In downtown Beirut, a crumbling movie theater, abandoned by investors since the start of the civil war in 1975, provides a metaphor for the Lebanese cinema industry.
The gray concrete structure, standing on pillars and nicknamed “the Egg” for its shape, became the focus of protests during the October 2019 “thawra”, or revolution.
The demonstrators were not only protesting against sectarian rule and corruption, they were also expressing their love for cinema, an industry in which Lebanon has always been a pioneer in the Arab world. The protests were a tribute to Lebanese cinema and its reputation as a cultural beacon in the Middle East. (See a related article, “In Lebanon, Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians.”)
Today, the Egg is again deserted, casting its gloomy shadow over the city center which was partly destroyed by the catastrophic explosion in Beirut’s port last year. While the building still stands, the country is heading towards a massive collapse, which does not spare the cinema and artistic creation.
The question is: Will Lebanese cinema manage to resist, and at what price?
According to a study published by the Basil Fuleihan Institute, Lebanese cinema, represented by 37 production companies, generated $99 million in 2018, as ticket sales saw skyrocketing growth before the crisis.
Between 2005 and 2019, a total of 119 Lebanese productions entered the box office, with international successes such as Nadine Labaki’s movies.
“Lebanese cinema has lost its large domestic audience, as many movie theaters have closed, and ticket prices have become inaccessible for a large part of the population.”Saad al Qadri
An actor and director
Funding Model Collapses
With the economic crisis, a whole funding model is collapsing, as actor and director Saad al Qadri explains. “Lebanese cinema has lost its large domestic audience, as many movie theaters have closed, and ticket prices have become inaccessible for a large part of the population,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
Local investors are unable to finance Lebanese productions, due to the banking crisis and capital control of the past two years. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities.”)
Films that have already been produced have not been released, and many filmmakers are unable to cover their costs.
“Two of my films are waiting to be released since 2019, but the producer prefers to postpone the date to avoid losses,” al Qadri says.
Foreign investors and donors are now the main funders of Lebanese cinema, but actors and directors have found that this financial support comes with heavy constraints and conditions that can hinder creativity.
One director said a donor had asked him to modify the script of his series to remove politically sensitive content. Film creation is thus forced to respect red lines and taboos that often correspond to foreign agendas.
“These institutions format the films to fit their agenda,” says Rabih Haddad, a film teacher at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut. “Film projects are selected by the funders, then scripts are rewritten with the help of European specialists,” he said, adding that this hampers the freedom and creativity of Lebanese filmmakers.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese State is totally absent. In contrast, the French Institute of Lebanon runs programs to support Lebanese cinema through structures such as Metropolis, Beirut DC, or the Association Liban Cinéma. Its cinema hall is available to directors to display their movies, and it offers a residency program in France for Lebanese artists, an initiative aimed at strengthening cultural ties between the two countries.
“We are trying to combine emergency aid with long-term support,” says Charlotte Schwarzinger, audiovisual project manager at the French Institute.
“For example, we participated in the organization of the ‘Ecrans du Réel’ festival, and we try to support cinema initiatives outside Beirut as much as possible,” she adds.
Lebanese Cinema’s Identity at Risk
The loss of public audiences and local sponsors has led Lebanese cinema to target a foreign audience. “We often end up with films adapted to a Western audience, their only goal is to interest international festivals,” said Haddad.
“A new pioneer cinema can be born out of the ashes of the former one. This crisis can become a springboard to regenerate the Lebanese cinema and renew the industry.”Rabih Haddad
A film teacher at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut.
Journalist and activist Hussein Chaabane says Lebanese cinema is at risk of losing its identity. “Throughout our history, cinema has suffered from many crises, but it remained Lebanese, with Lebanese directors, funding, and a Lebanese audience,” he said.
“The demands of the Western audience are different, which leads to changing the very essence of these films,” says Hussein, who wonders, “If the funder is foreign and the audience is foreign, will Lebanese cinema still be Lebanese?”
Foreign funding and international festivals can be an opportunity for Lebanese cinema to achieve international fame, but “it depends on the ability of Lebanese filmmakers to resist material constraints and temptations, as these funds could well be used for political purposes” adds Chaabane.
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Cinema is the mirror of society, and one of the most influential means of communication across different social groups. For many activists, it can even be a tool for mobilization, as documentaries on the “thawra” and the August 4th explosion have shown.
Haddad believes that the unprecedented crisis facing the country proves the need for a new cinema, with new criteria and modes of financing.
“A new pioneer cinema can be born out of the ashes of the former one,” he said. “This crisis can become a springboard to regenerate the Lebanese cinema and renew the industry.”