Every Friday they gather there, seven or eight elderly men in a ramshackle auditorium of cobwebs and broken chairs. Sitting under an open sky (the roof fell in long ago) they watch the flickering images of old films projected on to the wall.
"It's the Cinema Paradiso of Zanzibar," said Martin Mhando, director of the annual Zanzibar International Film Festival (Ziff), which takes place on the Tanzanian island next month. "Cinema Paradiso was heavenly compared to what's there."
This is the Majestic, one of Africa's first cinemas, an art deco gem from the 1920s that lost its lustre. Mhando is leading a campaign to restore the ruin to its former glory – vital, he says, because where Tanzania and its islands once had 53 cinemas, now there are only two.
The effort in Zanzibar's Stone Town is backed by the award-winning British film-maker Nick Broomfield, known for documentaries such as Biggie and Tupac, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, and Battle For Haditha.
Broomfield said he has been inspired by the diehards who keep the Majestic alive despite its decline.
Speaking from Los Angeles, he added: "Even though the cinema doesn't have a roof, people are using it and setting up their own projector. It probably has a lot of memories for them. It was the place where people went on dates and met their first girlfriends.
"Cinema is a shared experience. As a film-maker, the most wonderful thing about watching with a group of people is that you can tell which parts of the film are working and which aren't.
"It's a bonding thing, a way of holding a group or locality together. When I was growing up, everyone went to the cinema on Saturday morning to see the cartoons. It was social cohesion, and that's one of the exciting things that could happen with the Majestic in Zanzibar."
Broomfield will be running workshops at the Ziff and is set to shoot his next feature film in Tanzania.
"East African film-making is going to grow and become more important," he said. "The Majestic is a wonderful piece of architecture … In terms of the east African film-making community, the relevance of Zanzibar would be enshrined in the Majestic. It would be an encouragement for people to take cinema seriously. It would also be a fantastic venue for the Zanzibar International film festival."
The Royal Cinema Theatre, as it was originally known, was designed by Scottish architect John Sinclair, mixing Moroccan and Oriental-inspired styles. Renamed the Majestic a few years later it was destroyed by a fire in 1953. An art deco-themed replacement opened two years later, showing Indian and Hollywood releases such as The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. Gone with the Wind, Jaws and Love Story were all big hits on Zanzibar.
The economic slump of the 1980s closed cinemas all over the country. The last of three on Zanzibar, Cine Afrique, recently closed and was converted into a supermarket. The Majestic itself is said to be under threat of being turned into an office block.
Mhando said the Ziff uses a cinema on nearby Pemba island but it does not run full-time. That leaves Tanzania with two multiplexes in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
"The economy got bad in the 1980s," Mhando said. "Tickets had cost $1-2, but we knew if it got to $3 the cinema economy would collapse and that's what happened. People could no longer afford to watch movies. Videos came along and they stayed inside. By 1996, all the cinemas were closed."
Despite this gloomy backdrop, the Ziff claims to be east Africa's biggest arts and film festival since launching 14 years ago. "At Ziff we have full houses of 1,500 people every night. So we started thinking about rebuilding the Majestic.
"I think if it was refurbished properly, people could go to movies there on a regular basis. It still has beautiful art deco."
Mhando hopes to make a cost assessment and raise funds so the Majestic can become a 200-seat multipurpose venue with space for corporate events, seminars and workshops along with a cafe.
Then, he hopes, the faithful who gather there each Friday will be joined by a new generation. "The old men still have their dreams of watching movies every week. They remember the old splendour of the Majestic and the moment of their youth. That's the relevance of cinema culture to them. Once you've been bitten by the bug, there's no escaping it."
• This article was amended on 3 June 2011. The original said: "That leaves Tanzania with two multiplexes in the capital, Dar es Salaam". This has been corrected.
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