hard metal seats welded into long rows. The block at the rear of the cinema, roughly the same size, was obviously for the big spenders as the seats were padded, though most of them looked as if they'd seen better days. I counted around 25 people in the front half and about 15 in the back, which meant the house was pretty far off its capacity of 600 people.
I also noticed that the screen wasn't so much a screen as a huge whitewashed wall at one end of the room, and as my eyes got used to the gloom I saw that at the front above the screen, the cinema was open to the sky; stars twinkled through the sizeable gap at the top of the screen, and that, I realised, was how the bats had got in.
There might have been only a handful of humans willing to experience the delights of French-dubbed Harrison Ford, but there were dozens of bats cheeping round the auditorium, quite a few crickets chirping loudly under the seats, and most memorably of all, at least one rat scampering around in the gloom, tickling our feet. I also noted there were quite a few mosquitoes lurking in the dark, but before I could get too worried about them, the film coughed into life.
Despite the scratched picture and somewhat muffled sound, the film worked surprisingly well. It was dubbed in French, which meant I followed almost none of the subtle plot twists, but there was enough death and destruction to keep me going, and it was worth the effort just to see a film in which Harrison Ford, cast with a deep bass voiceover, had a lower voice than James Earl Jones, whose French counterpart was almost squeaky. It was also bizarre watching scenes set in the White House with everyone speaking French; it felt like the aftermath of a twisted world war, and I found myself feeling hugely grateful that I speak the same language as Hollywood and Rock 'n' Roll. French is a beautiful language, but it just doesn't suit Harrison Ford or Elvis Presley.
Apart from a five minute segment where the sound died and was replaced by an eerie hum, and a slight re-ordering of some of the film's scenes that hinted at an earlier mix-up on the projection room floor, the film ran smoothly, right up until a few minutes before the end. The lone light bulb came on well before the end of the film and everyone got up to leave, and the second the credits started to roll the screen went blank. I guess people in Bamako watch action films for the explosions and car chases, and once they're over, you might as well go home.
Especially with a film where James Earl Jones sounds like his balls have yet to drop.