A Cineclub on Beirut's Heritage

Subject: Film and cultural heritage
Author: Nadine Khalil

Save Beirut Heritage association, in collaboration with Time Out Beirut, have been organizing film screenings in various old houses, to depict the abandonment or destruction of cultural heritage in the country. This fifth screening, on the 24th of February, took place in the Orient Institut of Beirut.

Bahij Hojeij’s film: Le Musée National, Defi à l’oubli, was produced in 1996 and it depicted how the museum was a space of encounter as well as a dangerous zone on the Green Line during the civil war. People would hide there for shelter and yet it also served as a place of combat. Hojeij then documented the process in which the archaeological treasures were safeguarded from looting and other possible damage from gunfire by being placed in concrete blocks and other underground storage facilities. The façade of the museum was finally restored in 1995, beginning yet another process of recovery. Omar Naim’s 1999 film, Grand Theatre: A Tale of Beirut was also shown, significantly so since this deserted place in downtown Beirut will soon be transformed into a hotel/restaurant complex.
The film about the theatre features archival footage and interviews with those who were involved with restoring it after the Lebanese civil war, such as well-established theatre director and playwright Nidal al-Ashkar, who says during the film: “The war was like a big hole in our memory, it cancelled so many things, like a big black hole in our consciousness. So we wanted to fill it…” A striking photograph is taken after the war was over, of a bride and groom walking across the rubble near the theater. Panning shots were taken of the vastness of the theatre’s interior, in all its intricate details: the colored glass windows, large columns, and the sliding domed roof. Al-Ashkar recalls how sad she was at the tragedy that had befallen the place, after entering it for the first time soon after the end of the war. She could smell the people who had died there, and yet it was still somehow reminiscent of its former glory, where famed personas such as Oum Qulthoum had performed. "It was like an anchor to this city."
Different accounts were given by various people who had worked in the theatre, all of whom claimed a different date in which the theatre was built, from the 30’s to the 50’s, to being the 2nd theatre established after the Ottomans left in 1918. Different architects were also mentioned, who supposedly constructed the Grand Theater, from Youssef Aftimus to Elias el Murr. It was likened to the Moscow Bolshoi theatre or the Opera de Paris in its splendor. That soon changed however, during the Lebanese civil war, when its location on the Green Line made it a strategic place to show pornographic films to the fighters. It was no longer about high culture for the bourgeoisie, where a man recalled having to climb to the roof to watch a show he could not afford, but rather, soon just “anyone” was allowed in the theatre, according to one interlocutor. And the projectionist reminisces on how one day, he peered out at the audience and found that all of the men were maimed inside, their crutches against their seats. One day, a sniper shot one of the viewers in the head and soon a sign was placed outside the theater to beware of snipers. “The war was like a movie.” And when the film finished, the main concern was the reconstruction and the revival of the central district, and with it, of course the movie theatre, as an “anchor for Beirut,” according to al-Ashkar.
Apparently, this landmark is no longer considered as such by the company in charge of downtown Beirut’s reconstruction, Solidere, and Giorgio, of Save Beirut Heritage explained how although its façade was rehabilitated, concrete was poured onto its inside spaces, thereby completely destroying its interior architecture. Currently, the theater is abandoned with plans to make it a hotel and “one of the most closed structures possible,” lamented Giorgio. Its location on Riad el Solh square which was a public square, gave it access to the people, but now, it will share this space with a 35-floor white tower, an “obscene building that will cause it to disappear into the shade.” No architectural study was made of light either, or the access to the sun. As the film editor of Time Out Beirut added, she hoped that these screenings would bring to light the current state of affairs of such abandoned buildings, set for demolishment. Furthermore, the next issue of Time Out will include a special feature on architecture, with the guest editor Bernard Khoury.

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