Most non-Lebanese people passing by our pavilion at this year’s Cannes film festival seem to think that Lebanese cinema is only a decade or so old. Of course, they can be forgiven for thinking that, since the last decade has brought with it a renaissance of sorts, with a few big name productions that got international recognition. But it’s important to know that the Lebanese film industry started all the way back in the late 20s. Here’s the first installment of our overview of the country’s cinematic history.

The first silent Lebanese movie saw the light between 1929 and 1930. It was directed by Jordano Pidutti, a 24-year-old Italian cinematographer who had moved to Beirut. The movie, Moughamarat Elias Mabrouk (The Adventures of Elias Mabrouk*) — filmed in one of the Sursock palaces, a Raouche coffee shop and some alleys of Beirut — was such a success when screened at the Empire movie theater that a sequel produced by Rachid Ali Chaabane, Moughamarat Abu Abed (The Adventures of Abu Abed), was later made.

However, the glory was short lived. Pidutti, whose work had so far revolved around the theme of immigration, was forced to stop filmmaking due to a lack of financing. He ended up filming weddings and current events with the help of a photographer, Georges Costi.

This was Lebanese cinema’s first birth, and it would be a taste of all the successes and failures, turmoil and long silences to come.

In 1933, Lummar Film, founded by Herta Gargour, produced the first talking Lebanese movie, subtitled in French and directed by Julio de Luca and Karam Boustany, Bayn Hayakel Baalbek (In the Ruins of Baalbek).

Lebanon, which was then under French mandate, had only one audiovisual law, pertaining to the security of movie theaters. There was no other written text, not even a draft legislation. But Lebanon was about to face a new shock; the Second World War. Around that time, Ali Al Ariss, a creator of musicals who was interested in theatre and cinema went to Egypt for training. He produced two movies, with some degree of difficulty, Bayyaate El Ward (The Flower Seller) and Kawkab Amirat as Sahra (Kawkab, Princess of the Desert), as well as a documentary about summer vacations in the mountains of Lebanon. The outcome was not what he had hoped for and the failure drove him away from the cinema.

Film making and producing were then neglected and replaced by an interest in news and contemporary events.
Meanwhile, Egypt had its eye on Lebanon, mainly because of its freedom of speech. In 1927, Bahr Bi Yidhak leih (Why Does the Sea Laugh?) by Amine Atallah was one of the first silent Egyptian movies to be shown in Lebanon.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Lebanese cinema gained some importance, through the arrival of Georges Kahi who directed Azab El Damir (Remorse), Kalbane wa Jassad (Two Hearts and One Body), Al Sam Al Abiad (White Poison), Arabat Al Chaitane (The Devil’s Cart), and Anta Omri (You Are My Life) in the fifties and sixties. There was also Michel Haroun who filmed his only movie Zouhour Hamra (Red Flowers) in 1957 and Mohammed Selmane, a popular singer, who directed a number of different kinds of movies (Al Lahn Al Awal (The First Melody), 1957; Marhabane Ayouhal Hob (Hello Love), 1962; Mawal (The Folk Song), 1966). And of course, there was Georges Nasser who presented the first Lebanese movie at the Cannes Festival in 1957, Ila Ayn as well as a second, french-language, film three years later, Le Petit Etranger (The Little Stranger). However, Nasser was slated by French critics who accused him of trying to imitate the New Wave. To add insult to injury, upon his return to Lebanon, he was unable to find theaters willing to screen his movie as the public preferred Egyptian and other foreign films. In 1974, Georges Nasser produced his last cinematographic work; a long socio-political film, Al Matloub Rajol Wahed (One Man Wanted) in Syria.

Once again condemned, Lebanese cinema was eclipsed during the sixties by its giant Egyptian counterpart. However, things would change as Egypt was drained of its movie directors and its intellectuals during President Abdel Nasser’s regime, which prohibited all forms of freedom on its soil and nationalized the film industry in 1963. At that point, Lebanon became a film set for Egyptian cinema. Egyptian filmmaking in Lebanon reached its peak during that period, taking full advantage of the beauty of Lebanese landscapes and covering all the film industry in Lebanon. It was highly successful and studios started popping up all over the country. Production continued to increase, allowing Lebanon to become the second largest film production zone after the United Arab Republic. Beirut became the new capital of film distribution, with 7 big American companies and 41 independent offices, and experienced what is widely regarded as the Golden Age of Lebanese Cinema.

Mohammed Selmane took advantage of this Golden Age to take his place in the history of the Lebanese cinema, along with Joseph Ghorayeb (Hokm El Kadar (Judgement of Fate), 1959). At that time, famous filmmakers also shot films in Lebanon. Jean Becker filmed Echappement Libre (Cutout) in 1964 and Georges Lautner made La Grande Sauterelle (The Big Grasshopper) in 1967, amongst others.
However, there unfortunate byproduct of all these successful Egyptian and Western productions in Lebanon, was that they didn’t allow Lebanese cinema –which was still searching for its identity– to develop. During the sixties, there was cinema in Lebanon but it couldn’t be referred to as Lebanese cinema. Indeed, despite the increase in production and co-production (Egypt and Syria), and some valiant attempts (Antoine Rémy, Chouchou wal Million (Chouchou and the Million) 1963, Lil Nisa Fakat (For Women Only) 1966, Beirut 011, 1967), Lebanese cinema was still ailing as a result of a deep lack of identity or personality, too many Egyptian movies, an misunderstanding of the filmmaking industry, a lack of technique and professionalism and above all, an audience that showed little interest contributed to this deficiency.

Right after 1967, a wave of films on the Palestinian resistance arrived on the scene. Christian Ghazi, who only managed to get one of his many films past the censors during the war, produced the first film about the Palestinian resistance, Al Fadaiyyoun (The Fedayins) and Gary Garabedian filmed Koullouna Fadaiyyoun (We are all Fedayins). Only the movies of the Rahbani brothers, which were adapted for the silver screen by the Egyptians Youssef Chahine for Biya Al Khawatem (The Ring Seller) and Henri Barakat for Safar Barlak and Bint El Hares (The Watchman’s Daughter), featuring the legendary Fairuz, served to restore the reputation of Lebanese cinema.


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