House of Wonders - Film review by Maggie Jeans

BOS

June 20 2024

This ambitious award-winning project, began in 2019 and explores in depth the Omani presence in Zanzibar and East Africa. The name is taken from the House of Wonders or Palace of Wonders, a landmark building in Zanzibar. Opened in 1883, it is the largest and tallest building in Stone Town and occupies a prominent place, facing the Forodhani Gardens on the old town's seafront in Mizingani Road, between the Old Fort and the Palace Museum. 

The building was intended as a ceremonial palace and official reception hall, celebrating modernity. It was named "House of Wonders" because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity, and also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator. On December 25, 2020, a section of this iconic structure collapsed with the tragic loss of two lives. 

In February 2023, the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Tourism in cooperation with UNESCO awarded a tender to rebuild Bait al Ajaib – House of Wonders – as part of its programme to restore and rehabilitate several historical monuments of Omani architectural heritage in Zanzibar.

The Ministry of Information, represented by Nizwa Magazine, launched both the premiere of the three-part film and the book which is available in three languages - Arabic, English and Swahili. The unveiling of the film took place at the Royal Opera House Muscat in a ceremony held at the House of Musical Arts on February 18th 2024.  The history of this period is rich and the book is a handsome heavy, hardbound volume, embellished with a gold outline of the House of Wonders on a navy-blue cover. It is well-researched and packed with history and photographs.

The films are also trilingual with the use of subtitles. The trilogy sheds light on the Omani civilisation's contributions in political, commercial, social, and cultural realms. The Omani influence is evident in the dissemination of Islam, culture, and Arab civilisation throughout East Africa.

Each film features a central character entwined in political, social, and cultural events. Saeed bin Sultan is the central character in part one and Tipu Tip, the notorious trader is the main character in the second part.  Sheikh Sir Mubarak bin Ali Al Hinai, former Governor and Representative of the Sultan of Zanzibar is the central character in the third film

The films were shot at various locations worldwide, including Zanzibar, Africa and various Asian countries, as well as sites in Europe, America, and the Sultanate of Oman. Friedrich Kluetsch, the German director of the project, explains:

 "The goal of producing this film was to announce Oman's great history and its connection to East Africa. It is one of the grand stories in the Indian Ocean, and due to the events of 1964, much of it has been lost and forgotten. Therefore, we wanted to revive this event once again, to remember and explore all the documents and elements that prove the close relationship between Oman and East Africa."

Regarding the origin of the project, the director added, "Actually, we started withthe film and discovered that there were many things, people, and stories that we couldn't fit into only three episodes. We wondered how to deal with it? Where can we place all this information we gathered through our research? We then decided to produce a book to include all the things that we couldn't include in the film. The film took three years in its primary production stage, in addition to another period spent on research, text development, and review processes. Much time was dedicated to producing and translating the work into three languages, all this process began in 2019”.

The British Omani Society plans to screen the film soon and the book is available from the Ministry of Information in Muscat. 

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