x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Screen of dreams

Feature The Metropolis Cinema is one crucial element in Lebanon's vital, but struggling, independent film movement.

The Metropolis, Beirut's first art house cinema, opened days before Israel's bombardment of the city in 2006.
The Metropolis, Beirut's first art house cinema, opened days before Israel's bombardment of the city in 2006.

The Metropolis Cinema is one crucial element in Lebanon's vital, but struggling, independent film movement. Jeffery Sipe meets the woman behind the scenes. After spending two years securing funding and scouring the city for a suitable space, Hania Mroue was not going to let anything - even an Israeli bombing campaign - disrupt the opening of the Metropolis Cinema, Beirut's first art house. Located in the district of Hamra, just a short distance from the American University of Beirut to the north and the Lebanese American University to the south, the 110-seat cinema was perfectly situated to attract not only students but also the culture vultures who have flocked to the area's coffee shops, restaurants and bars for decades.

The opening date was set for July 11 2006 when Israel was very publicly preparing to attack Lebanon in response to Hizbollah incursions into northern Israel. "What could we do?" Mroue asks rhetorically. "You can't just stop living." The Metropolis began screening its debut programme of films from the Cannes Critics' Week, a prestigious sidebar at the international film festival. The day after the Metropolis opened its doors, bombs began falling on southern Lebanon and Beirut's Hizbollah-controlled southern suburbs. The explosions shook the entire city.

"We screened films for three or four days," Mroue recalls. "But people stopped coming." Residents of the southern suburbs, however, began streaming north, towards Hamra. "I think someone who was working at Metropolis told someone they knew that they could stay there," recounts Mroue. "Metropolis is actually underground, so people felt safer there. So somebody told somebody else who told somebody else - you know, everybody knows everybody in Beirut - and we ended up with around 100 people staying there. They had nowhere else to go. They were homeless."

Most who came were families. "They were sleeping everywhere, and the kids, how long can you keep them locked in a place underground? How many minutes before they go crazy and start destroying everything?" So she did what an exhibitor does: she screened films: cartoons, Lebanese films, anything that she could get her hands on. It helped. A little. "They were also very nervous because of the bombing," she continues, "so we organised workshops and gave them paper and pens and pencils and asked them to draw so that they somehow could express their feelings about what was happening.

"Sometimes when it was more calm they could go outside, but it was very dangerous. Whole buildings were shaking and at night you could hear buildings falling. We thought it would last for a few days, just like the other times. But then, you know what happened." For 34 days, the Israeli bombs continued to fall. Two-and-a-half years later I've only had to dodge raindrops on my way to meet the 34-year-old entrepreneur at Café de Prague, a short distance from the original Metropolis Cinema. Mroue has just screened her last film in that location - Mohammed Soueid's documentary My Heart Beats Only For Her. She is on the verge of signing a contract with a larger exhibition outfit that wants her to programme two of their screens under the Metropolis rubric. One screen will feature traditional Metropolis titles, ie local and regional films without Middle East distribution. The other screen will feature retrospectives and programmes of films that are rarely seen but may be more accessible to mainstream audiences.

She is not there when I arrive, so I order coffee and wait. Based on what I know about her, she is not the kind of person to be late. She has a bachelor's degree in economics and for 13 years was a dancer with Lebanon's Caracalla Dance Theatre (the troupe that performed Zayed And The Dream during National Day celebrations in Abu Dhabi last year). Faced with the decision of how to optimise her considerable energies, Mroue opted for the cinema, but it was the orphaned cinema of Lebanon and the Middle East that she chose to nurture.

She joined forces with like-minded people and, with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation and money from the European Union - "we tried really hard to get money from the Arab world but we totally failed" - they created Beirut DC, a film collective dedicated to fostering Arab filmmaking and exhibiting independent foreign films. Its first major accomplishment was the Ayam Beirut al Cinema'iya Film Festival, Beirut's first film festival focusing on Arab film.

"Nobody was interested in Arab production," she recalls. "People said that the festival was an idea that wouldn't work. Everybody thought we were crazy." There is, of course, no reason to think that they weren't. But the film business, whether it's in Hollywood, Beirut, Bucharest or Beijing would not exist if only the sane were involved. Half an hour passes and I'm still sitting alone in the cafe, feeling a little uncomfortable. Even the waitress, whom I've told that I am waiting for someone, begins to cast long glances in my direction, fearing, I am sure, that I have been stood up.

The door opens and in walks Mroue, her black hair sprinkled with raindrops. She nervously unwraps the scarf from her neck and looks my way, immediately apologising between quick, deep breaths. She had been stuck in Beirut's notorious traffic with no way to contact me. I do my best to put her at ease, and after a couple of minutes, she is completely calm. "Awkward" and "uncomfortable", I soon sense, are not things Hania Mroue often experiences.

"We were not expecting so much interest in Ayam Beirut from the public, from the press, from everybody. And that's what keeps us going, because financially..."her voice trails off with a slight shrug of her shoulders. The film industry is generally thought of as glamorous and monied. In places where there is an established industry, that can be true. Developed production, distribution and exhibition sectors can generate substantial sums of money. Lebanon has not yet reached such heights, however. Production is financed almost entirely from abroad, largely from France, and the few films produced annually make it very difficult to refer to a "Lebanese cinema".

"Today," says Eliane Rehab, a documentary filmmaker who was one of the original founders of Beirut DC and serves as artistic director of Ayam Beirut, "there are three or four established directors who have done feature films - Ghassan Salhab, Ziad Doueiri, Randa Chahal. On the other hand there are many emerging directors who work in experimental film, shorts and documentaries. This 'alternative cinema' is much more dynamic. We can't really talk about Lebanese cinema because we do not have an infrastructure... Unless the state begins to consider a film funding policy, an infrastructure is not likely to develop. The private sector cannot produce for the box office as is possible in Egypt because the population of Lebanon is only four million. The box office will never be profitable."

Mroue has run Metropolis as a non-profit operation since it opened its doors in 2006, paying bills with grant money, donations and funds raised through events. With only 110 seats and ticket prices kept intentionally low, it was logistically impossible for Metropolis to turn a profit even if every screening sold out. However, sold-out screenings have not been unusual. "I can't tell you how many times I've gone to Metropolis only to be turned away because it's full," says the Beirut-based arts writer, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.

Such success may be gratifying, but according to Rehab, it has exacted a price. "Metropolis is a very important project for the Lebanese cultural scene and the local film community but because it was born in very difficult political circumstances, it has made Hania's life tormented and unstable." Seated across from Mroue at the cafe, and later in the week at Time Out, an old house in Beirut's Achrafieh district that has been converted into a restaurant and lounge, she does not show much sign of torment. She is friendly, lively and sociable, though she often displays the ironic sense of humour born from coming of age in a society that can be dysfunctional.

When I express surprise that so much advertising in Beirut is in English, she tells me: "It's for the tourists. They haven't come yet. Every year the government tells us that they are coming and we keep getting ready. Now, we all speak English and everything is written in English. They haven't come yet but when they do, well, we're ready." After Lebanon's civil war came to its official end almost 20 years ago, Beirut dedicated itself to rebuilding. The downtown area, which had been mostly reduced to rubble, has been entirely rebuilt and is pristine. In fact, it is so pristine that if it weren't for the barbed wire, tanks and machine gun-toting soldiers around the perimeter, it would have little personality. Much of the rest of the city resembles a somewhat rundown town on the French Riviera, with the occasional bullet-pocked wall evidence of a past that only pretends to recede.

"There are many layers to Beirut," Mroue tells me when I express my amazement that the citizens of a city so friendly and seemingly so sophisticated were relatively recently killing one another. "You are not likely to meet people who want to kill you. Nobody wants to kill anybody anywhere in the world. But the person you meet who is so nice to you, you don't know what kind of ideas they have, or what they believe about many things because you don't talk to them about that. We don't talk about the civil war. Downtown, all the buildings were reconstructed. There are no traces of the civil war except inside ourselves. Sometimes I go out at night and I think 'Wow! Beirut! What a city! Where are the 16 years of civil war?' But, of course, it is still there."

Both Beirut DC and Metropolis are the fruits of Beirut's cultural regeneration following the civil conflict and occupation by both Israel and Syria. The city's unique location at the eastern tip of the Mediterranean, a crossroads for countless cultures and peoples across the millennia, inevitably fostered a vibrant cultural life. It also fostered the very conflict that stomped on that vibrancy. But the conflict of more tangible effect is the war of 2006.

"After the war, it was very difficult to sustain Metropolis," Mroue says. "It was very difficult to get money because all the funding went to humanitarian needs. It was also difficult to get films because we could only screen films that did not have distributors in Lebanon, and we did not have the money to transport all the films that we would like to screen. And then when we got the films we had to deal with censorship."

Funds continue to be of utmost concern. "There's money here," she says, "but not for culture." The backing of a major exhibition chain should wipe away much of those lingering problems, but there will be others. Mroue is expecting resistance from Beirut's established distributors, all of whom operate in various countries in the Middle East because no Arab country other than Egypt has a population and a tradition that can make operating in just one country lucrative.

"I represent about 0.5 per cent of the market," Mroue says. "I'm not a threat to their business, but they don't want another distributor in the market." Mohammed Soueid, one of Lebanon's best-known documentary filmmakers who is a founder of Beirut DC, believes that Metropolis's survival as a commercial venture is irrelevant. "Lebanon is not secure all of the time," he says, "and any kind of venture is always precarious. There is very little room for hope. When Metropolis opened, there had been no new theatre opened for 10 years. But it's a non-profit, and a film programme alone is not enough to sustain it. You need a multidisciplinary programme to promote the undertaking - festivals, workshops and other events. Its survival as a business is not really the point."

In a country such as Lebanon, so wracked with division and a perpetual potential for violence that is periodically realised, the ability to hope and dream can be savaged by the daily reality. Films produced by the Hollywood "dream machine" are regularly booked into mainstream Lebanese cinemas, but they offer only a short respite. "We are not part of the dream machine," Mroue says of Metropolis and Beirut DC, "but the dream is very much a part of it. We invited Catherine Deneuve [for the premiere of Je Vieux Voir, a documentary that features her as she tours the destruction of the 2006 Israeli bombing] and she came and everyone was delighted to come watch the film with her. That's part of the dream. It's important to make people dream because that is also something that is being lost.

"We live in a very difficult political environment. Somehow we are not allowed any more to dream - if you dream about an art project, a film you want to make, a house you want to buy, it is so difficult. Nobody will help you. So at the end of the day, the reality is much more powerful than the imagination. No matter how creative the people in Hollywood are, the war of 2006 was more powerful. It is important to give people the space to dream."

When I ask Hania Mroue what she dreams of, there is a long silence. For a few moments, it feels as if she has left the table. Her mouth twitches a few times with unformed words and then slowly she begins to speak. "I only dream to see this place, not like it was, because everybody tells me that Beirut in the Sixties was so wonderful, like Paris: that is an image that I grew up with, an image of something before I was born. Now, I would like to see it not as it used to be, but like I dream it to be. Very sophisticated, very multicultural, very much alive, full of energy and not thinking every time you go out that you are risking your life or risking your future... I think this is what I am trying to create with my work."