Creativity in times of crisis: The Lebanese cinema industry proves its resilience
Nermin Yousha, a young Lebanese actress, stands in front of her mirror, rehearsing for a role she recently landed in a romantic movie. Although she is supposed to play a beautiful and wealthy girl receiving news from her lover, Nermin looks exhausted, barely able to catch her breath. Nermin, like most Lebanese actors and filmmakers, can no longer work and mobilise her creativity in a collapsing country.
After graduating from theatre, she is now trying to find her way amidst the multiple crises that have hit the Lebanese cinema and the entire country since late 2019. How to embody a cheerful and optimistic character in a country plunged into darkness due to power cuts, in which shortages of basic goods transformed daily life into a real ordeal?
"Artistic work requires stability, the serenity of mind and psychological strength, and these conditions are not met at all nowadays," she admits. “I like to watch myself in the mirror during rehearsal, this is not possible because it is dark at night in the absence of electricity, but at least the weather becomes more bearable after the sun goes down.”
Indeed, most Lebanese homes are experiencing power cuts which can last more than 22 hours a day.
"Among the main victims of this crisis, young graduates in the cinema industry are heavily suffering from worsening work conditions"
Young actors are heavily suffering from the crisis
Patrick Daoud, an actor currently preparing his first drama series, enumerates the many challenges faced by young Lebanese filmmakers and actors. He mentions the deterioration of working conditions, financial hardships, and brain drain. However, the main challenge is, according to him, the collective depression that professionals in the sector are currently suffering from.
"The main problem is mental health: we can't work properly, the minimum working conditions are not met and we are all overwhelmed by the difficulties of everyday life," he explains. "We can't even think in this dramatic situation.”
According to the World Bank, Lebanon is experiencing one of the worst economic and financial crises that the world has known since the 19th century. This crisis has resulted in a 20 percent GDP recession in 2020, a mass currency devaluation, and an inflation rate of over 100 percent annually. According to the United Nations, more than half of Lebanon's population is now trapped in poverty.
Among the main victims of this crisis, young graduates in the cinema industry are heavily suffering from worsening work conditions. "Paid opportunities are almost non-existent," Patrick says. "For 35 days of shooting, I was offered barely two million Lebanese pounds (around 100 USD), without any benefits or even coverage of travel expenses."
If one expects trade unions to act in this situation to defend the rights of workers and support the more vulnerable, this has not been the case in Lebanon.
“The union of actors is totally dysfunctional, its executive members are old and do nothing to support neither the youth nor the sector in general," Patrick mentions, according to whom the politicisation of the union prevents it from playing its role in representing the artists’ interests.
In the absence of the State, NGOs and international donors mobilise to save Lebanese cinema
In response to this generalised crisis, the Lebanese State, currently in a state of suspension of payments, has stopped supporting the cinema sector. Public subsidies previously granted to local productions have been suspended, leaving structures such as the Liban Cinema Foundation the burden of supporting filmmakers and actors.
"All our activities are geared towards youth," says Gabriel Chamoun, founder of the Liban Cinéma Foundation. "There are many financial needs, but we also need to tackle the lack of training."
In this regard, the Foundation organises workshops and training sessions focused on series writing, and conducts activities to promote independent Lebanese cinema, especially during international festivals.
In the context of the collapse of sponsorship from the private sector, associations and NGOs supported by international donors are the main funders of Lebanese films.
"We are trying to set up a support fund for Lebanese films, and we have also financially supported the production companies affected by the August 4 explosion," mentions Gabriel Chamoun. Thus, international mobilisation has been a financial safety net for the Lebanese cinema, heavily affected by the collapse of cinema attendance and the economic crisis.
"The deep crisis which the country is going through drains the energy of the Lebanese people, diverting them from artistic production and pushing the most brilliant minds towards emigration"
The crisis is endangering the future of Lebanese cinema
If the crisis has hit young professionals hard, it has not spared Lebanese stars, who often stay silent about their difficulties in order to preserve their image.
Saad Al Qadri, actor, director, and owner of a production company, says that his offices were partly destroyed by the explosion of the Beirut port. Indeed, the neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhail, heavily affected by the explosion, were one of the cultural centres of the capital, hosting many production companies and film sets.
“I played in two movies before the October 17 protests in 2019, which have not been displayed yet,” Saad says, adding that “with all the recent events and the economic crisis, the releases have been postponed to an unknown date.”
The collapse of purchasing power has had a disastrous impact on cinema attendance, a fact which diminished the profitability and attractiveness of movies aimed at the general public.
Until recently, Beirut was the beacon of Middle Eastern cinema, mainly due to the tremendous creative energy of the Lebanese and their ancient artistic tradition which goes back to the early 50s. According to a study published by the Basil Fuleihan Institute of Finance, the film industry represented a turnover of 130 million USD in 2015, employing more than 1,000 people in the country. The sector was booming until the economic crisis, with the annual number of films peaking at 32 in the same year.
The deep crisis which the country is going through drains the energy of the Lebanese people, diverting them from artistic production and pushing the most brilliant minds towards emigration.
In spite of the crisis, Lebanese movies are still being praised during international festivals, which shows that the crisis can be an opportunity to found a new Lebanese cinema. Five films from Lebanon have been selected for the Genoese Mostra, while The Sea Ahead by Ely Dagher was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. These successes reveal the potential of Lebanese filmmakers, and gives optimism about the future of cinema in Lebanon.
Sami Erchoff is a freelance journalist based in Beirut