Beirut's silver screens flicker through an insecure summer

BEIRUT: Summers in Lebanon are usually slow for the country's many movie theaters and commercial cineplexes. Even the most committed of film buffs tend to prefer evenings on a rooftop nightclub, terraced restaurant or seaside cafe to a few hours of darkened air conditioning. Unfortunately, this has become no ordinary summer.

Going to the movies - what passes for an entertainment and leisure activity in times of peace - has ground to a halt with the onset of war. Yet a few local film purveyors are trying to keep up a semblance of normalcy by sticking to a schedule of screenings.

Lebanon's two major film distributors, Circuit Empire and Circuit Planete, have scaled down their operations dramatically. Empire is only showing movies at the ABC Achrafieh cinema in Beirut, while Planete is holding screenings at its theaters in Zouk, Tripoli and Broumana. Both distributors are confined to showing those films they already had in their possession before the war began. Planete says it may start recycling older films if the war goes on much longer.

Because Israel has imposed a land, sea and air blockade on all of Lebanon, no more film reels can enter the country, unless they were to be ferreted in through Syria, and even that is an unsafe bet at this point. If Lebanon runs out of fuel - a likelihood that will further devastate the already palpable humanitarian crisis in the country - then Planete's and Empire's few functional theaters will go dark.

Metropolis, the art-house theater in the small theater at Masrah al-Madina, itself situated inside the historic Cinema Saroulla on Hamra Street, has had to quickly reinvent itself.

Hania Mroue, who opened Metropolis on July 11, has lined up a schedule of screenings to run through August 15, including movies for children, teenagers and adults. Because she can't currently hire a projectionist, be guaranteed electricity to run the projector, be assured of the fuel needed to operate a generator if the power goes out or obtain any new films from abroad, she is renting and screening DVDs.

All screenings are free and open to the public, and Mroue has made her selections with a specific audience in mind - displaced persons from South Lebanon and Beirut's southern suburbs who have found refuge in Masrah al-Madina.

"I have chosen Arab films that deal with the history of the region and that concern us directly," she says.

"There are films that are rarely released, and they are related to war, not just war here but war in general."

Mroue's program opened yesterday with cartoons for kids at noon, Ziad Doueiri's "West Beirut" in the afternoon and the first installment of Yusri Nasrallah's two-part epic "Bab al-Shams" (the second installment screens tonight).

Among the selections that will be screening later this week are Hany Abu Assad's "Paradise Now" and "Rana's Wedding," Oussama Fawzi's "I Love Cinema," and Elia Suleiman's "Chronicle of a Disappearance" and "Divine Intervention."

Mroue has also chosen some old-school classics, such as Roberto Rosselini's "Open City," Luis Bunuel's "L'Age d'Or," Sam Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron" and Werner Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God."

"I don't think I'm gonna stop," says Mroue, when asked about her perseverance.

"If this war is gonna continue then I'm gonna continue. As long as I can find the films I'm gonna show them."

Mroue has a ready audience, but other Beirutis may very well opt to watch movies at home, provided they have electricity (or a well-charged laptop). Tony Sfeir of CD-Theque, the much loved shop for music, books and movies, reports a 30 percent increase in DVD rentals since the war began.

"People are renting a lot of movies about the Civil War in Lebanon," he says, "plus a lot a stupid stuff to kill their brains," a rather justifiable response, especially if it serves to drown out the sounds of drones, warplanes and booming explosions that continue to rock Beirut night after night.





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