Beirut’s sole independent art house resists city’s vacant towers

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Film posters are hung above the food counter at the Metropolis Theater. Al-Akhbar/ Marwan Tahtah

By: Jinan Mantash

Published Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The cinema, according to director Jean-Luc Godard, is “truth at 24 frames­ per­ second.” In Lebanon, this truth has been drowning in a flood of venues treating film as superficial entertainment. Facing this ailment is Lebanon’s only independent art house, Metropolis Art Cinema, that has been trying to delve into film as a form of literature, enhancing both film-watching and filmmaking.

On a July evening in 2006, a staircase leading to a theatre off Hamra Street and a few hours before a new war knocked on Lebanon’s door, Hania Mroue and other Lebanese directors on the Metropolis Association board announced the opening of “Metropolis Art Cinema.”

Located at “Masrah al-Madina” at first, the art house partnered with Empire Cinemas two years later and moved to its present-day location in Sofil Center, Ashrafieh.

The entrance of the Metropolis Theater. Al-Akhbar English/ Metropolis TheaterThe entrance of the Metropolis Theater. Al-Akhbar English/ Metropolis Theater

As you go down the steps, an old projector to your right welcomes you. Two theaters, each on one side, fence in a food counter and a ticket booth, while a little library occupies the right corner. Posters of festivals and films are mounted on almost every wall but one stands out: “Metropolis” – serving as a reminder of the name of the enclave you just entered.

“Metropolis,” the 1927 German classic directed by Fritz Lang, tackles issues of class inequality in its display of the underworld laboring masses who keep the city above running, where the powerful elite that controls them lives in high-rise tower complexes. The dystopian film was a significant inspiration for the founding members of the art house. Today, Metropolis Art Cinema is trying to elevate the cinematic experience from the underground, both literally and figuratively considering its previous and current location. It is doing so through the films, festivals and film-related events it decides to host and its own distribution company that encourages independent cinema.

A delicate film-selection process

“It is the films we pick out that principally set us apart,” Nisrine Wehbe, programming coordinator at Metropolis, told Al-Akhbar English in an interview.

One does not need to be a film buff to watch a film for the sake of film itself. After all, everyone is interested, more or less, in cinema, but not everyone takes it seriously as an artform. It is clear that the board members understand the importance of their selection of films and their deliberate process seemingly entails transitioning movie-goers from mere consumers to active participants. Instead of relying on blockbusters and top-ten lists to select films, the members seek independent or non-mainstream films and documentaries in a variety of topics, genres, and eras, in a manner similar to cine clubs.

MC Distribution, Metropolis’ own distribution company, collaborates with international distributors to acquire and release foreign titles within the framework of the art house’s objective.

The difference between movies projected at art houses and commercial movie theaters is the same distinction between “films” and “movies.” “Movies” mainly communicates the end process of filmmaking, in other words they are merely moving pictures. They are usually Hollywood motion pictures with a bombarding outer shell but no real substance. “Films,” on the other hand, connote an academic approach to a creative outcome, one that is concerned with the process from the script to the reviews, to even the restoration.

After the films are selected, they are either screened from a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) or, if the audience is lucky enough, a 35mm film to tingle their cinematic taste buds.

Besides regular screenings, Metropolis organizes more than 20 film festivals and film-related events throughout the year. Probably the most notable and prestigious among them is “La Semaine de la Critique” where, in partnership with the French Institute of Lebanon, the art house reruns Cannes Festival “Critics Week.”

Refining the art of film-watching

Dealing with film as a process and striving to make cinema accessible “for the whole public,” Metropolis starts with refining the mere act of watching a film, starting with the youth. Alongside screening films for children, the art house’s “Tous au Cinema” project led Metropolis to partner with more than 25 schools to have special screenings for students in its own theaters and at “Espace 2000” in Jounieh, north of Beirut.

Reflecting the art house’s meticulous technique for nurturing cinema culture, Wehbe explains that during these screenings, children are not allowed to bring in popcorn. “They are here inside to focus on watching the film, and on that only,” she says. “A lot of people argue that art houses aim at producing an elitist audience, mistaking the true cinema experience with a posh one,” says Fatima Farhat, one of the founding members of the Lebanese University Cinema Club (LUCC).

Indeed, many have argued that the auditorium where the movie is shown affects the lessons that the screen has to teach, including author Maggie Valentine in her book “The Show Starts on the Sidewalk.”

In an attempt to increase audience interaction and involvement with the screen, Metropolis holds events experimenting with movie watching, such as cine-concerts at least once a year. The board asks musicians to compose music for a certain film and to play it during the screening. In one such event, Rami and Bachar Khalife, sons of prominent artist Marcel Khalife, performed live music to F.W. Murnau’s “Faust.”

According to Rami Sabbagh, video director and cinema section manager at Dawawine – a cultural space in Gemmayze – a director makes their film to be watched in a certain “ritual.” “A film should cause a collective frenzy by engaging the audience with it emotionally, psychologically, and even physically,” Sabbagh said, “and this can only be done if theaters take responsibility for that.”

The Italian film “Cinema Paradiso,” captures the essence of film spectatorship through two main characters, Alfredo the projectionist in the town’s only cinema, and Toto the child who frequents Alfredo in his working chamber and grows to become a film director. Toto learns how to love cinema simply by watching the old man put the roll in the projector, getting to know intimately that film is more than merely condensed pixels on a screen.

The projectionist at Metropolis Theater during a screening. Al-Akhbar/ Marwan TahtahThe projectionist at Metropolis Theater during a screening. Al-Akhbar/ Marwan Tahtah

For Wehbe and Lebanese director Hady Zaccak, Metropolis is “a constant film school” where they continue to discover and learn more about cinema. In class you raise your hand if you have any questions, but at Metropolis, you wait for the credits to roll as discussions are frequently held after the screening, and sometimes the director or an actor from the film are available to offer their insight.

Stimulating dialogue is one of the goals of Metropolis and its on-sight library, which has a collection of posters, film magazines, books, DVDs, and even soundtracks, is another way it hopes to facilitate discussions.

Keen on maintaining these art house rituals, Metropolis is one of the few sites in Beirut where a film starts and ends on the sidewalk and where the value is placed on film watchers as opposed to advertisers. It is possibly one of the few sites that allows proper engagement with films.

Film goers enjoy screening at Metropolis Theater. Al-Akhbar English/ Metropolis TheaterFilm goers enjoy screening at Metropolis Theater. Al-Akhbar English/ Metropolis Theater

Visualizing alternatives

Cultivating this film culture apart from economic concerns goes beyond showing independent works of cinema, it also involves encouraging their production. As a director, Zaccak believes that one of the major challenges facing independent filmmaking in Lebanon is distribution, as few theaters offer the required assistance.

Godard describes the hitch in a nutshell in a 1963 interview with French journalist Francois Chalais, “Then the American producers said, ‘the film’s beautiful but not commercial.’”

“There is a huge battle awaiting us to present an alternative cinema and to promote it,” Zaccak told Al-Akhbar English, describing Metropolis as the best available platform to share his films.

Trying to face the growing wave of commercial films and movies, Metropolis strives to promote an independent Lebanese cinema through its distribution company MC distribution. The latter releases new Lebanese independent titles at Sofil and other theaters around Lebanon and promotes its Lebanese and regionally produced films at international festivals and film markets. The art house is keen on turning filmmaking in Lebanon into a gathering, rather than an industry, and Sabbagh is hopeful that cinema will survive as long as there are people passionate about making and watching films.

When movie theaters in Lebanon first emerged in the late 1920s in the Burj, now known as Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut, they were the new ‘bullies on the block.’ The rookie venues fiercely competed with khans – traditional shops – and displaced them to take over the best spots in town. Nowadays, it is the other way around. Movie houses are striving to push their venues to places where consumerism is the main feature, namely to malls.

In order to survive and defy atrophies, cinema in Lebanon needs a brilliant lawyer that also acts as a judge. This is where Metropolis’ cape flutters. By providing a space for creative projects that are not commercially viable and by tending to its audience, the art house behaves as a form of cultural resistance in the face of Hollywood-dominated movies and profit-oriented venues.

Comments

"refining the art of film watching"

OOO-ahh ..!
Aren't we getting precious .......
Was everyone in their fineries - an excuse for a arty party.
And the French champagne did flow - domestic dear.

A film exists because someone made it ...
All the spin in the world cannot make it more than that
UNLESS it speaks ....
How many movies are made ..
* & it is reported that it cost MILLIONS & SQUILLIANS to make darling
* & all the super stars were paid in the 10's of millions, you know
* & it grossed billions all around the world / profit taken
* & it is the best movie yet
* & it was produced by ... X
* & directed by .... Y
* & it was pure GENIUS
* & we all had fun on the set
* & it was a work of art

It has to become a work of art because it was a FLOP ONLY - at the box office.
All of the above is a lie you see
* it was made on a tight budget
* with out of work super stars
* by out of work directors & producers
In the movie business you are only as good as your last piece of work & thereafter & if the genera chances - you are obsolete / a has been no less.
And if they forget your last work, you are then a has been that never was ...
In today's world
Who the hell is Charley Chaplin / Orson Wells / & the list goes on
You see their fans died along with them - literally. The cemeteries are full of their fans.

I like to watch movies lying down - on the couch, or in bed -
The Miracle Worker staring Patty Duke & Anne Bancroft is a favorite movie - but I could only watch it once.
Children of A Lesser God I watched 3 times.
There are some movies that I could watch over & over again.
What a brilliant performance those to actresses gave in as Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan - I still remember the movie vividly - but as far as the next generation is concerned they never existed.

Unless they install reclining seats in the movie theaters it will not be refined enough for the bed bug that lay within my psyche.

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