Labia turns 60
May 15, 2009
By Atiyyah Khan
Everyone has their own Labia story to tell. Whether about the nature of the old building, the fine selection of films, popcorn in brown paper bags or those amazingly fluffy chocochinos.
Anyone familiar with the place knows Rose, who sells tickets in the wooden booth; Claire at the Choc Bar; projectionists Ridwaan and Peter; Harold at the coffee bar and Christine, who tears up the old-school paper tickets in the foyer.
On Saturday, the Labia building turns 60 and celebrates 20 years of screening independent and alternative cinema.
Owner, Ludi Kraus, explains: “The building started life as an opulent ballroom venue as part of the Italian Embassy during the Second World War.”
In 1949, Princess Labia (a South African woman who married Italian Count Labia) officially opened the theatre as a venue for the performing arts. Many major theatrical names appeared on stage there and, from 1975, the odd alternative film started to screen.
“The Labia is my life,” says Kraus, the face of the Labia since he took over in 1989.
Kraus admits that he fell in love with cinema at an early age and ran his father’s cinema in Windhoek from the age of 15.
He worked as a lawyer for many years, but gave that vocation up to run the Labia, which he views as a place to educate and entertain people on art cinema.
He moved the screens in the main theatre forward - so that a film’s subtitles could be read - padded the chairs and created the outside terrace.
Kraus adds: “It was important that we kept the chairs and the wood panelling to preserve the essence of the theatre.
“When Harold came in, we got the coffee and liquor bar going, and he’s been there ever since.”
Originally, the cinema only consisted of Screen 1, but later the tiny upstairs rehearsal room was converted into Screen 2.
Then a double-storey garage was converted into Screen 3 and, finally, the backstage area of the theatre was converted into Screen 4 outside.
Kraus says that the past 20 years have created some outstanding memories. Like the time a very tall man walked in, who turned out to be British comedian John Cleese, and who left a note that read: “With love and fishes, John Cleese.”
Or regulars like the elderly woman whose husband died of a heart-attack in the cinema, or an entire police force that congregated outside after a Saturday morning kiddies show turned wild.
During its time, the Labia has been host to many film festivals, often promoting silent films accompanied by music.
“Once, we even had a French group of 18 musicians performing a soundtrack for a silent film,” Kraus recalls.
He also reminisces about the days of censorship and how the Labia staff often found themselves in trouble for showing controversial films like Caligula.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary, a group of young creatives, who all love the Labia, has invested effort over the past two months to ensure an appropriate celebration.
Designer Marcii Goosen and her team, the Exchange Creative Commerce, have pooled their resources to create a mind-blowing fest that runs for two weeks.
Kraus has chosen 20 films all independently released by the Labia and relevant to its history, while Goosen has supplemented these screenings with certain cultural events.
She proposed the idea of “My Luminary” to fellow creatives and they came up with ways of promoting the festival using slide projectors, light installations, T-shirt designs and posters.
Goosen, who confesses to having watched the film Hero six times at the Labia says: “We’re trying to further the experiences of the audience so that it’s more than just film. I love the Labia because it’s authentic and has a sense of history.”
Goosen admits all their work was done pro bono, but she received some funding from the Cape Film Commission and her absolute dream came true, after she received a sponsorship to paint the Labia.
The festival kicks off tonight with a performance by Tonik. Saturday is the official opening night, with a 1940’s dress-up party with music provided by Breakfast Included, which will be followed by a screening of Bread and Chocolate, with cake from Charlie’s Bakery.
Another evening sees a fashion show supplementing Prêt-à-Porter, while the delectable Babette’s Feast will be complemented by food provided by Societi Bistro.
The experimental film Bad Boy Bubby concludes in a themed party at EVOL. The truly bizarre and indie-folk duo, Dear John, Love Emma, will, aptly, perform for the charming Me and You and Everyone We Know.
As if that’s not enough, there will also be impromptu surprises by the “Guerilla Radicals”, who will be styled as characters from the films, casually mingling with the audience. Gourmet burger-makers extraordinaire, Royale, have come on board for two weeks to launch their Labia burger.
The event’s designers went wild, with a gold-embossed booklet that will serve as a souvenir.
Look out for chairs created by industrial designers that have been modelled on the original Labia chairs.
Made out of polystyrene and sprayed gold, the chairs will be attached to odd objects around Cape Town like lamp posts and cars.
Everyone contributed out of a love for the Labia and even a blog has been started on why people love the Labia (www.ilovethelabia.blogspot.com).
Don’t miss the Labia’s 60th celebration, until May 28, at the Labia on Orange Festival. Bookings: 021 424 5927. Info: www.labiacelebrationexchange.co.za