Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

Why Jordan’s Al Zaatari cinema means so much: 'These children need the power to dream'

A new cinema in Jordan’s largest refugee camp is giving many their first experience of the movies

An excited fervour rippled through the Middle East’s largest refugee camp last week as children flocked to the eagerly anticipated launch of its first cinema.

Syrian refugees of all ages were welcomed through Cinema Zaatari’s doors and into the red-carpeted venue, which opened in the centre of Jordan’s Al Zaatari camp on Sunday. More than 120 people – many dressed in their finest especially for the event – attended its first screening, which was the Pixar film Finding Nemo.

'I never thought we'd have a cinema here'

It was 13-year-old Rajaa’s first time going to the movies. “I’ve been excited since yesterday,” she says. “I never thought we’d have a cinema here.”

So enraptured by the experience were some of the younger audience members, they struggled to remain in their seats as the film got under way, instead choosing to sit on the floor at the front, up close to the screen, as they tucked into their bags of popcorn.

It’s bringing back sweet memories of old times; when I got engaged, my fiance and I went to the cinema and I loved it. The second time was when we had a family and we all went. This is the third time in my life.

Um Nawal

Shawarma and falafel stations were provided by Zaatari restaurants, while home-made pastries, Arabic sweets, juice and water were also distributed among the guests. Wooden seats reclaimed from an abandoned cinema in Jordan’s capital, Amman, fill the theatre and a small stage provides an area for introductions and discussions.

Islam, 12, says he spent a lot of time thinking about what the cinema might be like. “I imagined it would be big and nice and it’s just like that. I’m going to come here as much as I can.”

The opening was a nostalgic experience for Um Nawal, who attended the event with her children and neighbour. “It’s bringing back sweet memories of old times; when I got engaged, my fiance and I went to the cinema and I loved it. The second time was when we had a family and we all went. This is the third time in my life,” she says.

The decision to bring a cinema to the camp

Ahmad Ameen, 36, was appointed cinema manager in December. He says he was overwhelmed by the residents’ reactions. “People were running from all over the camp to enter the cinema. And they continued to come throughout the whole screening,” Ameen says. “It was incredible to watch the children interacting with the movie and acknowledging that this space was for them.”

Ameen has been in the film industry since 2006. He set up a private film club in Amman in 2016 and is currently compiling a classical Arabic movie archive. Film is clearly a passion for him, yet, he says being a part of Cinema Zaatari is providing a level of satisfaction he has not experienced in previous jobs.

Ensam, eight, left, and Walaa, 12, get ready for their first cinema experience. Courtesy Unicef
Ensam, eight, left, and Walaa, 12, get ready for their first cinema experience. Courtesy Unicef

“People have asked me, ‘Why have you given the refugees a cinema? They need food, they need clothes’. And I tell them, these children need to have creativity in their lives, especially the ones who were born here – they need the power to dream, to have hope and to watch stories that empower them,” says Ameen. “There’s something very rewarding about this that goes beyond cinema.”

He says the aim of Cinema Zaatari is to provide a creative space for all of the camp’s residents, but particularly the younger generation; somewhere that not only provides entertainment, but also acts as an educational tool to develop understanding of other people and cultures, and creates social bonds.

“I remember the first time I watched a movie, I remember the first movie that affected me; the power of media in educating people is very effective,” says Ameen. “The reality of living in the camp is very harsh. Its residents don’t have many options and there is a limitation on the types of platforms on offer for educational and entertainment purposes – this cinema is providing a new approach.”

How it all came together

The project came to fruition through a joint venture between French non-profit association Lumiere a Zaatari, local film production company Imaginarium and Unicef. The story of the project began in 2017, when French film director Xavier Giannoli visited Zaatari camp to shoot scenes for the movie he was working on at the time. He and his team were so moved by their experience that they felt compelled to create a cinema in the camp.

Residents of Al Zaatari refugee camp at Cinema Zaatari’s first  screening. AFP
Residents of Al Zaatari refugee camp at Cinema Zaatari’s first  screening. AFP

Giannoli set up a crowd-funding campaign, which reached a total of $47,503 (Dh174,455), and Lumiere a Zaatari was formed, named in recognition of the contribution French cinema inventors, the Lumiere brothers, made to film. The project has received help from a number of organisations and volunteers, and Giannoli says Cinema Zaatari would not have been possible without the generous donations from hundreds of people all over the world, as well as the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and many major companies in France such as Gaumount, Canon, Institut Lumiere and others.

What's next?

Since 2012, almost seven million Syrians have fled the war in their country, and 1.3m of those are now taking refuge in Jordan. Zaatari camp, run by UNHCR and located 10km from the Syrian border, is home to about 80,000 refugees, more than half of whom are children and about 20 per cent are under the age of seven and have been born in the camp. Although living conditions have improved since it was first set up, its residents are still heavily dependent on humanitarian aid.

From next month, a summer film programme will be launched at Cinema Zaatari, which means eight films will be shown regularly throughout the summer, all dubbed in Arabic. There will be separate screenings for boys and girls each week. “We want to organise workshops involving screenings and then discussions,” says Ameen.

They plan to bring in local artists to work with the children ahead of screenings to create an interactive experience, he says. The cinema will also introduce an opportunity for the viewers to provide feedback about the movies. “We want to make sure we’re showing films the children want to watch while also ensuring they know their opinions are valued and that they have a say in this project,” Ameen says.

Claire McKeever, communications specialist for Unicef, says it was amazing to see how happy the children were to have a day out. “Cinema Zaatari is giving the children a sense of normality and bringing families together,” she says. “This is the first time an authentic cinema experience has been offered in the camp. For some children, this is their first experience of a cinema and for the adults it’s a chance to relive their memories of going to the movies in Syria,” she says.

“It’s been a pleasure to work on the project.”

Updated: July 1, 2019 03:56 PM

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