The Cinema & I: Arabic Cinema, Sea of Changes Part 2

In Part 2 of his series on Arab cinema, critic and film writer Mohammed Rouda reminisces about a Beirut of times gone by, when cinema united people from different background and differing beliefs. And how that all came to an end one tragic day.
The Cinema & I: Arabic Cinema, Sea of Changes Part 2

For Part 1, read here.

As I look back (at times in some anger) I could still see how the future project of the alternative cinema collapsed. Like I stated in the first part, due to the  lack of funds and poor state of distribution mechanism.

But there was another reason for this few years of hope of establishing a new trend in film making not very different from that which took place in the UK or France or Brazil (to name a few and regardless of the cultural gaps). This reason is Beirut, the glorious capital of Lebanon through the 50s, 60s and one half of the 70s.

As a 15 years old kid, I used to hit the downtown area to watch a new film at least twice a week. I'd know exactly what film I'd want to see and where it was shown  before hitting downtown. yet I'd leave my parents' house early enough to roam the other cinemas, just to look at the pictures and point out to myself which one I'd want to watch next time I was there.

You see, Beirut was a cinemateque -- like heaven for movie buffs. All was there: French films, Egyptian films, American films, British films, Italian films. In certain cases, you could even watch a few Russian, Polish, Spanish, Swedish titles and other not very commercial genres of cinema. If you lived in Beirut, you could attend American, Russian, Latin American, German film-weeks or programs.

Cinema houses were the best in the Region. Always the best sound and best picture quality. 

So there, I'd walk from Capitol Cinema to Rivoli Cinema and all in between. Hell, one day I had to watch a film in its last screening day. I was doing the years-end exam. If I succeeded, I'd graduate... If I didn't, I'd stay where I was for another year.

I couldn't focus. I didn't want to. I reckoned that if I spent an hour filling the answers of those questions, I'd lose the opportunity to attend the movie at the 3:00 PM screening. I had money only to buy one ticket and I had to decide fast.

I sealed my paper at the top (as instructed to) and gave it to a teacher who looked at the blank page then at me, wondering. I didn't care. I just left the school and ran all the way (over 3 kilometers away) to the cinema and made it on time. "The Film" was (if I remember right) John Boorman's Point Blank (starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson).

All of this "luxury" came to a stop when, in 1975 the armed forces of an extreme right wing party stopped a bus that was carrying Palestinians. Ordered them down and shot them right there, not very unlike Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

That was the start of the 16 or so years of Civil War and the end of Beirut as an active film center in the Arab world. 

That extreme right wing party knew what they were doing. Next on their agenda was the destruction of all film theaters in that part of Beirut. The area where Muslims and Christians would meet daily whether to go to work, go to their banks, walk around, go to the post office, eat, drink, enter Mosques and Churches and/or go to cinema houses. There, they would sit beside or in front, or behind any another ticket-buying customer -- regardless of his/her religion, race, nationality or political belief.

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon.

Top image of John Boorman's 'Point Blank' used with permission.

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