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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Meet the Lebanese man trying to reopen cinemas closed by war

Film is in Kassem Istanbouli’s blood. The actor and director, who is on a mission to restore Lebanon's shuttered cinemas to their former glory, credits his grandfather with bringing the first movie projector to the country from Greece in the 1930s

Lebanese actor and director Kassem Istanbouli is pictured at the Cinema Stars movie theatre in Nabatiyeh on August 26, 2017. David Enders for The National
Lebanese actor and director Kassem Istanbouli is pictured at the Cinema Stars movie theatre in Nabatiyeh on August 26, 2017. David Enders for The National

Southern Lebanon once had more than a dozen working cinemas. Today, it has just four.

“The golden age for cinema in Lebanon was the 1960s and 1970s,” said Kassem Istanbouli, 31, an actor and director, who has dedicated himself to reopening theatres across the country.

He said that even in the first years of the civil war that began in 1976, cinema attendance grew.

But then, “in 1982, the Israelis occupied the Hamra and Rivoli theatres in Tyre”, said Mr Istanbouli, who grew up in southern Lebanon’s largest city.

“It was to prevent people from gathering and to stop them from being used by the Palestinian fighters.”

After that, cinemas across the country began closing their doors. By the end of the civil war there were none left open in the south and few elsewhere.

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In 2014, Mr Istanbouli began to renovate and reopen some of these shuttered cinemas, starting with the Hamra and the Rivoli in Tyre. The Hamra closed two years later after the owner of the building decided to sell it, but Mr Istanbouli recently secured a 10-year lease to operate the Rivoli.

He's now looking to buy Cinema Stars, a rundown 400-seat theatre in the southern city of Nabatiyeh that has been closed since 1988.

“We have US$16,000 (Dh58,778) so far,” said Mr Istanbouli. “We need $92,000 in the next [22 days] to buy it. If we don’t save it, it will be turned into a clothing factory."

Mr Istanbouli's non-profit theatre company, the Tyro Association for Arts, has already begin renovating Cinema Stars in exchange for using the space to host performances. But now the owner wants to sell the building.

“Even if we get $50,000, we can buy it with a loan,” Mr Istanbouli added.

Nabatiyeh already has a cinema owned by the Empire movie theatre chain which opened in 2016.

“The tickets are expensive,” Mr Istanbouli said. “You cannot compare it to what we are doing. It’s not just about showing movies, it is also about what you are showing."

Cinema is in Mr Istanbouli’s blood. He credits his grandfather with bringing the first movie projector to Lebanon from Greece in the 1930s.

But his goal is not just to show films; he also wants to provide spaces for cultural events, particularly live theatre.

Last month, Tyro organised a five day-long international festival at Cinema Stars and the Rivoli, which was attended by more than 1,000 people. The festival included performances by theatre companies from Argentina, Mexico, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On a recent evening, Cinema Stars also hosted the Beirut-based Homemade Theatre Company, who performed a play about Article 522, a recently-repealed law that allowed convicted rapists in Lebanon to avoid jail by marrying their victims. The play was developed as part of a campaign run by Abaad, a women's rights and gender equality advocacy group, to educate people about the law, as well as similar statutes that remain on the books in Lebanon.

Chris Ghafoury, the Homemade Theatre Company's media coordinator, said Cinema Stars was the only venue in Nabatiyeh that would host such a performance.

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It’s important to have places like this theatre in every [city] to disseminate this message, or any campaign,” he added.

“Some of the people who come say ‘this is the first time I’ve seen a theatre’,” Mr Istanbouli said.

“In Tyre, we have 400 shops for shisha, one library, and one theatre. But if there are places, people will come.”

Neither Cinema Stars' rough concrete floors nor a leaky pipe that dripped water all over the main staircase seemed to deter the roughly 50 attendees to the Homemade Theatre Company Performance, some of whom had come from nearby villages. Volunteers from Tyro cleaned the floors and guided people to their seats. The company has already begun renovating the cinema's lobby, hanging up decades-old movie posters it found in the theatre and putting some of the vintage projection equipment on display.

Tyro also brings theatre workshops to youth across the country and, after the play, some of its volunteers screened a short film made by Bassil, an 18-year-old Syrian man who is part of the company. The film detailed Bassil’s adjustment to living in Lebanon after leaving Syria, and he credited Tyro’s workshops with being a major part of that process.

“Art gathers all people,” said Bassil, who asked that his surname not be used. “There is no differentiation between anyone.”

Mr Istanbouli said spaces like Cinema Stars are essential for bringing together people in a country that has experienced communal violence.

“We have Syrians, we have Palestinians in Tyro,” Mr Istanbouli said. “They can speak and feel comfortable here.”

His next project is in an even less likely location — the nearby city of Bint Jbeil, which was almost entirely destroyed by Israeli shelling and airstrikes in the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah.

“It’s a building from the Ottoman era,” Mr Istanbouli said, breaking into a wide grin. “It survived 2006. I discovered it four months ago. It’s a small theatre, 88 seats. It was built in 1887.”

“These theatres are like my children,” he added.

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