Fit for a royal: Rehabilitating Beirut's abandoned cinemas from the 1950s
Built in the 1950s, Cinema Royal survived and endured Lebanon's see-saw history – civil war, economic crises and social degradation – with each generation contributing to the charming site.
Originally showing Hollywood films, Cinema Royal eventually became a niche cinema showcasing Bollywood films and martial arts in the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1990s, they made most of their money through pornographic films.
But a lack of funds and competition from bigger cinemas caused Cinema Royal to become neglected which led to the cinema eventually shutting down in the early 2000s.
"Art and culture kept Lebanon on the map, it is our hope and dignity. We are proud to have Cinema Royal back in Bourj Hammoud"
But now the cinema has a new lease on life. Karl Hadife, a 25-year-old film director recently restored the place with the help of talented craftsmen to preserve the historic aesthetic of the place whilst creating an “alternative and inclusive” place for Bourj Hammoud, a multicultural neighbourhood renowned for its diversity.
"After purchasing the cinema in 2020, my family and I started developing the cinema, doing the necessary planning and renovations before finally opening the doors last year,” Karl told The New Arab.
While the space was privately purchased by the Hadife family, the cinema will also be funded through an NGO called Neighborhood, recently founded by Karl.
"Neighborhood aims to accomplish three things. Firstly, it aims to provide culture at an affordable price or free when possible. Secondly, it will facilitate collaboration between artists by sharing experiences, resulting in new ideas, and ensuring inclusive opportunities. Thirdly, impoverished kids in the neighbourhood, incapable of affording extracurricular activities or struggling to fund their education, will be offered workshops and courses in different arts by this NGO," he explains.
The demise of Cinema Royal was a sad sight for Karl but nonetheless gave him the impetus to restore the cinema to its former glory, preserving its original architecture and spirit.
Inside, the cinema's interior is reminiscent of a bygone age, with its square brown leatherette armchair and lighting fixtures transporting the experience back to the 1950s.
“We preserved Cinema Royal's architectural structure, painting some of the walls but made sure to conserve the interior to keep its spirit,” Karl added.
On the left and right side of the cinema, there are two huge paintings that belonged to the previous owners, the Hawarian family, who used to paint posters for Arab films between the 1970s and 1980s. Karl decided to keep these paintings as part of the heritage of the site.
Karl and his family chose Bourj Hammoud for many reasons. “We grew up going to the neighbourhood, its narrow streets, shops and street food places.”
He added: “We also realised that the cultural scene in Bourj Hammoud was dying, we needed to create a place that helped breathe new life into the neighbourhood."
Across the street, the Hadife family own the Abroyan factory, where they host a lot of cultural events and exhibitions.
“We thought it would be a nice extension to what we are already building on,” Karl told The New Arab.
The community of Bourj Hammoud are thrilled that their neighbourhood has returned to a bustling scene of activity.
“For three years, Lebanon has been mired in a deep economic and political crisis. These days the only rays of hope come from instances of solidarity and the willingness to find solutions,” George Harmandian, a resident in Bourj Hammoud told The New Arab.
Karl was sceptical at first. “I thought it would lead to gentrification, but we were transparent from the beginning and our intentions were genuine. We wanted involvement for everyone, to open minds and broaden visions, especially in the situation in which we live.”
For the young director having a cultural place that is accessible was the main intention he bought the place and decided to turn it into a multipurpose space and visual arts centre.
"Art and culture kept Lebanon on the map, it is our hope and dignity. We are proud to have Cinema Royal back in Bourj Hammoud,” Serj Saba, an Armenian teacher in Bourj Hammoud said to The New Arab.
“We are aiming for regular programmes and frequent shows, but we have started at a small scale and we’re looking to expand our projects through funds and grants,” Karl said.
The cinema has held dance shows, contemporary ballet, a poetry party and recently an event in collaboration with the British Council in Lebanon.
As part of Cinema Royal's reopening, two other shows will be presented, including Hotel Beirut/Fractured Love Stories by the Beirut Contemporary Ballet.
Other shows held at Cinema Royal include: Letter Faced by Dana Mikhael, Fatayer Bi Banadoura by Hiba Najem, Farha by Karl Hadife and Julien Boutros, Fled by Katy Younes and Karim Chebli, and Be walls, she walls by Lara Karles – all free of charge shows and funded by the British Council.
The ultimate goal for Karl and Cinema Royal is to encourage diverse curation and expanded opportunities for all.
“It is such a shame to see that the cultural scene is no longer booming, in a country that was once a hub to artists and creatives, so our generation should try to bring this back,” Hadife added.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462