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Lebanon's Arts District Brings Back Silver Screen


Inside the Prime on Bliss movie theater in Beirut, Lebanon.

Inside the Prime on Bliss movie theater in Beirut, Lebanon.

The cosmopolitan district of Hamra was the intellectual center of Beirut until the Lebanese civil war drove many writers and artists to flee the neighborhood. The war also led to the closing of more than a dozen cinemas but now the silver screen has returned.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Hamra's café culture attracted Arab writers and artists from across the Middle East. It was also where you could watch the latest American movies in more than two-dozen neighborhood cinemas.
Moviegoers even braved the first few years of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 and dodged gunfire to glimpse their favorite Hollywood stars. But that did not last. By the end of the conflict, even the small cinemas had shuttered. Some later re-opened but could not survive the arrival of videos and home entertainment.
Now the silver screen has returned to Hamra with the opening of the first neighborhood movie theater in the district in a decade. The Prime on Bliss Street has opened opposite the American University at Beirut and is equipped with big modern screens and the latest sound technology.
The cinema’s manager, Jean Elhelou, says moviegoers like the surround-sound and big screens that capture the special effects of the blockbuster films.
“Customers are now different from the customers from the past," he noted. "In the past there were no technologies. The people in the past were coming to watch a movie, to watch and listen to the story. There were no technologies in the movies. But right now we have a lot technologies.”
But one thing has not changed - the types of movies on offer. The films being shown at the Prime are mainly American or European rather than Arab films. According to the cinema’s manager this is what the moviegoers want.
“The Lebanese people love to know everything about the European and the American style and they want to live like the European guys or the USA guys so that’s why they are addicted to see people how they are acting outside Lebanon and they want to act like them,” Elehou said.
Locals say they used to go to the Hamra cinemas during the civil war to forget their troubles - and that may be the same with this latest generation of moviegoers.
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