Whether we watch them at the cinema, on our TV or computer at home, or even on our phones on the way to work, we all love the movies. Few art forms offer as entertaining or thought provoking a form of escapism as the cinema, deftly melding the literary, audio and the visual.
Every culture has its own cinematic heritage, and whilst these films may not be as well-known as the ones made within the Hollywood system, each has its own unique traits and stylistic quirks to be explored.
The above is definitely true when it comes to Lebanese cinema which, though viewed as really coming into its own within the past couple of decades, has a vibrant and turbulent past going right back to the start of the 20th Century.
It is a funny quirk that the commonly accepted first Lebanese film was actually directed by an Italian. Giordanno Pidutti left Italy and moved to Beirut in the late 1920s, when he was 24 years old. His directorial debut was the 1929 silent production “Moughamarat Elias Mabrouk” (The Adventures of Elias Mabrouk).
The film was a comedy about a Lebanese immigrant (Elias), returned to Lebanon after failing to make it big in the USA. Pidutti took full advantage of the varied cityscape of Beirut, filming in a variety of locations including a Sursock palace, a coffee shop and numerous back alleyways.
When the film debuted at the Empire theatre it was successful enough that Pidutti was able to make a sequel, the also silent “Moughamarat Abu Abed” (The Adventures of Abu Abed) in 1931.
The first Lebanese “talkie” (sound picture) was released in 1933. “Bayn Hayakel Baalbek” (In the Ruins of Baalbek) was produced by Lummar Film and directed by Karam Boustany and Julio de Luca.
Before Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, all films being imported from Hollywood had to be dubbed over in French, and any documentaries made before independence were also heavily censored by the French.
Directly following independence from France, Lebanese film makers felt galvanised to be able to tell their stories, and explore their own identity, cultural heritage, traditions and folklore.
However, during the tumultuous period of the Second World War, people were much more interested in keeping up with news and current events rather than escapism. As a result, Lebanese film production was greatly reduced, leaving Egypt to become the epicentre of film production in the Middle East.
Lebanese cinema, therefore, remained on the back burner until the 1950’s. But a huge surge of interest in the Lebanese film industry saw large amounts of investment which resulted in a number of new, cutting edge film studios being established.
“Ila Ayn” is a key example of the progress Lebanese cinema had made. Released in 1957, the film was directed by Geroges Nasser and produced by Lebanese Pictures. Telling the story of a poor family living in a mountain village in Lebanon, the film was so well received it was screened at Cannes Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or – the highest prize awarded.
This Palme d’Or nomination can be seen as the point that Lebanese Cinema started receiving rightful recognition as a producer of films for the whole world to enjoy.