BEIRUT: “It’s important to be clear that the problem is with the venue and not the association,” says Metropolis Association founder Hania Mroue. “We secured funding for all our programs, activities, etc. for the coming year. That’s still the case.
“The problem is that today we don’t have a space to present all these programs and activities.”
The roots of Lebanon’s crisis run much deeper than the civil disobedience campaign it provoked, now in its fourth month. That crisis has already taken its toll on those with less wealth and influence, without access to foreign currency and banking services. Their number will grow.
Institutions and individuals in the country’s cultural sector have also been staggered by the crisis, and by the political class’ hapless response to it. The most high-profile casualty in the arts sector to date is Metropolis Art Cinema.
After Oct. 17, Metropolis closed as part of the cultural sector’s general strike in support of mass demonstrations against political corruption. While Metropolis Association tried to resume its scheduled programming after two weeks, the cinema remained shuttered.
“The situation with Empire was difficult since last year,” Mroue says. “They were complaining about the cinema not making enough money to cover its expenses, etc.
“When we called [Empire] to say the strike was off and we can start again, they said, ‘No. The situation is not good, so we’re not gonna open yet.’ I thought this was temporary.”
Later she learned that the closure was permanent.
“They blame it on the situation - which is bad, we all agree. It turns out there was a conflict between Empire and Bank Audi, the owners of Centre Sofil. I don’t know how closing the cinema solves this problem, but for Empire it was a necessary step.”
The Daily Star communicated with Circuit Empire general manager Bassem Eid, who confirmed that Empire shut the cinema because of Bank Audi’s rent demands, Metropolis’ unprofitability and the current crisis.
Cinemas all over the country aren’t making money these days, Eid wrote via Whatsapp. Sofil Cinema is in need of renovation, he added. There are no funds for that and Metropolis hadn’t made enough money to cover the rent and Empire employees’ salaries.
“Sofil didn’t accept any [rent] discount,” he wrote, adding: “Metropolis didn’t accept paying any additional amount.”
Launched in 1983, Sofil’s two-screen cinema had already become a favorite venue for special events like the European Film Festival when the association launched its partnership with Empire in September 2008.
The partnership was a rare experiment between Lebanon’s non-profit and commercial sectors, a programming agreement that saw Metropolis assume responsibility for content while Empire took box office and concession returns to operate the cinema.
“I’m not interested in blaming any other party for what’s happening,” Mroue says. “This experiment was very positive for us.
“It definitely allowed us to grow. It gave us access to this beautiful cinema. It also opened a certain market for us. We released many Lebanese and Arab films in other commercial cinemas. It was very beneficial ... for the films we defend.
“There was a common interest. I was very happy with this partnership but it was time to stop. Metropolis was going in one direction and Empire was still in the same profit-making frame of mind.
“They kept nagging that Metropolis wasn’t making enough money for them, but ... if they were really losing money they would have stopped it [earlier]. For us, it’s the same. I’d be hypocritical to say we didn’t benefit.”
For cinema lovers for whom Metropolis has been the only venue offering access to cinemas shunned by the multiplex model of mass movie consumption - international art house films, contemporary Arabic cinema, retrospectives of historic work usually confined to television (if that), or curated screening cycles - the abrupt loss of Sofil is a bewildering blow in uncertain and disrupted times.
Mroue is surprisingly upbeat about a space-free future.
“Since the beginning of this revolution we’ve been rethinking how we work,” she says, “that we should think about decentralizing, getting beyond our cocoon and operating in regions” outside Beirut.
“Why don’t we program in other venues? We work a lot with children outside Beirut anyway and we were thinking about partnering with cultural institutions and municipalities to do things in the regions,” she says.
“The idea,” she says, is “to go anywhere where we feel there’s a need or a desire. We should be able to improvise, to be flexible, depending on the situation. If we want to work with partners in Tripoli or Baalbak or Nabatiya, we can’t come from Beirut with a preconceived idea of how a program should look. It’s a dialogue.
“I received a beautiful email from Hiba Zibawi, who runs Ishbilia Theatre in Saida. She’s telling me that we should consider Ishbilia a second home. I’m sure we will do something with Ishbilia but it’s because the desire comes from both sides. We’ve collaborated in the past with screenings from the MC Distribution catalogue and also European Film Festival reruns.”
Ultimately, Mroue acknowledges, Metropolis will need a space.
“It might be one space or multiple spaces,” she reflects. “It could be a space for Metropolis but I think it’s more likely to be a more open one, a collaboration with other institutions.
“It’s impossible to survive in the current context and stay isolated. It’s very important to collaborate, to think collectively. Some Metropolis programs don’t even need a space - the work we do with schools, with NGOs. The young audience program continues unaffected. The research and data collection of the cinematheque doesn’t need a space. Our film distribution in the Arab world continues.
“It’s only the programming that needs a space. There is a desire to resume programming but that doesn’t mean we need to continue the programmes that were cancelled or postponed. We need to think of programmes that are maybe more relevant or more related to what’s going on around us.
“Maybe our programs should respond to what other institutions are doing, create a dialogue with them. We’re really now rethinking programming from scratch, which is why it might take some time.”
Regulars will miss most Metropolis’ legacy events - the yearly rerun of Cannes’ Critics Week, the European Film Festival, premieres of work by local filmmakers. In early 2020 Metropolis had scheduled Lebanon premieres for the new film of Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman and the prize-winning debut features of Lebanon’s Ahmad Ghossein and Oualid Mouaness.
“Honestly I think all this will be back,” she smiles, “when the time is right.
“Now there may be other priorities. I’m not sure that people are in a state that allows them to go to the cinema the way they did before.
“The many Arab films in our catalogue and Lebanese films that we were supposed to release right now, they’re not going anywhere. It’s gonna happen.
“Now more than ever it makes sense to screen Elia’s film here and Arabic film programming is absolutely a priority. These films are still here and the audience is still here. We just need to be creative and inventive in finding a way for these films to meet their audience.
“It might take some time but it’ll happen,” she adds.
Given Lebanon’s current meltdown, Mroue’s optimism may seem unjustified. Yet Metropolis was launched in extremis. Originally located in Masrah al-Madina’s little theatre (nowadays home to Metro al-Madina cabaret) the cinema opened its doors in July 2006, the night before Israel launched a monthlong attack on Lebanon.
“The country’s not dying,” Mroue says. “It’s just going through a crisis. We will overcome this crisis the way we have before. It will be back.”