The Making of Arab Alternative Cinema and its Audiences: Babelsberg, Beirut, Damascus, Leipzig
في لايبزغ… كان كل شعب يعرض كفاحه ليتعلّم الآخرون [In Leipzig…People screen their struggles so others may learn]
al-Akhbar, 15 December 1973, 32-33, Orient-Institut Beirut Library
From Film Festivals to Film Clubs and Film Schools
In her noteworthy book dedicated to the history of the International Leipzig Festival for documentary and animated film, the film historian Caroline Moine explains the importance of this Festival for Potsdam-Babelsberg film school students as a window to the world. Yet, Caroline Moine does not probe how decisive these places were for filmmakers who would later become part of the Arab Alternative Cinema. My PhD thesis largely focused on the circulation of films between festivals in order to analyse the formation of a ‘Mediterranean cinema’ from the 1990s onward. In this research project, “The Making of ‘Arab Alternative Cinema’ and its audiences: Babelsberg, Beirut, Damascus, Leipzig,” I continue building on the interdisciplinary approach I developed in my PhD while shifting the focus from film festivals to film clubs and film schools. Devoted to the history of Beirut ciné-clubs in the 1970s and the mobility of students and filmmakers from the Middle East to Germany, my research project aims to analyze the Arab Alternative Cinema using a transnational perspective by focusing on the production of filmic ideas established within these films and on the exhibition of Arab Alternative films in Lebanon and German Democratic Republic.
While researching the programming of film clubs in various private and public archives in Lebanon, I have frequently read interviews with filmmakers such as Kais al-Zubaidi, Kassem Hawal, and Faisal al-Yasiri, and found articles dedicated to the Arab Alternative Cinema movement, all of which highlighted the importance of the Babelsberg school as well as the International Leipzig Festival for documentary and animated film. For instance, the filmmaker and editor Kais al-Zubaidi says that he understood the value of documentary cinema, especially for constructing alternative narrative forms, in Leipzig when he was a student in Babelsberg from 1961 to 1969. More so, Faisal al-Yasiri, another filmmaker from Iraq whose films were screened at the Leipzig Festival and at the Arab Ciné-Club in Beirut, considered the Leipzig Festival as the “best possibility (…) to share [their] experiences with other progressive filmmakers of the whole world.” For other filmmakers, their travels to East Germany allowed them to come to terms with the dark side of Marxism. This was the case for the filmmaker and organizer of the Damascus Ciné-Club, Omar Amiralay, whose first film ” محاولة عن سدّ الفرات” (Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam, Syria, 1971) won a prize in the Leipzig Festival and whose cinematic language shifted from 1971 to 1977 in accordance with his critique of the socialist experience in Eastern Europe.
In December 1973, the Lebanese Communist Party’s journal, al-Akhbar, published a detailed report on the Leipzig Film Festival. The program of the sixteen edition of the Festival included “لماذا نزرع الورد لماذا نحمل البندقية؟” by Kassem Hawal (Why We Plant Flowers, Why We Carry Weapons, Palestine, 1973) and “أهداف إستراتيجية” by Faisal Al-Yasiri (Strategic Goals, Syria, 1973). In the middle of the journal’s pages dedicated to the Film Festival, a short text declared the creation of the Arab Ciné-Club and encouraged readers to become members of this film society. Visually emerging from the center of the pages reviewing the Leipzig Film Festival, the Arab Ciné-Club advertising invited to a focus on Syrian Cinema at the Art House Cinema Clemenceau which could house 550 seats. The same link between both initiatives can be found in the journal al-Balagh in which the organizer of the Arab Ciné-Club in Beirut Georges El Rassi was writing: pictures of the Leipzig Festival are placed above the film club’s programming.
Listening to a Sparrow in a Clothing Store
The editorial office of al-Akbar was located in Mazra’a district, precisely in the Ghandour building. The Arab Ciné-Club quickly moved to the same area and organized its screenings in the Cinema Beirut in 1974 and 1975. Many other journals, magazines, and publishing houses whose contributors were also members of the Arab Ciné-Club had their offices at a walking distance from the Cinema Beirut. At the time, Corniche al-Mazra’a was a vibrant intellectual and cultural space for Marxists and Palestinians who formed a large part of the film club’s audience. In fact, Cinema Beirut could host more than 900 people. In 2010, this movie theater was turned into Big Sale, a small shopping mall that sells clothes and other items.
Four distinct periods demarcate the history of the Arab Ciné-Club in Beirut. Over a year and a half after its opening, the beginning of the war caused a two-year hiatus. After a delegation of Cuban filmmakers came to visit the audience of the film club at Cinema Beirut in May and June of 1975, the Arab Ciné-Club restarted its activities at the Clemenceau in 1977. The last period occurred while Beirut was under siege in the summer of 1982. The club extended its activities to the Strand, a film theatre located in the middle of Hamra district, and which could seat 670 people. Nowadays, the name of this old cinema theater is still visible at the top of the building but the theatre itself has also become a clothing store called Max.
Jaber Suleiman, who was a member of the film society from its inception and who worked at the PLO Planning Centre, told me: “We were afraid, and we wondered: who’s going to come and watch a film during the siege?” These fears didn’t materialize as people poured into the Strand to watch films selected in response to the ongoing war. The program screened Youssef Chahine’s العصفور (The Sparrow, Egypt, 1972) for the third time in history of the Arab Ciné-Club. This Egyptian film is well remembered by several of the Arab Ciné-Club’s former members with whom I conducted interviews during my fellowship at the Orient Institut Beirut. Stitching the different periods of the ciné-club beyond the caesuras, and punctuated in it’s closing sequence by Bahia’s call to reject the 1967 defeat, the film encapsulates a generational memory of the Arab Ciné-Club despite the latter’s fragmented history and the dispersal of its members.
By borrowing from the concerns of New Cinema History, an approach which combines oral history and archival research to study the circulation and consumption of films, my postdoctoral research reflects on the making of a community through cinema memories. I’d like to suggest we look at the films of the Arab Alternative Movement for the stories they reveal about collective practices in the making and discussion of films learned between Babelsberg, Beirut, Damascus, and Leipzig. Stories that are yet to be released from the belly of shopping malls.
 Moine Caroline, Cinéma et guerre froide. Histoire du festival de films documentaires de Leipzig (1955-1990), Paris : Publications de la Sorbonne, 2014.
 Anaïs Farine, « Avec Kais Al-Zubaidi : Retour sur un cinéma alternatif », [« With Kais Al-Zubaidi, revisiting an “alternative cinema” »], in journal Ecrans. 2019 – 2. n° 12. Lisières esthétiques et culturelles au cinéma, pp.195-214.
 Hala Abdallah, Omar Amiralay: Sorrow, Time, Silence (France/Syria, 2021).
 Interview with Jaber Suleiman, conducted in Saida, on the 24/02/2023.
Cite this blog post
Orient-Institut Beirut (2023, August 31). The Making of Arab Alternative Cinema and its Audiences: Babelsberg, Beirut, Damascus, Leipzig. OIB_upclose. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/sik8