Cinemas in Tripoli: Decline of a Golden Age

Bustling cinemas were once a central part of Tripoli’s cultural life, but the current sorry state of the cinema scene reflects how much the city has lost its lustre.

Yousra al-Ali, 75, has a lot of pleasant memories of her engagement in the 1950s. One of them still particularly resonates: the movie theatres. Cinemas were the place where she met every week with her fiancée, albeit always in the presence of her mother or another chaperone from the family.

“My mother used to sit between me and my fiancé who always seemed nervous and sweaty,” Al-Al recalled, adding that the films they used to see had to be approved by her family and include no kissing scenes.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, cinema played a pivotal role in Tripoli’s cultural and social life. Before televisions became ubiquitous household items, it was a window on the outside world in a city that was witnessing profound social and cultural changes, observers say.

“Cinema was the only place where all the different classes of society in Tripoli met; it was like a big puff of fresh air for people looking for culture and entertainment,” Abdel-Kader al-Asmar, a veteran journalist, said.

Significantly, cinemas were widespread not only in the well-to-do areas of the city but also in the more working class parts.

Today, the golden age of cinema seems long gone. From around 30 cinemas in the 1970s to just a few functional ones today, cinemas in Tripoli have lost their cultural importance. Today, most of the old cinema houses, especially in the downtown area, have closed down. Those that are still open show X-rated films, or commercial Egyptian movies, and attract only a small portion of the city’s inhabitants.

Only one cinema exists in the modern part of the city and is deemed “decent”. It is frequented mainly by teenagers and shows American blockbusters, but is not generally a very popular destination.

Al-Ali said that her adolescent grandson, like many of his peers, shows no interest in going to the movies.

The decline of cinemas in Tripoli began after the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, according to Jean Ratel, a theatre director and prominent intellectual in Tripoli. During the 15-year conflict, most people lost interest in going to the movies and became used to the idea of entertaining themselves at home, he said.

However, even during that period, several movie clubs were established as a form of cultural resistance to the political conflict. Screenings of European and independent films took place regularly, in collaboration with the French and German cultural centres,

Films by Stanley Kubrick, Frederico Fellini and Jean Renoir were shown during that period and usually followed by public debates.

But, the spread of video and later pirated DVDs and cheap cable connections eventually led to a decline in cinema-going, Ratel added.

The phenomena that once kept cinema culture in the city alive have disappeared. Ratel maintains that Tripoli’s main cultural centres and associations share a big part of the blame for failing to organise movie clubs and revive the cinematic scene, and he urged the well-off notables of Tripoli to spend more on culture and particularly to encourage the revival of cinema.

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