Daikha Dridi interviews Jean-Pierre Goux Pelletan, a veteran film critic in Lebanon and one of the founding members of the Beirut Ciné-club.
At 88 years and a few specs (“but don’t write down specs”, he prompted me laughing), Jean-Pierre Goux Pelletan tried to resurrect recollections of the years in the 1960s and 1970s when the Beirut Ciné-Club drew hundreds of members each week. The war brought the adventure to an end but Goux Pelletan continued to write on cinema in the Lebanese press, until the moment he had to leave Beirut a little over a year ago, because of illness. From Montpellier in France, he traveled back those years for us.
How did the adventure of the Beirut Ciné-club begin for you?
In the beginning of the 1960s, I was in charge of the cinema section at the daily L’Orient-Le Jour, I also animated a radio show on cinema. With six or seven friends, passionate Lebanese cinéphiles, we met and formed a committee to establish a ciné-club because at that time there was a pressing demand from cinephiles who read us…
Can you expand a little on the context of the country and Beirut at that time…
At that time, Lebanon was calm. We had an audience of all ages, social extraction, at that moment there was no political tension.
Where did the screenings take place?
At the beginning we used the screening room of a lycée but quickly it became too small to accommodate for the increasing number of members, and we ended up screening films in movie theaters.
What guided the selection of films you screened?
Evidently our first concern was for quality, but mostly our motivation was to reveal to our Lebanese audience a cinema they did not know, like the big Soviet classics, Indian cinema, Japanese, Iranian. In other words, that was our mission. As journalists, we had privileged access to the cultural attachés of these countries, sometimes they would send us a copy of a film on their initiative, for a single screening at the ciné-club, which we duly returned after screening. That is how the Lebanese public discovered classics by Eisenstein of course, and all the other big Soviet directors, and Japanese classics by Mizoguchi, non-commercial American films by the likes of John Cassavetes.
Was the ciné-club self-financed or did it receive support?
Yes, very quickly the ciné-club was able to finance its activities, ticket sales served to cover the running costs, it was the only cultural association in the country that did not receive aid.
Who was the ciné-club’s audience?
The audience was strictly made up of our membership because subscriptions out-numbered seats ! It was very simple, and that was very well, perhaps because we had a majority of young people, but there were all ages and social backgrounds.
Do you have recollections of the debates?
Yes, these were very good, very open, very free, everyone stayed for the debate after the projection. The debates took place with invited filmmakers, like for example, Jacques Tati who had come to attend the screening of Les vacances de monsieur Hulot, Youssef Chahine, Alain Resnais. Henri Langlois helped us a great deal. He came to us via the French Cinémathèque and brought us with him rare old films.
We had an agreement with owners of movie theater as well as with distributors, considering that we had the film press somewhat in our hands, we encouraged them to show some titles in their theaters after an avant-première at the ciné-club in exchange for a campaign in newspapers around the general release of films. It was not advertising because we chose these films and we loved them. We did it because they would have never otherwise been released in theaters. It was the case for example for Ingmar Bergman’s Sourires d’une nuit d’été and John Cassavetes’s Shadows.
Any memories of a big success with the audience?
Yes, Alain Resnais’s La guerre est finie, on the Spanish war. He had traveled to Lebanon with a copy especially printed for the screening at the ciné-club because the film had been cut. It was not exactly forbidden from screening but the French embassies at the time had issued word that it ought not screen in our countries. We resorted to a subterfuge with the complicity of the French cultural attaché at the time, a cinéphile and very understanding fellow whom I have never forgotten. We never spelled out the title of the film, we simply referred to it as “that film”.
When was the decision to shut down the ciné-club taken?
The ciné-club lasted until 1975, the outbreak of the Lebanese war and never picked up again. The decision to shut it down was imposed, there was a little bit of back and forth at first, but the theaters were no longer functioning normally, how could they be expected to set aside an evening for the ciné-club when, moreover, people went out markedly less?
After the war it did never pick up again, a lot of young people had left the country.
In other Arab countries ciné-clubs survived only until the 1980s, but this phenomenon does not exist anymore, why is it you think?
You know the overall context has not improved with regards to cultural matters, Lebanon included, neither has the socio-political context. In Lebanon the tensions are more accentuated, now the divisions are deeper between political clans, the social environment has changed wih all those people who emigrated, who changed neighborhoods or cities. In summary, for a ciné-club to function there are far too many unresolvable problems.
Are you referring to problems of censorship?
Not necessarily… In this regard, I would like to pay tribute to these people who helped us a great deal, who handled all administrative matters, censorship, etc. At the time, we had a friend who had brokered a sort of agreement that the ciné-club was trusted not to import films that might be unsuitable… to the socio-political of Lebanon. By that, I mean, for example, Israeli films, not that it would have never occurred to me to bring them. Films whose content was too explicit… you catch my drift. But we were able to function normally.
What about you, when you came to Lebanon, how did you fall in love with cinema?
I arrived to Lebanon….on the eve of the Second World War, in 1939, I had to do my military service, but if I pre-empted the call, I would get to choose where to go. I did not want to be posted in some vague uninteresting provincial district in France, and I already dreamed of the Orient, so I chose to go to Lebanon. In Beirut, under the French Mandate, I met my Lebanese wife. At the time of independence, I obtained Lebanese citizenship and stayed. I had complete freedom at the newspaper and radio station. I only left Beirut precipitously because of illness. It was shortly before last summer’s conflict with Israel.
I have been a cinéphile since my tender years, my mother dragged me to the movies since I was very small, I can still remember the last of the silent movies.