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International Relief Fund 2020
Cinema on Wheels

Cinema without cinema
Cinema without cinema | Photo (detail): © Hania Mroué, Metropolis 2019

The Metropolis Art Cinema in Beirut has already coped with a number of disasters, Covid-19 being just one of them. Director Hania Mroué nevertheless keeps finding new ways to bring international and Lebanese cinematic art to the public, thanks in part to funding from the International Relief Fund 2020 initiated by the Goethe-Institut, the German Foreign Office, and other foundations and cultural intermediary organisations.

By Jim Quilty

One of the features of this year is the jokes it’s provoked. There are gags about awaking from it (2020 as nightmare), resetting it (2020 as computer glitch) and staging a high-concept, CG-driven explosion of it (2020 as “Mission Impossible” trope), à la John Oliver.

For much of the world, it’s the pandemic and attendant global recession that’s made 2020 nightmarish. Lebanon is among those countries whose home-grown woes were already so epic that COVID-19 reduced it all to farce. When asked if this improbably miserable year has been the most challenging that Metropolis Art Cinema has faced, Hania Mroué’s reply is as surprising as it is informative. “Honestly?” she replies. “I don’t know.”

In the last quarter of 2019, the non-profit Metropolis Association was 11 years into a unique experiment – a business partnership with the Empire cinema chain. It saw Metropolis programme Empire’s lovely (if unfashionably small) two-screen Sofil cinema, which the exhibitor continued to manage.
 
When a grassroots protest and civil disobedience campaign exploded across the country on 17 October, Metropolis was among the cultural organisations to join a general strike in sympathy with the uprising. Some weeks later, when she tried to resume the cinema’s operations, Mroué found that Empire had terminated their agreement – a decision driven by a long-running rent dispute with its landlord, a bank.
 
“The revolution closed Metropolis but we felt that, even if we have to lose this space, we are part of a big change happening in the country, something historic. If it succeeds, we’d build another cinema. It felt like a dream coming true, not a challenge.”
 
The ensuing financial crisis inspired Lebanon’s commercial banks to inflict a capital controls regime on most of its clients – those not rich or well-connected enough to move their money offshore. The controls first restricted depositors’ access to their US dollars, then, as the value of the lira plummeted, refused to honour the deposits’ market worth.
“The crisis, has been extremely harsh,” Mroué acknowledges. “If you want to make a budget you don’t know if you should use Lebanese, dollars or lollars (US dollar deposits that can’t be used for conventional transactions), or at what exchange rate. It’s hell.”

Suddenly part of a global issue

“Then came Corona,” she laughs. “It’s like a bad joke. But because it’s a global crisis, it put us on the same level as everyone else. We’d lost our space, but suddenly all cinemas were closed. Everyone’s been discussing how are we gonna open the cinemas again? How are we gonna revive this cinema-going experience? It’s become a global conversation we’re part of, so we feel less alone and marginalised.”
 
Metropolis was born into a hostile environment. Its original home, the little theatre of Hamra’s historic Saroulla cinema, opened in July 2006 with a reprise of Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, which remained a cornerstone of the cinema’s yearly schedule through 2019.
 
Beirut’s first encounter with Critics’ Week was interrupted after opening night by a month-long bombing campaign. Displaced residents fled north and Masrah al-Madina, Saroulla’s proprietor, opened its doors to several families.

Though most of her audience were glued to their televisions or getting drunk, Mroué decided to continue the SlC projections. A few of those in the sparse audience were bored young adults from the Saroulla’s displaced families – whose first cinema experience was, inadvertently, an introduction to international art house film.
 
It was during its long decade at Sofil that Metropolis grew. As the exhibition programme blossomed to include a rolling schedule of festivals and screening cycles focussing on international, regional and Lebanese titles, the cinema became a favoured venue for local art house premieres. Metropolis Association’s activities also diversified. It founded its own distribution arm, MC Distribution, and launched its Cinematheque Beirut project, which engages the public to help uncover and document Lebanon’s neglected film history. The association also developed two film education initiatives that have enrolled some 22-24,000 kids. “Cinema on the Road” mainly serves refugee settlements and public schools, while a partnership with Institut Français, “Tous au Cinema”, engages Lebanon’s French-language schools.
 
While the exhibition programme paused, these operations have continued – albeit hampered by economic collapse, financial crisis, pandemic, lockdowns, and the lacerating 4th August Beirut Port blast.
 
In lieu of any meaningful public sector response to the crises-induced haemorrhage, most of Lebanon’s relief efforts have been orchestrated by nonprofits and INGOs, augmented by ad hoc fundraising campaigns. Metropolis was among the 20-odd cultural institutions to benefit from the Lebanon Solidarity Fund and, more recently, the International Relief Fund.
 
Without this support, Mroué says, it would be immensely more difficult to continue. While the Lebanon Solidarity Fund provides monies to sustain the association’s core team for a year, the International Relief Fund has allowed Metropolis to acquire equipment needed to implement its new mobile cinema project, “Metropolis on Wheels”.

New paths through collaboration

“Of course we want to give priority to Lebanese films, especially those titles that have been waiting all year for a local release. We want to help support Lebanese filmmakers and I think there’s more interest in Lebanese films these days. Also there are documentaries that may be relevant to the current context.”
 
Mroué feels that collaboration will be central to the way Lebanese arts organisations work in the coming months and years, Metropolis included. “Because of Corona and so on, we wanted to collaborate with venues and institutions that we’ve worked with and already know. Saida’s Cinema Ishbilia, for instance, has a space for outdoor screenings, as does Hammana Artist House. Outdoor screenings are very challenging. You’re not only choosing the film. You’re involving the neighbours, the municipality. So it’s more of a community activity than a cinephile one. It’s not like watching in a cinema. The projection space brings a different flavour to the experience. That’s exciting.”

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