Lebanon’s resistance through culture: Return of Beirut’s Metropolis Cinema

BEIRUT — Since its establishment in 2006, Metropolis Cinema served as a haven for enthusiasts of independent and author films, standing out amid the proliferation of commercial theaters dominated by Hollywood productions. It secured a prestigious place in the city’s cultural scene until its operations were crippled due to the 2019 financial crisis and it was forced to shut down in January 2020.

Beirut’s cultural scene has always been a mosaic of creativity, marked by a fusion of various influences and a spirit of innovation. However, this scene has faced numerous challenges, including political instability, economic crises and the catastrophic Beirut port explosion in August 2020. The explosion in particular resulted in a severe blow to the city’s cultural institutions, many of which were damaged or destroyed.

Metropolis Cinema is now back in Beirut after four years of closure, finding symbolic resonance in the capital’s Mar Mikhael vibrant neighborhood, where Unifoncière S.A.L donated a plot of land to the association to build their own cinema space.

“Despite everything, the prospect of reopening our cinemas was always on our minds. At first, we looked into repurposing disused schools, abandoned cinemas and derelict factories. Then came the idea, considered crazy by some, of building our own venue,” Hania Mroueh, co-founder of the Metropolis Cinema Association, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview in English.

Metropolis survives wars, economic crisis

Mroueh founded the Metropolis Cinema Association in 2006 with the initial aim of addressing the lack of independent film circulation in the country.

The first film program launched on July 11, 2006, in a small theater-turned-cinema in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut, just one day before the start of the July 2006 war with Israel. The venue had to close the next morning, and soon after, due to its underground location, it became a shelter for many displaced families, mainly children, from the heavily bombed southern suburbs of the city and southern Lebanon. To keep the children indoors, the team began screening films for them, marking the beginning of the association’s focus on exposing youth to cinema.

After the war ended in August 2006, Metropolis resumed its screenings and expanded its activities to include the organization of various festivals, retrospectives, film cycles, and special events in the 80-seat theater in Hamra.

In 2008, as the audience and demand for independent cinema grew, the association moved to the Empire-Sofil cinema in Achrafieh, a two-screen venue that the association had been using until 2020 before its closure. At the time, the landlord sold the premises due to the financial crisis, and the association was instructed to vacate the space.

Despite not having a space, the association continued to operate in a “nomadic mode,” according to Zeina Sfeir, the president of the Metropolis Cinema Association, holding outdoor screenings and forming partnerships with municipalities nationwide.

Now, the Metropolis Cinema Association vows to resume its signature activities, which include festivals, screenings, Ciné concerts and a dedicated space for Lebanese and Arab cinema, while also broadening its horizons to include cinema from the Far East, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. The upcoming “Reality Screens” festival to be held in their new location in September promises a showcase of local and international documentaries.

Sfeir anticipates the initial reopening later this month of June, with a grand unveiling slated for September. Designed and overseen by architect Sophie Khayat, the new headquarters will house two cinemas, one seating 190 and the other 90, along with an outdoor space accommodating 350 people and including an open-air cinema and cultural café.

A cinematheque boasting an extensive collection of Lebanese films will be featured, with a dedicated space for film restoration and preservation.

Cinema in Lebanon holds significant historical valuebut preservation efforts have been lacking. Many films produced before the 1990s were destroyed during the country’s civil war (1975-1990), leaving only a few in poor condition.

Recognizing the urgency of preserving this cultural heritage, the Metropolis Cinema Association launched Cinematheque Beirut in 2018. This project aims to create an organized and documented national filmography through an online database dedicated to Lebanese cinema. Additionally, it includes an oral archive featuring interviews with prominent figures in the Lebanese film industry and ongoing programming of classic and contemporary Lebanese films.

“In this context, the reopening of the Metropolis Cinema is profoundly symbolic, as it represents a resurgence of hope and a commitment to cultural continuity,” Sfeir told Al-Monitor.

“The cinema’s revival is not just about resuming film screenings; it is about reclaiming a space for artistic expression and community engagement,” she adds.

For a remarkable 12-year span, festivals and activities held by the association proliferated, providing a beacon of hope for Lebanese and Arab talentsindependent producers and creators of experimental videos and documentaries, while also extending its hands to students, youth and schools alike.

“The association remains committed to fostering collaboration with students, schools and film screenings in educational settings,” Mroueh explains.

Since its establishment, the association has gained support from both local and international financiers. “Our decisions and direction remain uninfluenced, and we’ve steadfastly adhered to our Arab identity. We’ve never compromised our principles for any funding, selecting partners who align with our vision,” Sfeir asserts.

Navigating the challenges of sustaining artistic endeavors amid societal and economic challenges, particularly amid Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, presents formidable obstacles. “The journey back is fraught with challenges, yet, despite the hardships, we persist in carving out a space for culture in Lebanon, even as the struggle intensifies each day sometimes,” Sfeir says.

A beacon of cultural resistance in Beirut

Wafaa Bteddini, a performing arts lecturer at Ark Academy in London who has been active in Beirut’s cultural scene, shared her insights on the return of the Metropolis Association in an interview with Al-Monitor.

“Metropolis has been an integral part of Beirut’s cultural fabric since its founding as it has offered a platform for both local and international films, including independent, art-house and experimental cinema, which are often sidelined by mainstream commercial theaters,” she says.

For Bteddini, this inclusive approach has allowed for a rich diversity of voices and perspectives to flourish, enriching the cultural discourse within the city.

“Metropolis Cinema has been instrumental in supporting local and regional filmmakers. By providing a platform for Lebanese and Arab cinema, the cinema champions our own stories and talents. It offers emerging filmmakers the opportunity to showcase their work, gain recognition and connect with a wider audience,” Bteddini explained.

A cultural sanctuary for the community

The reopening of Metropolis Cinema is proof of cultural and social recovery. It provides a communal space where people can come together, share experiences and find solace in the collective act of watching films.

George Abi-Nader, a 26-year-old cinematic arts graduate from the American University of Beirut (AUB), shared with Al-Monitor his excitement for the return of Metropolis through a phone interview in English.

“On a personal level, Metropolis Cinema has been a source of joy and inspiration for me. The films I’ve watched there have broadened my perspective, evoked deep emotions and inspired me to see the world differently,” Abi-Nader expressed.

“The reopening means that once again, I have a place to go where I can experience the magic of creative cinema, reconnect with friends and be part of a community that values and celebrates the arts of young talents,” Abi-Nader said.

Unlike commercial theaters, Metropolis offers a curated selection of films that include independent, international and classic movies.

The Metropolis Association actively fosters relationships within the film industrylike by attending the recent Cannes Film Festival held earlier in May. This prestigious event serves as a vital networking platform where the association’s representatives can engage with filmmakers, producers, distributors and other industry professionals.

“Through meetings, panels and social events, we build connections that facilitate collaborations, film acquisitions and partnerships. By being present at Cannes, the Metropolis Association not only enhances its visibility and reputation but also stays abreast of industry trends and innovations, which supports its mission to promote independent and auteur cinema,” Mroueh says.


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