How a cinema showing alternative films brings Lebanese together across religious and political divides.
Nabatieh, Lebanon – Nabatieh, the sleepy city in southern Lebanon with a small-town feel, is going through a cinema renaissance.
Once a local cultural capital, Nabatieh has been without a theatre since Stars Cinema closed in 1990 amid the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. By the end of this year, however, the city will boast two cinemas.
One will be new: Empire Cinema, part of a multinational chain, is set to showcase big-budget Hollywood films. The other will be old: Stars Cinema, now derelict, is being renovated by a team of volunteers led by actor and theatre manager Kassem Istanbouli.
The theatre will hold its grand reopening in August, and plans to feature classic Arabic films alongside free theatre and photography training workshops.
Istanbouli and his team of volunteers say they hope the reopening of Stars Cinema will revitalise the cultural life of the city, which has stagnated in recent years.
“People have reached a state of mind here … they’re not interested in anything. They just want to sit on the street and smoke nargileh and talk about nothing,” Kamel Jaber, a journalist and arts promoter in Nabatieh, told Al Jazeera. He believes the city has languished because of a lack of opportunities brought on by years of conflict – a stark contrast to the city of his youth.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Jaber said, Nabatieh was a hotbed of education, progressive politics, literature and the arts. The city’s first two cinemas, Rivoli and Capitol, opened during this era, showcasing films from Egypt, Europe and India.
“There were shows from 9am to 11pm every day,” Jaber recalled. “Everyone used to go.”
The cinemas also provided a space for visiting public intellectuals, including poets Nizar Qabbani from Syria and Muhammad al-Jawahiri from Iraq. “The communist party was also very active here,” Jaber added. “Their meetings would be held in the cinemas too.”
As the Israel-Lebanon conflict escalated in the 1970s, Israel levelled the Nabatieh Palestinian refugee camp. Throughout Nabatieh, “there were bombs every day on a random basis”, Jaber recalled. Rivoli and Capitol were both destroyed, many people fled the area, and others became afraid to venture outside, he said.
While Istanbouli hopes that a renovated Stars Cinema will start to bring back Nabatieh’s lost cinematic era, he is realistic about the challenges it will face in gaining the attention of residents worn out by years of conflict, who may be more easily lured by the simplicity of typical Hollywood films.
“People in Nabatieh need a cultural space,” Istanbouli told Al Jazeera. “I’m trying to revitalise cinema and the arts, [to make them] important to the daily life of the people here. People say, ‘I want to go to this or that restaurant’; I want them to say, ‘I want to go to the theatre’. They should be of the same importance.”
People in Nabatieh need a cultural space ... You need art in order to cancel out violence.
Nabatieh’s mayor, Ahmad Mahmoud Kaheel, told Al Jazeera that Stars Cinema, along with a new mall, was part of a wave of “economic ascendancy” sweeping the city.
“This kind of arts centre will improve the cultural life of the city, which is just as important as the economic or educational side,” Kaheel said. “We will work alongside Istanbouli in order to achieve the goal of positively impacting the lives of our citizens, while respecting the religious environment of Nabatieh and the [cinema’s] neighbours.”
On a recent afternoon, a crowd of curious children milled around Stars Cinema, trying to ascertain what all the activity was about. “People show up whenever we come here to help clean up and restore the space,” Istanbouli said, noting that the site had been used as a rubbish dump for more than two decades.
Hussein al-Abdullah, a theatre student at Beirut’s Lebanese University who has been working as a volunteer to help prepare Stars Cinema for its August reopening, says he is excited to see how it could change the cultural landscape of Nabatieh.
“To be a part of this theatre, it’s beautiful,” Abdullah told Al Jazeera. “It’s important to open up a space like this for the people here, to do something for them. The wars have destroyed many important buildings and theatres in Lebanon … We want people to be able to breathe and enjoy life and see movies.
“It’s important for people who live in this pain to have access to the arts.”
Additional reporting by Moe Jaber