TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 hit “Cinema Paradiso” centers around a well-known Italian film director and the people and places that shaped him when he was growing up. The focus of the film is the small cinema in the town the director grew up in and the man who worked there. Years later, in town for his father’s funeral, the director finds himself drawn to the cinema once again.For Tripoli’s older residents, “Cinema Paradiso” is an everyday reality, whereby they are reminded of their past while mourning the reality of their city, drawn by nostalgia to tell stories of the old times.
For middle-aged Tripolitans, the mere mention of cinema plunges them back into their childhoods, conjuring up intense joy or else causing them to drift off completely. They speak of the cinema halls, the flirtations and the romances and Westerns they watched.
For the city’s residents, the cinema and its environs were a place to gather and socialize, particularly on weekends and during the holidays. Some recall hanging out in Al-Tall Square or on Fouad Chehab Boulevard, where the cinema and the cafes and stores were located. According to their accounts, Tripoli mirrored many European capitals in terms of its daily cultural life.
The city, which now only hosts one large multiplex in a mall, used to boast up to 30 cinemas. The most notable were the Colorado, Palace, Odeon, Hamra, Victoria, Cleopatra, Al-Kawakeb, Al-Ahram and Semiramis – but there were plenty others. The quality of the films ranged from excellent to mediocre, but all the halls were usually filled up regardless.
In a pharmacy on Al-Koura Square by the Al-Tall neighborhood, 62-year-old Ismail Naboulsi and his friends are all too happy to talk about how it used to be.
“The cinema in the old days in Tripoli?” Naboulsi says in a high-pitched, loud voice, startling his customers. “Oh, you are taking me back to the most beautiful days of my life, I wish I could go back for only an hour to watch a film like in the past.”
When interrupted and asked about a particular drug by a customer, Naboulsi laughs and replied: “The best drug is going out. Why don’t you go the cinema, all of your pains will end!”
“Every night, the city would be brimming with lights and the walls would be covered with posters for movies from Al-Koura and Nejmeh Square all the way to Al-Tall, Al-Zahiriya, and the main boulevard.”
The film he remembers most clear is a Western called: “The Bullet is in My Pocket and I am Ready to Travel.”
Although many in Lebanon now have different associations with the country’s beleaguered northern city, Tripoli has a long history of cinematic, theatrical and cultural heritage.
Local director George Nasser, born in 1927, is credited as one of the people to put Lebanese cinema on the map. After a stint in Hollywood during the ’50s, he returned to his birthplace, Tripoli, to make movies.
He shot two of his films in Tripoli: “Al-Gharib al-Sagheer” or “The Little Stranger,” and “Ela Ayn?” or “Where to?” which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957 to great acclaim.
More recently, Tripoli’s late Randa Shahhal won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2003 for her movie “Tayyar Men Waraq” or “The Kite.” The film looks at life under Israeli occupation in south Lebanon, as seen from the perspective of a Druze family separated following the division of their village in two.
But cinemas in Tripoli were not just to show films, but also a stage for theater and concerts by well-known artists. Naboulsi recalls a La Claudette concert in 1970 at the Opera Cinema where dancers wore provocative costumes.
“I was never as happy in all my life as I was at that concert. There are various reasons, but one of them was that the mood in the city tended toward partying and happiness – today its reality is dark and sad.”
Naboulsi is interrupted by his friend, whose face lights up as soon as he hears the word cinema.
“Oh wow, those were beautiful days,” Abdullah Ayoub says. “We would leave our village of Didde in Koura to come here in the morning, and then we would hang out in the city all day before going in and watching a movie. Most of the time it would be a James Bond movie.”
According to Ayoub, he would pay LL4 or LL5 for the trip, while a cinema ticket would cost 75 piasters, or 150 piasters if you wanted to be on the balcony, from where guys would look at the girls from afar.
A middle-aged female customer interjects: “We too used to wait for the boys to look at us, and we used to throw tissues or others things to get their attention, but then we would turn our faces away.”
“We used to be shy,” she adds, “but the cinema was a place of imagination that would enter the depths of your heart and heighten your feelings of love and anger and other emotions depending on the film.”
A younger woman, Houda Masaade, also gives a sigh of happiness as she recalls past days: “I used to go to the cinema with my siblings and sit in the middle, but I would steal glances at the other chairs.”
Masaade said the movies out at the time were always a subject of conversation with her friends, as well as the looks and heroism of Egyptian actors such as Mahmoud Yassine, Hussein Fahmi, Farid Shawki and Naglaa Fathi. The film that made the biggest impression on Masaade was Hussein Kamal’s “Dami, Doumii, wa Ibtisamati” or “Hopeless Love,” a big hit at the time.
It goes without saying that there has been a huge change in the scene since the Civil War that began in 1975. Regardless, those few who still represent the film industry in the city refuse to give in.
The manager of the Tripoli Foundation, Elias Khlat, puts it down to “the cultural resistance in Tripoli.”
Khlat is one of those supporting the Tripoli Film Festival, which will take place April 24-29 regardless of the security situation. The films will be screened at three locations: Nawfal Palace, the Cultural Association and the Safadi Foundation, with the aim of highlighting the city’s cultural side.