ICON OF THE AVANT-GARDE: THE LABIA CINEMA TURNS 70
The Cape Town landmark has a history of defying age, class and cultural boundaries - and its ethos is undimmed
The Labia has always defied norms and taken risks.
When people were separated from one another under apartheid and censorship ruled, the Labia Theatre – an independent cinema in Cape Town – was a striking exception in a “white” area.
“The Labia was in the forefront of pushing the envelope,” said co-owner Ann Kraus, as it celebrated its 70th anniversary this year. The cinema, like the Long Street Baths down the road, is an historic landmark of the city.
Prior to 1994, it remained open to everyone despite segregation, and managed to screen provocative films before shadowy censors struck.
“The Labia obtained censor permission to screen the original version of Caligula for six weeks before it was banned,” Ann said.
The choice of controversial films screened over the years sparked protests and boycotts at the cinema, near to the Mount Nelson Hotel, but these didn’t erode its commitment to art and inclusion.
The Labia, claiming to be the oldest independent cinema in SA, celebrated its 70th on May 19 with the first international screening of the Elton John biopic Rocketman, only three days after the film was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Eat, drink (Roodeberg wines) and be merry was the spirit of the jamboree at this timeless cinema, which defies age, class and cultural boundaries.
The Labia, opposite the UCT art campus on Orange Street, is a boon for film school graduates since it is willing to take risks and host many of their first screenings.
Its vintage character has gained the interest of many university students over the past six years, true to the “hipster” trend of Cape Town.
“They appreciate the ‘old-school’ spirit. It has become very cool for the younger crowd,” said co-owner Ludi Kraus.
The Labia originated as a ballroom in the 1930s and progressed into a performing arts theatre in 1949.
After being a dual home for live performances and alternative film screenings, the Labia transitioned into a purely cinematic theatre, with three additional auditoriums, when Ludi and Ann took ownership in 1989.
Ann, who previously worked in the insurance industry, now works as the Labia’s co-director and social media producer.
The moustached Ludi, who has been confused with German director Werner Herzog, hung out at his father’s cinema in Windhoek, Namibia, while he was growing up.
After relocating to Cape Town and working as an attorney for many years, he found himself missing the cinema business.
“Ludi imported foreign-language films from Europe and held seasons of these films at various theatres around Cape Town. When he learnt that the Labia was for sale he decided that this would offer a home for the screening of his films,” said Ann.
Since then, the Labia has become legendary for the viewings of art, foreign, and controversial films.
The showing of The Grand Budapest Hotel acted as the bridge from 35mm film to digital film, aiding in the technological progression of the cinema.
In November 2018, the Labia received an award from 20th Century Fox for the highest attendance of Bohemian Rhapsody in SA, with 29,000 viewers and climbing.
‘More of an outing’
However, the cinema’s iconic status and cohort of loyal customers is not a result of the films alone.
“It offers a historic and warm environment. It’s more of an outing than simply going to the mall to watch a movie,” said Ludi.
An arch of greenery leads guests to the garden terrace, a sanctuary glittered with fairy lights where one can relax before or after the show.
An old ticket booth stands inside, the embodiment of the cinema’s classic history. And it doesn’t end there. The original sweet dispensary, wooden benches and theatre seating keep the days of old alive.
Many of the employees are Labia stalwarts and, having been there for years, evoke nostalgia among long-time patrons.
“The staff are real characters,” said Ludi.
The Labia was one of the first cinemas in SA to serve alcohol in movies.
The cinema hosts weekly events that attract diverse crowds across generations. These include Classical Mondays, Italian Film Week, and Horror Film Festival.
Fans can keep an eye out for upcoming events, such as a Burlesque evening for cabaret lovers, or haul out their tie-died shirts and hippie pants in honour of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary.