Daikha Dridi interviews veteran Lebanese film critic and essayist Walid Chmeit, a founding member of the Beirut Arab Ciné-Club.
What led you to grow an interest in cinema and ciné-clubs?
At the outset, I was mostly interested in theater, and I remember discovering cinema through Antonioni, I had seen The Adventure (L’avventura, 1960) it was during the 1950s, I was living in Brazil. It captivated me instantly and I decided to become involved in cinema. When I returned to Lebanon, I wanted to work in film but there was no industry proper, and so I developed an interest in film culture and began to write in Lebanese newspapers on film, filmmakers and the important films I loved.
When did you become involved in ciné-clubs?
At first I was a member of the Beirut Ciné-club, it was really the first ciné-club of the country, they screened the classics of world cinema, especially French, and the important films of the time. The club brought films and screened them to a significant number of members, we were almost a thousand ! There was a screening once a week, and they hosted filmmakers from all over the world, including a few Arabs, like Youssef Chahine. I discovered him at the Beirut Ciné-Club; it was a great ciné-club, a kind of institution.
Was it state-funded?
No, it was totally independent. It was a ciné-club that managed to attract a lot of people, students, professors, teachers, intellectuals, etc.
What impelled you then to establish another ciné-club at the same period?
We had two major concerns, firstly at the Beirut Ciné-club, the debates were conducted in French and considering a lot of Lebanese were not necessarily francophone, a group of us, members of the ciné-club, thought we ought to establish something where Arabic was the language spoken.
Why was the language used at the Beirut Ciné-club French and not Arabic?
The Beirut Ciné-club was created by francophone Lebanese intellectuals along with a few French people, teachers who lived in Lebanon. They worked a lot with the French Cultural Center, that brought films for no money and had relationships with the French Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois and that whole world.
At the end of the 1960s and 1970s, we established the Beirut Arab Ciné-club. It was not only for the purpose of conducting conversations in Arabic, but also to better discover Arab cinema, as a matter of fact, and to cite an example, we organized a cycle of Algerian films. It was the first time anything of that sort was happening in Lebanon. We did the same thing for Tunisian cinema, etc. We did not need to do anything like that for Egyptian cinema, it was extremely well-known.
What location did you choose for your ciné-club?
At this level our experience was fairly diverse, the Beirut Ciné-club was located in the bourgeois neighborhood of Ashrafieh, its residents in addition to the students and teachers were its constituency. In the beginning, we used an Art House Cinéma (Arts et Essais) that was run by the Ministry of Information and the National Center for Cinema, located in downtown Beirut. After a while we moved to al-Mazra’a, a working class neighborhood, where we settled for several years.
In the countries of the Maghreb, during that time bracket, the experience of ciné-clubs was imprinted with political movements on the left. What about Lebanon?
In Beirut, the over-riding concern was not properly political. Political expression being free in the country, everyone could express their views liberally and did not need to go looking for other spaces, like ciné-clubs, but this does not imply that politics were absent from our debates. There were people on the right as well as people on the left participating in discussions following screenings, professing their political convictions. Political questions were very present; I remember when we screened Algerian films, they were enormously successful because they were a novelty and it was impossible to avoid politics when the war of Algeria was evoked and the subject of Algeria in general. They were important films at that period, like those by Costa Gavras, that ignited very animated political discussions.
The politics of the Beirut Ciné-club depended largely then on the film screened…
Yes, and this marks a distinction from the ciné-clubs in the Maghreb.
Who was the audience of the Arab Ciné-club?
Most were students and teachers, with some families from the petite bourgeoisie that loved cinema and wanted to see good films that did not necessarily screen in movie theaters.
The choice guiding the selection of films was animated by the desire to screen Arab films, not only European or American films, but were there other choices?
To us, we wanted foremost to introduce important filmmakers and movements in cinema not familiar to our audience, so for example, we organized series for directors like Antonioni, Fellini, a lot of Italian cinema generally, French also, less so American cinema because it invaded movie theaters, here as elsewhere. For Arab cinema, we tried to screen films by filmmakers that were not well-known, like Taoufik Saleh, Shadi Abdel-Salam, a little bit of Youssef Chahine and some others. Our main motivation was to foster a culture of cinema, promote important filmmakers, interesting films to encourage their screening in commercial theaters.
When did the experience of the Beirut Arab Ciné-club come to an end?
We started at the end of the 1960s, early 1970s, and it lasted for two to three years after the outbreak of the civil war. The war ended everything.
After that, the Lebanese invented what is called ‘video-clubs’, instead of going to movie theaters, the young and less young met in homes and screened films on videotape.
Can you tell me a little about your experience with ciné-clubs in schools?
They were ciné-clubs organized by the National Center for Cinema. In my capacity as advisor at the center, I and a few friends (film critics and directors of ciné-clubs) tried to propagate the movements of ciné-clubs in some schools. This is how I came to animate some ciné-clubs in schools, a marvelous experience. I keep compelling memories of that time. We showed students all kinds of films, they were beginning to read images, develop an interest in differences between filmmakers, important themes in cinema, learning how to read films was a discovery.
How do these things happen today?
A little like everywhere else in the Arab world, cultural centers of foreign missions are active in that domain, but unfortunately, the important ciné-clubs, like the Beirut Ciné-club and the Arab Ciné-club, no longer exist and neither do the schools’ ciné-clubs…but this does not mean that the culture of cinema has lapsed from schools and universities, quite the contrary! Lebanon claims today seven film schools in the big universities and there are hundreds of Lebanese studying film, there are no more ciné-clubs, but a blossoming of film schools.
How do you explain the disappearance of ciné-clubs?
It is a worldwide phenomenon, even in France, ciné-clubs were very active in the 1960s-1970s, well into the 1980s, but are far less present today.
The youth interested in cinema today have other means at their disposal to acquire film culture, they have television, the net, they have their own means and they are less interested in going to watch films in ciné-clubs when they can download them from the internet.
We often hear that movie theaters are deserted in the Arab world, what do you think? Is this the case for Lebanon?
In Lebanon there are less movie theaters than before but those operational are not deserted, and it really depends on the film itself. For example, a film like Nadine Labaki’s Caramel (“Sukkar Banat”, 2007) was an enormous success.
How do you look back on your past experience?
I don’t have any regrets, it was a very beautiful experience that introduced me to some very interesting people, wonderful works and great filmmakers. I still adore cinema, I am still in that world.
Photo: Remains of the mixed-use office and cinema complex designed by architect Joseph Philippe Karam in the 1960s, Beirut, Lebanon. (Credit: José M. Ruibérriz)