Al-Hamra Cinema hopes to revive Tyre’s cinematic golden age

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Old pictures, soda bottles, and a movie poster serve as relics of the al-Hamra Cinema in Tyre, which was recently renovated and reopened. Al-Akhbar/Ahmed Traboulsi

Published Friday, November 14, 2014

In mid-1938, a café owner in the coastal city of Tyre in southern Lebanon, got a 35 mm movie projector and embarked on an adventure. He picked up a sheet, usually used as a table cover, hung it on a wall adjacent to his cafe, and turned the machine on… And just like that, the first cinema [in Tyre] was born. People from al-Hara neighborhood in Tyre, along with others who frequented the café, gathered around this strange new invention, and watched the first movie to ever be screened in the city.

Tyre’s first cinema experience was simple and down to earth. People got together, smoked water pipes and cigarettes and drank coffee as they watched the movie.

Within two years, other movie theaters emerged in Tyre, and the concept of the cinema café was no longer unique.The Roxy Theater opened in 1940 in an area known today as al-Jaafariya, followed by the Empire Cinema located near the fishermen’s port, then Cinema Rivoli, Dunya and finally al-Hamra Cinema which was established in 1952.

This was the onset of a new era in al-Hara, with movie theaters bringing their own particular “concept.” There was no free entrance, and those who wished to get in had to buy a ticket. Even so, this did not pose a major problem since there was a thirst for cinema [in the city].

However, the people of al-Hara did not enjoy their cinemas for long. Movie theaters started to fade away, one after the other, just like they had originally appeared in 1938, and by the middle of the 1980s, they were gone.

The Roxy Cinema was transformed into a woodshop and Empire Cinema is now in ruins. The Rivoli shut down indefinitely, while Dunya was transformed into a modern building hosting offices and stores, and by the early 1990s, al-Hamra Cinema closed its doors.

In a story reminiscent of the events that took place in the movie, “Cinema Paradiso,” Tyre’s theaters rose to the top then tumbled to their death. Just before closing, these theaters screened erotica and pornographic movies, as a final attempt to survive, but after that period the city witnessed a cinema blackout. It was all over.

But, what did it mean for a major city like Tyre not to have any movie theatres? It is like imagining Paris without the Eiffel Tower or its many museums.

Although recently reopened, al-Hamra Cinema has struggled to regain its glory days. Mustafa al-Sadqi, a fan who frequented the cinema during its golden era, seems to be the only one determined to bring people back to the old theater.

He is a “landmark” of the cinema, and is probably the only patron who constantly attends screenings, helps prepare its shows, spreads news about the activities taking place there throughout the city’s cafés, and pushes people to go to the theater.

Every night, he sits inside the theater and replays his memories of the Israeli occupation, back when the cinema was shelled while, “Yasser Arafat was giving a speech in its halls.”

At times you see him inviting in a woman from the street as she carries her grocery bags so she can fill an empty seat before the movie starts, other times he’s wooing passersby by telling them, “Quickly, don’t miss out on this show.” One day, Mustafa was so anxious as the screening time approached and there were still very few people in attendance that he ran to the streets, and started calling on people to come in.

After some 25 years of being closed, actor and director Kassem Istanbouli and his troupe reopened the theater in June, but the fans have yet to return. Today, you’ll only find theater employees, with a few young men and others in their seventies, waiting to watch a Charlie Chaplin movie.

Not much is left, even in the people’s memory. All they remember from al-Hamra Cinema are action films, Westerns, Indian, and Egyptian movies screened there.

Others still reminisce about the famous artists who performed on this stage between the 1970s and 1980s, including Shoushou, Duraid Laham, Nasri Shamseddin, Sheikh Imam, Ahmed Fouad Negm, and Marcel Khalife, among others.

Abu Abdullah al-Dalhin, a resident of the old al-Hara neighborhood, still holds on to some of his old memories, some even precede the establishment of al-Hamra Cinema, back at a time when movies were screened “as personal initiatives by individuals who rented projectors to show a few available movies.”

“Screenings were mainly centered at two locations, the old Hisba Market and al-Ain, an old archeological site, while other projectors were set up in Nabi Ismail and the Christian neighborhood in Tyre,” Dalhin said.

Back then, watching a movie costed “about 10 cents.”

“We sat on chairs or on the floor, and most of the films were silent because there were reels without audio or there were no loudspeakers,” he said.

Dalhin recounts that in those days there were no radio stations to run ads and no high-rise buildings to hang movie posters, “whenever a movie was to be screened, we placed its poster on a large square-shaped piece of wood, and roamed the neighborhoods. We were rewarded with watching the movie without paying for the ticket.”

“Sometimes, we hid inside the theater at night to watch more mature movies,” he said.

Abu Abdullah still recalls the first movie screened inside the theater was “Antara and Abla and the Four Caliphs.” The first movie screened in the city was “City Lights,” starring Charlie Chaplin, a movie, he recounts, that spectators requested to watch three times in a row.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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