The most beautiful days of my life

he elderly gentleman sitting in front spoke with a nostalgic tone, frequently and tenderly uttering “Sabouha,” “Sabouha” into the dark. He evidently enjoyed the screening of “Beirut Zero 11,” the opening film of Metropolis Cinema’s 1960s Lebanese film retrospective titled The Most Beautiful Days of My Life.

What for some audience members entailed a discovery, for others it was a journey back to a different time in their lives, their younger selves, a different city and a different country.

The first edition of the retrospective aims to showcase only one aspect of the films made in the 1960s and 1970s. “The idea was to reveal to those who think there was no cinema back then, the Lebanese cinema of the 1960s,” explains filmmaker and visual artist Joana Hadjithomas who, together with Antoine Khalife, was responsible for programming and artistic supervision of the retrospective.

“We decided to go with the commercial genre created around stars such as Sabah in our first edition. As the retrospective will reveal, society changed at that time and so did values. With this first edition, we want to give cinema its life back. Next year, we will focus on political films made during [the 1960s and the 1970s].”

“The response [on opening night] was rather positive,” Metropolis Director Hania Mroué tells NOW Extra. “We were worried that audiences would watch ‘Beirut Zero 11’ with a critical eye, take the film too serious. We’re showcasing a cinema that aimed at commercial success and entertaining its audiences.”

Beirut Zero 11

Directed by Antoine Rimi and starring Sabah, Ihsan Sadek and Nadia Jamal, “Beirut Zero 11” is an action-packed film about two smuggling gangs, a priceless statute and a dashing cop, Adel Sherif, played by Sadek.

The film has a fair amount of action scenes, car chases and shoot outs interspersed with comical moments, such as the fight scene in a pigeon coop. Another shows scene shows Salma, who in true Lebanese style, though blind, wears high heels. Whenever the plot thickens, actors light up a cigarette. Audience members, frequently foreseeing a lighter about to be pulled out, another cigarette lit, laughingly, as on cue, whispered “cigarra.”

The Carrousel, one of the main sets, is a night club with adventurous décor and the undisputed queen of the night, Kouther, who is played by Sabah, Sadek’s fiancée in the movie.

A noteworthy singer and performer, Sabah, famously known as Alshuhroura, also reveals herself to be a formidable accomplice who knows how to handle a gun and turns to unconventional, womanly weapons (garters) in times of crisis.

In an endearing scene, Kouther follows Adel on a risky mission and while nearly endangering them both with her clumsiness, she endears herself to her man and her audience.

“I love you so much…” she tells Adel, hiding with him outside the villains’ headquarters, but before she can say more, he lovingly puts his hand over her mouth so as not to make their presence heard.

Kouther, the glamorous singer, eventually turns into a Bond girl, and with the help of her high heels and a little timing device, blows up a boat full of villains.

Younger audiences may find the plots of the films selected lacking in suspense, but seeing the fashion and mannerism of the time, the locations used as backdrops around Beirut and Lebanon, the roles played by men and women, the legendary stars dominating the screen, and the use of Egyptian dialect, is more than a walk down memory lane; it’s a delight, it’s taking a look into a treasure trove.

“It’s a great initiative, this retrospective! It reveals a lot about movies in the 1960s, and it is interesting to see that despite limitations, films were made. We laugh and find them amusing now, but they enrich us. Lebanese cinema today should take note of this and have the courage to take risks. With little means they made something, [and] in this way, they guided us. We owe them respect,” said Marie-Christine Tayah who attended the retrospective’s opening night.

Lebanese cinema in the 1960s

“In the 1960s, films were mainly made for the box office,” explains Mroué. “Films that came out in the 1960s would generally open at the Interpole, the most prestigious cinema in central Beirut.”

According to Mroué, cinema audiences were very diverse, and cinema certainly was not a ‘class thing,’ but drew in families. While young men mostly attended action movies, it was uncommon for women to go to the cinema on their own.

“The movies weren’t great, maybe, nor of the best of quality but they are a fact. They were made, and audiences should not view them with neither a critical nor a nostalgic eye but acknowledge them. They also offer an interesting model: to me, the most interesting aspect might in fact be the collaborations between Arab countries, notably with Egypt but also with Turkey and Syria,” Mroué adds.

Interestingly enough, the censorship law that applies today is the same as in the 1960s. The indulgence that was applied then has, however, made way for a stricter interpretation at present. “Today, making and screening films is more difficult than 50 years ago,” she says.

The main aim of the retrospective’s first edition is to bring forgotten films back to the big screen and to establish how young audiences respond to Lebanese cinema of the 1960s. Mroué hopes that as part of this process, more films from the era can be restored and subtitled, which is a lengthy and costly process.

“All these films represent our heritage. It is important to revisit and rediscover the history of our cinema. It represents our collective memory and even those who did not live to see many of these films know of them, through stories, know the stars, the city, the country.” 

While the films, guns and gadgets may in some ways seem outdated, the cinema of the 1960s and1970s was in many ways richer – it had genres. Unlike today, where broadly speaking, socio-political films dominate, the output back then included action, romance, drama, thriller, B-movies, films d’auteur, and political films.

The Black Jaguar

One of the highlights among the 11 films on offer is Mohammad Salman’s “The Black Jaguar,” starring Sadek in the role of Anwar Salama, the dashing, fearless Agent 999 who is chasing a ring of drug dealers led by a mysterious “Big Boss.” Thanks to the Fondation Liban Cinéma’s heritage work, the film was restored and subtitled into English in 2006. 

The James Bond soundtrack, interspersed with a Lebanese diva serenading her beau, pencil moustaches, curvy bikini-clad girls in Raouché, boots and big hair are simply marvelous. So are the decor and the fashion, cars and props of the time.

As the main lead, Nadia, played by Taroub, sings “O pillow, tell him I want him to sit by my side and calm my heart’s burning desire.” Agent 999 remains unfazed, but for how long?

Memorable, foreshadowing lines include Agent 999’s superintendent advising him to “Pretend you’re in love and you’ll overcome the biggest hurdle!”

And as Nadia exclaims, “I need one more thing… your love.” Agent 999 stoically replies, “Duty first.”

A reel treat is the special focus dedicated to Sabah on Saturday June 16. The double bill includes two of Mohammad Salman’s hits, “Welcome, Love” (1970) and “The Guitar of Love” (1974) showing at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. respectively.

Ishan Sadek, the undisputed prince of 1960s Lebanese cinema whose career spans over 50 years and 25 films, graced the opening of the retrospective with his presence. “I am happy with the turn-out,” he told NOW Extra. “It offers young people who study cinema today a good insight.”

The retrospective reminds us that some films are made to entertain. Ideally, just like back then, audiences members, young and old, families, and single men and women should enjoy the rediscovery of the tales and delights of Lebanon’s golden age.
The Most Beautiful Days of My Life is running at Metropolis Cinema daily until June 22, 2012. Tickets cost LL5 000; a pass costs LL 40,000.  For more details, please call 01-204080 or check out the Metropolis Cinema website here.