In the 1950s and 60s, when the seventh art of cinema was experiencing a golden age around the world, Tripoli boasted dozens of cinemas. From the early 70s on, cinema showings would be followed by sometimes lengthy and heated audience discussions. But this cinema-going culture disappeared with the advent of TV and the beginning of the war, and with it so did some of Tripoli’s cosmopolitan flavor. All around Tripoli today, however, fond memories of these days are still alive. NOW spoke to filmmakers and cinephiles who were willing to share their memories.
As a young man, Mohammed Masri would go to the cinema all the time. He was once caught with his feet up on the seats at Cinema Salwa in Al Mina – Tripoli’s neighboring harbor town – which resulted in the owner pasting a sign on the wall instructing patrons not to put their feet up. The sign is still there, but the cinema has gone. In a twist of fate, Masri, a wood carver, now rents the space and makes chairs there. The space is filled with his handiwork, sawdust and fond memories.
In a cabinet next to what used to be the box office, Masri keeps movies, many of which he saw at the old Salwa. Bruce Lee films, Safar Barlik (The Exile) starring Fairuz, and Henri Verneuil’s 1971 movie Le Casse (The Burglar) with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif, which Masri loved so much he watched it three times. “For the first time, a French movie featured a French guy as the bad guy and the Arab as the good guy. But the Arab dies in the end,” he says, laughing, adding “this was the best time of my life!”. Most days he and his friends would start at one cinema at 3pm, move on to the 6pm show at another, and often catch a 9pm show at a third.
Masri has transformed the former box office into a tiny kitchen. The projectors are still upstairs, covered in dust. A film lies on the floor, evoking memories of Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 love story to film Cinema Paradiso. He readily admits that he misses those days 40 years ago when he’d spend much of his time in Mina’s cinemas. “I miss my family,” Masri says, referring to friends from back then. They’ve since lost track of each other, and Masri’s efforts to trace them have been unsuccessful.
Esteemed cinema critic and lecturer Emile Chahine recalls: “back in 1930 my dad bought land on Tell Street in the center of Tripoli and financed the Cinema Empire building, where the flat in which I was born and lived until 1975 was situated…. I could get into the Empire below for free, [and I] frequently watched movies a few times - and from our balcony I could see the Arabic movies at the Dunia. They didn’t have air-con so they’d open the windows and… I could see the screen. This is how I became a cinephile.”
Chahine states that French films were popular but rarely outdid American movies. Once, however, Trapeze, a circus film starring Gina Lollobrigida, Burt Lancaster, and Tony Curtis was screening at the Empire, Cette Sacrée Gamine starring Brigitte Bardot was on at the Opera and the Palace showed Bus Stop featuring Marilyn Monroe – Trapeze was the most popular film that week. “Otherwise, Western and Spaghetti Western were very popular, but you’d also find Italian comedies and even erotic films screening in Tripoli.”
Director Rania Rafei’s first cine club outing was to see Zorba the Greek, when she was 10, with her mother. “It was violent, I can still remember.” She adds, “My mom has a very conservative background but like many people back then, she was exposed to the big auteur films: Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman… people were better informed, more cultured than nowadays.” Together with her brother Raed, Rafei directed 74 (The Reconstitution of a Struggle), a feature documentary about a student revolt that took place at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1974. It scooped the GNCR (French experimental cinemas network) Award at the FIDMarseille 2012.
From a young age, Dr Saïd Wali, the poet, writer, and retired university professor, would save his pocket money to go watch movies. “There used to be 30 cinemas in Tripoli between 1960 and 1975, some continued operating through and beyond the war. From the early 70s on, the ciné clubs were active and very popular,” he says. Wali was involved in the cinema club based at Tripoli’s Centre Culturel Rachid Karamé, which was usually brimming with attendees. Post-show discussions were lively and went on for hours. “People were even standing. That was Tripoli… I am nostalgic, yes, people used to talk and fight,” Wali readily admits. “When we screened The Name of the Rose, it caused a near riot. L’Année dernière à Marienbad and Au Hasard Balthasar, two difficult movies, people simply didn’t get.”
Wali remembers all Tripoli’s cinemas, including Mina’s four, an open air cinema in Abou Samra and even two cinemas in Al Tebbeneh, one of them a cinéma de papa, where kids would sneak in and movie-goers would usually pay the owner with bread or eggs. “They screened all sorts of movies there, Egyptian, American, French.” He adds “People don’t go out much nowadays, they’re scared or they watch movies in one of the two malls outside Tripoli.”
Elias Khlat, consultant, producer, and president of Tripoli Foundation recalls, “in between the two wars, my grandfather owned three cinemas, he was a pioneer and established the Cinematographic Society of Lebanon which he managed until he passed away in the late 50s.” According to Khlat the city isn’t as cosmopolitan as it used to be. “It’s become a village, it’s not a city anymore. It used to be an open city with cinemas, restaurants, cabarets, even strip shows, hotels, locals and foreigners socializing.”
Academic and writer Youssef Mouawad recalls that East of Eden, with James Dean, was one of the first films he saw. He recalls, “two films in particular caused quite a stir: Faible Femme, screened in the early 60s and Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman. There used to be a snitch waiting outside the cinema! One day, a school friend admitted to having seen Vadim’s film. Our teacher was about to scold him, when he explained that he’d been with his father, who took him along to translate…”
“There was popcorn, soft drinks, and thick cigarette smoke hanging over the audience. It was quite common during screenings of Western movies to see people reading the subtitles to an illiterate cinemagoer sitting next to them. Even if it meant outing yourself as illiterate, the pull of Western movies was strong. The movies were screened with subtitles – it was great! We got to learn languages. There was nothing else to do!” Mouawad recollects.
Only the façades of some of the old cinemas and memories remain. In recent years, a younger generation of Tripoli filmmakers has used their multi-faceted hometown as a location to tell local stories.
Filmmakers Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia shot OK, Enough, Goodbye, a quirky, highly original film released in 2012, with a micro budget. They did it over 40 days and in 30 locations in Tripoli – including a tire burning scene in the city center. Attieh drew on friends and relatives from her hometown to star along lead actor Daniel Arzrouni.
If he could travel back in time, Taha A. Baba, a young programmer from Tripoli would want to visit the Hollywood cinema in Mina. “It is one of the oldest cinemas in the area, I heard a lot about it,” Baba explains. His favorite anecdote is about a man who, because he was blind in one eye, wished to be charged only half the ticket price – the request was granted. Baba would love to see one of the old cinemas transformed into a museum to celebrate, reflect and preserve what remains of Tripoli’s once vibrant cinema-going culture.
With the resurgence around the world of small independent cinemas, perhaps Baba might someday have his wish granted.