The calm flow of Martyrs Avenue in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is disturbed on a Saturday afternoon by a giant collective roar emanating from behind the marble facade of an old cinema. Manchester United has just scored.
This is a regular occurrence at Cinema Roma, a 1937 art deco picture palace, where crowds gather in the darkened auditorium for a purpose that its Italian colonial-era architects never imagined: watching English football.
Arsenal and Manchester United are particular favourites in this curious case of Cinema Paradiso meets Match of the Day. While some of Asmara’s nine cinemas have foundered despite their architectural brio, others have prospered on the basis that, although Eritrea’s isolationist government keeps many global brands at bay, the English Premier League is unstoppable in Africa.
“It is totally outside politics,” said Berhane Ghebreab, 34, manager of Cinema Roma, which underwent restoration a decade ago. “It can make you free.”
An old film projector in the foyer of Cinema Roma, in Asmara. Photograph: Michael Runkel/Corbis
In the cinema’s foyer cafe, statuettes of Laurel and Hardy hold a chalkboard advertising upcoming fixtures and kick-off times, just in front of an artwork depicting Eritrea’s liberation struggle. Vintage movie posters, with text in Italian or French, include Casablanca, The Great Dictator, and Metropolis and stars such as Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne. A monochrome photograph shows Anita Ekberg wading into the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita. A vintage projector, built-in “Milano”, takes pride of place among coffee drinkers at tables and a popcorn machine.
Ghebreab said the near 900-seat cinema used to cater to a white audience in the days of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, but after the Italians were ousted by the British in 1941, Cinema Roma focused on Indian movies. More recently James Cameron’s Avatar was shown in 3D but that technology has fallen into disrepair and, although the nascent Eritrean film industry gets screen time, the Premier League – received via satellite dish from a broadcaster in Abu Dhabi – is the biggest draw. An upstairs seat costs 25 Kafka (£1.07) while a downstairs is 20.
“You cannot find a place to sit when Arsenal plays Manchester United,” Ghebreab said. “Some wear the team colours. People make a lot of noise and gamble on the result. The Italians would be surprised if they knew. The only thing they knew about was the movies.”
He added wistfully: “I’m a Chelsea fan because they had the most African players. I loved it. This season I feel a bit shitty. But I love José Mourinho anyway.”
Building a new Roman empire in Africa, Mussolini described Asmara as “La Piccola Roma”, or Little Rome. By 1939, more than half the city’s population was Italian, a legacy still felt today in everything from bicycles to pasta to café espresso machines. Italy’s most radical architects were unleashed to turn Asmara into a modernist utopia, producing wonders such as the Fiat Tagliero service station, whose 30-meter cantilevered wings resemble a plane (the station is currently closed and awaiting restoration, with dust-coated cars in its forecourt).
The art deco cinemas they conjured were perhaps the jewel in the crown. Cinema Asmara on Harnet Avenue – previously known as Mussolini Avenue and Haile Selassie Avenue – has a grand facade including archways, pillars, a fountain (now dry), and doorways marked ingress (entrance). Inside are empty stalls, dress circle, grand circle, and upper balcony, topped by a domed ceiling fresco in which ballgown women dance surrounded by peacocks displaying their feathers. But the building is now only used five times a year.
Down the street is Cinema Impero, where Peter Temesgen, the one-armed manager – he was maimed during the war of independence against Ethiopia – took the Guardian inside the auditorium during a screening and, like an archaeologist entering a tomb, shone a torch on beautifully carved reliefs on the upper wall. A projector from 1950 is displayed in the foyer along with posters for recent films. Temesgen, 41, recalled watching The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly here as a boy.
The Impero is among three cinemas owned by the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students, which hopes to upgrade its seats, water pipes, and other infrastructure. Okbay Berhe, its deputy chairman, said: “We are talking about a hundred-year-old cinema without any renovation. We hope to renovate but the problem is they are listed and you need permission. We need to follow the rules and regulations. It costs a lot of money but basically, we have to; there is no way out.”
He added: “For sure the cinemas could be a visitor attraction. There are very few places in the world like this outside Rome. As younger generations, we have obligations to keep this as part of our life, part of our history. It’s about the way we live, the way we dress, everything.”
Fiat’s Tagliero garage, a unique petrol station with soaring concrete wings mimicking an aeroplane taking off, in Asmara. Photograph: Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images
Berhe, 37, remembered from his own childhood double bills of Indian and Hollywood movies. “Now almost everyone has access to films in their house. Almost everyone has a TV. People don’t want to go to the cinema for foreign films. That’s why cinemas now show local films and the Premier League.”
The scale of the restoration task is clear at Cinema Capitol, said to have been the biggest in the city with nearly 1,500 seats and to have specialised in romantic Italian movies before closing down around 20 years ago. Today people sit smoking and drinking coffee in the foyer oblivious to the red curtain with gold trim or curving box office with its shiny black tiled wall that lies empty. In a side room, young men play on two billiards tables under pictures of Bob Marley, while up a stairwell is a long-discarded pile of VHS and audiotapes.
To step through the heavy doors into the dark-as-night auditorium is like exploring the wreck of a long-lost ocean liner. Torchlight reveals row after row of old wooden seats coated in a thick layer of dust. There is a black hole that was presumably once the orchestra pit. And up above, the cinema screen is brown and mouldy and disintegrating.
While the cinemas have mixed fortunes, elsewhere in Asmara, another Italian relic is not quite dead. At a 1911 railway depot, several steam trains are rusting amid piles of detritus and long grass, but on Sundays four continue to crawl at 15km per hour for tourists – often Italian – willing to pay $50 to ride in an ornate wooden seat and savour breathtaking views.
It has always been said that Mussolini made the trains run on time. Oqubai Lijam, 85, a former passenger who now works at the site, recalled: “They were very punctual. We heard the whistle from a long distance away and it meant to be careful, the train is coming, people and animals must get clear. We heard it from five kilometers away. Only the whistle. That’s how we knew.”