x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Big screen returns to West Bank town

Two local businessmen open a brand new cinema in the centre of the city to compete with satellite TV and create genuine excitement.

Palestinian teenagers make inquiries at the ticket booth at Cinema City in Nablus.
Palestinian teenagers make inquiries at the ticket booth at Cinema City in Nablus.

NABLUS, WEST BANK // Mustafa Odeh, 75, remembers well when there last was a cinema in Nablus. "Those were different days," he said in front of his tiny plumbing repair shop in the centre of the city. "There were no satellite dishes, not many TVs, no 300 different channels. The cinema was good then." And it would still be today, or so believe two local businessmen who last week opened a brand new commercial screen in the centre of the city just around the corner from Mr Odeh's shop. And while Mr Odeh was sceptical that the newly opened screen could compete with satellite TV, there is genuine excitement in Nablus that for the first time in nearly 20 years locals can again lose themselves in front of the big screen. An investment of US$2 million (Dh7.34m) is a "calculated risk" said Bashir Shakaa, one of the two businessmen behind Cinema City. "For too long now, Nablus has been missing decent places for entertainment," Mr Shakaa said. "There are very few facilities and people need an escape or release from the daily pressures. The cinema is the perfect place, a place for families and friends." Nablus was one of the hardest hit West Bank cities in the last intifada. The scene of many clashes between Palestinian factions and Israeli soldiers, it closed often for long spells and the city of 130,000 people still witnesses the odd Israeli army incursion. But in recent weeks, the restriction on movement around the West Bank have loosened. Two checkpoints to the north of the city have been entirely lifted, allowing unrestricted access again for the many villages in the Nablus governorate. The main Huwarra checkpoint, meanwhile, now sees traffic flow more freely. Cars with yellow Israeli licence plates are even granted free access on Saturdays, the main market day, allowing Palestinians from Jerusalem or with Israeli citizenship the opportunity to once again enjoy the city's famous knafe, a traditional cheese-filled pastry, and buy the local olive soap. For a traditional commercial and industrial centre, the situation is still far from normal. Although there is a tangible lessening of tensions as witnessed in the willingness of local investors like Mr Shakaa and his partner, Marwan Masri, to begin risking their money, the commercial centre in which Cinema City is located shows just how unstable the situation still is. The commercial centre was built by the Nablus municipality and completed last year after which it was leased to a private consortium. The first two floors of the seven-storey building are given over to what is supposed to be a shopping centre. There are some shops on the lower ground floor, but the floor above is still completely empty save for Cinema City. "It's a tough [economic] climate, even with the stability we have right now," said Farouq Masri, Marwan's son who is helping to manage the cinema. "It's very hard for investors to spend their money because the political climate remains completely unpredictable." That is also the main reason that no one opened a cinema before then, Mr Shakaa said. "It's hard to run a business that relies on people going out when there are nightly curfews and violence in the street. "That's also why it's nice to see this happening. It's nice to see people coming out of a movie and talking about it, smiling, having escaped for a while." Both Mr Shakaa and Mr Masri said they had not encountered any resistance in terms of social pressure. Nablus is a conservative city, where Hamas won the majority of municipal seats in the last local elections. But, apart from "those who will always protest", according to Mr Masri, there has been no difficulties in that direction and the first week witnessed a large cross-section of Nabulsies in the theatre. "We've had everything from young couples to whole families. We are aiming as wide as possible. This, in the end, is a commercial undertaking." Cinema City's first show was an Egyptian family comedy, Ramadan Mabrouk Abu Al-Aalamen Hamoda, to entice as many customers as possible. Both Mr Masri and Mr Shakaa said they would eventually also show Hollywood blockbusters even though distribution deals are more expensive. Further down the line, they said, they hoped to open more branches across the Palestinian territories, where, beyond the odd art house and internationally funded screens in Ramallah, there are no privately run commercial cinemas. Mr Shakaa said he also hoped to entice foreign countries to sponsor film festivals at the screen, to promote their own movies. A cinema-buff himself and fan of the films of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, he conceded, however, that he would probably not see special screenings of his own favourites for a while. "We are getting to know our audience. But I don't think there are many takers for Kurosawa. That has to guide us. "Eventually we need to make a profit." At the very least, Cinema City has made a promising start. Evening shows have played to a packed 172-seat auditorium. Afternoon shows and early shows have yet to gather the same enthusiasm, but Mr Shakaa and Mr Masri are confident it will come. If nothing else, it will come from children. Qusay Areed, 12, has never been to a cinema before. Shopping with his parents nearby, Qusay said he was looking forward to seeing his first movie on the big screen. According to his mother, Umm Ali, he was being understated. "Ever since the cinema opened, all our children have been pestering us to go. We are looking forward to it. It should be a fun day out. Something different, at least." okarmi@thenational.ae