DAMASCUS: Nasser Zouzou is not exactly upbeat as he shows his spacious 735-seat Rameta Theater, strategically located in the heart of Syria’s capital.
“The minister of culture came to my theater and said ‘keep up the good work.’ Yeah, and then what?” Zouzou asked.
The Rameta and others like it are nearly empty of movie-goers, and although this week’s Damascus Film Festival has attracted scores of them with a blitz of films, seven days cannot slow a decline that began more than three decades ago.
“Who sees films in theaters? Nobody. The unemployed,” Zouzou laughed.
“I think I’ll turn it into a warehouse. Seven hundred seats, multiplied by four showings a day, and maybe 30 people show up. You do the math.” About a dozen cinemas remain open in the capital, and their names Kindi, Ahram, Sufara, Zahraa, Dimashq, Rameta, Khayyam, Firdous, Amir are known by mainly the older generation, which remembers when taking the family to the movies was a common pastime, if not hallowed weekly tradition.
The only theater to preserve a good reputation and decent attendance is the Cham Palace Hotel, whose theater enjoys an exemption from the stifling government regulations that are blamed for the decline.
Naturally, the owners of the older houses rely on other businesses to keep going. Zouzou uses his theater space as an office to run his other businesses clothing stores, car rental offices and a hotel.
In the Zahraa theater, built in 1959, two of the three owners reminisce about the good old days, when packed houses were common and Umm Kalthoum played the 1,600-seat hall, complete with balcony and lobby seating.
“Our customers these days? Soldiers, or people waiting for a bus,” quipped Hassan Daqqaq.
“The public has no trust in theaters. No one would think of letting his sister go to the cinema these days.” With seats costing between SL15-40 (30 cents to 80 cents) and a minuscule clientele that consists mostly of “young trouble-makers” and army conscripts, theater owners take the decline in stride.
They are proud of their art deco halls, which usually feature spacious snack bars and a central location near the Bawabet Salhieh roundabout.
The Sufara, on May 29 Street, is a huge, double-deck theater. In the daytime, if the doors aren’t shut completely, light peeks in from the ground floor so that during the film, the shadows of people walking along May 29 Street flitter across the lower part of the screen. Films that aren’t long enough to merit an intermission get one anyway, to let the vendor sell bottled soft drinks for SL10 (20 cents.) The dead jukebox in the snack bar features selections by Umm Kalthoum and Tom Jones, and the cinema’s employees routinely outnumber the customers.
But the problem does not lie in the theaters themselves, as Daqqaq argued, citing the “lines around the corner” when Youssef Chahine’s film Al-Muhajir played here in the mid-1990s.
It all comes down to state-imposed fees and bureaucratic red tape, say the owners.
They have been encouraged by recent measures to correct the decline, but insist that a few more radical steps need to be taken.
In December, President Bashar Assad signed a decree abolishing the 1969 measure that gave the National Film Organization, an arm of the state, the sole right to import films.
Haitham Haqqi, an acclaimed director of television and cinema, said the decline began when the Syrian state opted for a policy of boycotting the United States, and the West, in the wake of the 1967 defeat by Israel.
After the 1969 decree, Haqqi said, America and the West engaged in a “counter-boycott,” and third-rate Kung Fu movies and other such entertainment squeezed out Oscar winners like Oliver! from appearing in Damascus theaters.
Although the organization enjoyed its own golden age in producing Syrian films during the 1970s and 1980s, the quality of the theaters and the foreign films offered pushed out the middle class. Syrian films became fairly elite-oriented, while poor foreign films attracted lower-income groups.
Matters came to a head in 1998 and 1999, when Haqqi and others mounted a public campaign that called for revamping the organization and the related regulations.
Last year, National Film Organization director-general Marwan Haddad was replaced by Mohammed al-Ahmad, who lobbied for dropping the monopoly.
The 2000 decree included tax exemptions and other incentives for theater owners to renovate their facilities, in the hope that the public would be encouraged to return.
But, as Haqqi pointed out, the essential problem remained: the organization is classified as an “economic” state institution, meaning that it must fund itself.
“The decrees were an initial, positive step. But they didn’t do away with the most important thing, namely the NFO’s ‘economic institution’ status. It does not get a budget for its employees, like other ministries.” Thus, to fund production and its own operations, the NFO charges film importers a commission that ranges from SL125,000-250,000 ($2,500-$5,000) while other taxes and fees on tickets cut into the paltry revenues.
Ahmad said that the highest commission rate was on Indian films, to encourage better-quality Western and Arab fare. But Haqqi advocated further investor incentives and said the organization should reduce its commission fees. Theater owner Daqqaq indicated that slashing red tape would provide important help.
“We bought some good films from Beirut anyway,” Daqqaq said. “They’ve been with the censorship department for three months. We’ll probably get them in another two.”