A new initiative is bringing cinema culture back to Gaza, where movie theatres have been shut since the first Intifada.
Beirut, Lebanon – It was July 2006 and I was browsing through my favourite video store.
Video Chico in the bustling Beirut neighbourhood of Hamra was then a hole-in-the-wall shop stacked with indie, art house and foreign films.
As a filmmaker and lover of auteur cinema, I had frequented it for almost a decade, searching for my weekly fix of the iconic masters – Andrei Tarkovsky, Francois Truffaut, Pedro Almodovar, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and countless others.
It was to be an eventful month, but I didn’t know it on that Monday as I rented my four European films and planned to spend the week in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Watching beautiful cinema is a spiritual experience for a film lover and, for me, there was no better place to do it than in this tranquil agricultural region.
But, just two days later, that tranquillity was shattered as war broke out between Israel and Lebanon. It would last for 34 days and leave more than 1,000 Lebanese and more than 100 Israelis dead. Much of Lebanon’s infrastructure would be destroyed.
What I didn’t know then was that on the same day I’d perused my favourite video haunt, another monument to movies was opening nearby.
The Metropolis Association had rented a small theatre in Hamra with the plan to show exactly the sort of alternative cinema I craved.
‘A different kind of cinema’
“Metropolis was born out of a need … to bring … a different kind of cinema to the Lebanese audience,” explains Rabih El-Khoury, a board member of the Metropolis Association and its former managing director.
In a country where multiplexes dictate what the movie-goer watches, Metropolis aimed to prove that there was more to cinema than Hollywood blockbusters.
And so it was that the story of Metropolis Cinema began, two days before war broke out.
But they couldn’t let that hold them back. After all, El-Khoury explains, were they to wait for the right political climate in Lebanon, they’d be waiting a long time.
The cinema went from strength to strength and two years after it launched in its small 110-seat Hamra hall, it moved to larger premises in the affluent east Beirut neighbourhood of Achrafieh.
With two screens of 270 seats each, the Metropolis is now able to showcase independent movies from Lebanon, the rest of the Middle East and elsewhere to larger audiences.
Embracing cinema ‘where culture isn’t a priority’
But keeping afloat in such a troubled region isn’t easy. El-Khoury explains: “It’s a constant struggle to finance … the cinema.
“How do you fund an ongoing cultural project in an area where culture is definitely not a priority?”
But financing hasn’t been the only challenge Metropolis has had to overcome. Every film screened in Lebanon must pass through the Directorate of General Security. It will either approve a film, request that parts be cut or, in some cases, ban it entirely.
While Lebanese censors are not particularly sensitive to things like nudity, they are about content considered offensive to religion and anything political in nature.
Well-known films that have been banned from screening in Lebanon include Shame (2011), Waltz with Bashir (2008) and Schindler’s List (1993).
Recently, In This Land Lay Graves of Mine, a documentary by local filmmaker Reine Mitri, was banned from public and private screenings for, according to the Directorate of General Security, “stimulating sectarian and partisan zealotries and disturbing civil peace”.
And then there is the constant threat of violence and political instability. “The situation in the country can be very tricky,” says El-Khoury.
“An event can be thoroughly prepared but then political instability might delay it, postpone it or, in the worst case, cancel it so that the lives of the people attending won’t be put at risk.
“But when you have the public, which is always there, supporting the cinema and attending its events, you have to find a way to deal with your problems and find solutions so that it won’t affect the audience.”
An escape from reality
He recalls how, in 2012, Metropolis was presenting its ARTE Film Week when General Brigadier Wissam Al Hassan, of the country’s Internal Security Forces, was assassinated in the same neighbourhood. Seven others were killed and around 80 injured in the massive explosion.
But that evening, about 50 people turned up at Metropolis, hoping its programme would go ahead as planned.
It is moments like this, El Khoury says, that keep the association and the people behind it going. “It was a strong sign for us that the audience was tired of watching news and deadly images on television and wanted to escape and leave their tragic reality in favour of something else,” he says.
‘A breath of hope’
Over the years, Metropolis has become a haven for filmmakers and film enthusiasts, crossing the divides that so often separate Lebanese people.
And one of the reasons for that, El Khoury believes, is that it’s not just a place to watch films, but also a space to discuss and debate the themes they raise.
Nadine Gharzeddine, a film enthusiast who has been frequenting the cinema since it opened, describes it as “a space of comfort.
“We’ve been going to that theatre for years and somehow I always find someone I know either in the audience or a staff member who will greet me with a hug and a smile.
“As a project it is great to give a voice to those films that would otherwise not be screened in Beirut and for us [audience members] to indulge in their discovery.”
Kuwaiti-Lebanese filmmaker Farah Al-Hashem, whose film Breakfast in Beirut premiered at Metropolis in September 2015, describes it as her own Cinema Paradiso, thanks, in particular, to the friendly projectionist, Michael, who – just like Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso – looks like he’s spent a lifetime in the projection room.
Reem Saleh, Lebanese filmmaker and deputy director of the Ajyal Youth Film Festival at the Doha Film Institute, calls Metropolis “a breath of hope to filmmakers like me”.
Zeina Sfeir’s first feature documentary All About My Father – a portrait of her dad, Elie, who, over 70 years, has coiffed the hair of politicians, princes and presidents – premiered at Metropolis and she describes it as “the only place where we can have freedom and show our films”.
If it were ever to close, she says, “Beirut would lose a lot, and it would probably encourage me to leave this country”.