After taking his first steps in the 1940s with the two fictional films by Ali al-Ariss, Bayyā῾at al-ward (1943, La fioraia) and Kawkab, amīrat al-Ṣaḥrā᾽ (1946, Kawkab, princess of the desert), it was only in the 1950s that Lebanese cinema began to experience significant growth, also on the production level. On the one hand, works inspired by Egyptian musical and melodrama models contributed to it and, on the other, films made by directors who had culturally and professionally trained during the French governorship (which ended in 1944 with the proclamation of the country’s independence) and which therefore they were affected by the typical taste of European colonizers. Among these filmmakers, authors such as Georges Kahi (or Qa῾i, Qalbān wa ǧasad, 1954, Two hearts and one body), Michel Harun (al-Zuhūr al-h̠amrā᾽, 1957, The Red Roses), Georges Nasr (Ilā ayn, 1957, Where to go, the first Lebanese film to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival) The 1960s marked the real boom in Lebanese film production (over 100 films made in the decade), but also cinema: in 1965 there were 180 cinemas in full operation, although the offer remained dominated by imported films, mainly from the United States. According to Sunglassestracker, this production escalation, obviously supported by the impetuous economic development of the country, was also strongly influenced by the effects of Nasser’s nationalization of the film sector in Egypt. This phenomenon led a large number of Egyptian directors (including Youssef Chahine and Henri Barakat) to emigrate to Lebanon fueling the consequent relaunch of the Lebanese private production and distribution centers. On the other hand, Egyptian cinema, notoriously the most fertile in the Arab world, had for some time been supported in its expansion towards foreign markets by numerous distributors of Lebanese origin. starts in the sign of musical comedy, a popular genre par excellence (but wisely mixed with other styles, such as period films and social satire), also exploiting the popularity appeal of great Egyptian song stars such as Nour el-Hoda and Sabah, but also Lebanese, like the singer Feyrouz. The latter is the protagonist of Bayyā ῾al-h̠awaṭim (1965, The ring seller) by Y. Chahine, Safar barlak (1965) and Bint al-ḥāris (1968, The Guardian’s Daughter) by H. Barakat; films that used the music of Feyrouz’s composers, the Assi brothers and Mansour Rahbani.
However, several Lebanese directors also stood out in the genre, such as Mohammed Selmane who, always inspired by the models of Egyptian popular comedy, made fifteen films between 1963 and 1966, including Badawiyya fī Bārīs (1964, A Bedouin in Paris), with singer Samira Taufic. But by the middle of the decade, films that were decidedly less commercial had also begun to establish themselves, showing the country’s social contradictions or trying to reflect on the Palestinian question. Thus Kary Karabidyan (or Gary Garabédian), filmmaker of Armenian origin who tragically died on the set of one of his films (Kulluna fidā᾽iyyūn, 1968, We are all fighters), shot Garo (1965), the first Lebanese neorealist film, which tells the story of an Armenian emigrant forced by misery to become a criminal. In those years Antoine Mechawar was also active, documentary maker and experimental director, poet, writer and painter, who died, almost unknown, in 1975 and author of documentary works that were only subsequently rediscovered, such as Baalbeck de l’Autre côté du miroir (1962 The defeat of the Arabs by Israel in the Six Day War (1967) and the progressive return to their homeland of the Egyptian directors, marked, at the end of the 1960s, the sunset of an era, that of the country’s economic development and of its nascent film industry. The seventies opened in the sign of a great social and political instability which then resulted in the very long civil war which, started in April 1975 and lasted until 1990, it would have caused over one hundred thousand deaths and six hundred thousand injured. But precisely in those years a new generation of filmmakers emerged, men and women, destined to leave their mark for a long time, both in fiction and in documentary: among these Borhane Alaouié, Jocelyne Saab, Heiny Srour, Jean Chamoun, Randa Chahal Sabbag, Maroun Baghdadi. Mostly trained in Europe at prestigious film schools (the IDHEC of Paris; the INSAS of Brussels: v. Randa Chahal Sabbag, Maroun Baghdadi. Mostly trained in Europe at prestigious film schools (the IDHEC of Paris; the INSAS of Brussels: v. Randa Chahal Sabbag, Maroun Baghdadi. Mostly trained in Europe at prestigious film schools (the IDHEC of Paris; the INSAS of Brussels: v. Belgium), the exponents of this generation had nevertheless lived through the season of disillusionment in the Arab world, and had been recalled to their homeland by the tragic development of events, immediately revealing a strong propensity for political and social commitment. Kafr Qāsim (1974) by B. Alaouié (Syro-Lebanese co-production) is a vibrant and poetic film, which reconstructs, between fiction and document, the massacre carried out by Israeli soldiers against the population of the Palestinian village of Kafr Qāsim in 1956. Also in 1974 Baghdadi (IDHEC graduate) made his debut in a fiction feature film with Bayrūt yā Bayrūt (Beirut, oh Beirut): through the private and ideological itinerary of four young Lebanese who symbolize the clash between the different civil and religious communities of the Lebanon, the film condenses the emotions linked to a decisive historical phase for the country, from December 1968 (Israeli raid on the Beirut airport) to the death of Egyptian President Nasser in September 1970, proposing itself as a strongly premonitory work (not surprisingly the first and last public screening took place two days before the outbreak of the civil war). Baghdadi would in fact become, until its untimely death in 1993, the main point of reference of Lebanese cinema and one of the most authoritative voices of the new cinema of the Arab world, for its stylistic refinement and poetic sensitivity, and for the lucid analysis of impulses unleashed by the fratricidal war (especially among the younger generations), as in his second work Ḥurūb ṣaġīra (1982, Little wars), where a teenager is forced by the death of his father to assume the role of head of the family and fighter early.
The film, presented in 1983 in the Un certain regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, was the last shot by Baghdadi in his homeland. The invasion of southern Lebanon by the Israelis (1982), the massacres in Palestinian refugee camps, the opening of a new war front, ever since endemic, between the Islamic militias and Israel in the southern part of the Lebanon events. Baghdadi, together with other directors, decided to return to Paris to seek, in exile, the necessary distance to continue talking about his country, albeit through fiction. With much more relevant technical means and a respectable French cast (including Michel Piccoli), he would in fact only return to the cinema in 1987 with L ‘ homme voilé, a Franco-Lebanese co-production that effectively portrays the schizophrenic split of a doctor who, returning to France to be close to his young daughter, after four years of volunteering in Lebanon on behalf of a humanitarian association, discovers that he has changed profoundly following that tragic experience. In a documentary key, Baghdadi dedicated an intense reportage to the activity in Lebanon of the Médecins sans frontieres association, entitled Lubnān balad al-῾asal wa-᾽l-bah̠ūr (1987, The land of honey and incense). The tragedy of an exile imposed by the war, a condition common to many filmmakers in the Arab world and which solidifies the human and artistic history of Lebanese and Palestinian directors, constituted the leitmotif of Lebanese cinema throughout the war period, and even afterwards. Although mostly living in Europe, these filmmakers were the most authoritative witnesses to that conflict and to the progressive ruin of an enchanting city such as Beirut. This has been the cinematographic path of the director Saab, since her first documentaries (Lubnān fī ᾽l-āṣifa, 1975, Lebanon in the storm; Beyrouth, ma ville, 1982); but also, a few years later, by Chahal Sabbag, whose first documentary, H̠aṭwa h̠aṭwa (Step by step), dates back to 1979. The emergence of a female gaze behind the camera was indeed the concrete sign of the new role, private and political, of women in Lebanese society, already documented by Srour in 1974 in Sā῾at al-taḥrīr daqqat barra yā isti ῾mār (The hour of liberation has struck, outside the colonialists). Also Srour would later provide a penetrating portrait of the female condition in a stylistically very refined fiction, Layla wa al-di᾽āb (1984, Leila and the wolves). The nineties opened with the end of a war that lasted fifteen very long years, and, in the cinematographic field, still in the sign of Baghdadi which at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival obtained the jury prize with Ḫāriǧ al-ḥayāt (La vita suspended, his only film distributed in Italy).
The ambiguous psychological interweaving induced by the war returns once again in this film, set in the Eighties, with the rhythm and atmospheres now whirling now rarefied, starring a French photojournalist (Hippolyte Girardot) taken hostage in Beirut by one of the many militias of Islamic fighters. What now most interests the director is to show the absence of meaning (which even escapes the militiamen themselves) of the war and to denounce the media business around it (a very topical issue in the year of the Gulf War): in the darkness of imprisonment, the reporter suffers violence but also the charm of his kidnappers and his confinement symbolically becomes what the Lebanese people had experienced, aggravated by the total lack of communication between a country now abandoned to moral and material degradation and the so-called civil world. While Baghdadi was shooting his latest film in France, the most unrelated to Lebanese affairs, La fille de l’air (1992), Jean Chamoun introduced elements of fiction in his long Ah̠lām mu’allaqa (1992, Suspended dreams), intense and significant documentary journey on the tragedy of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, mostly made together with his partner, the Palestinian-born director Mai Masri. With the massive return of foreign investments, it took on a whirlwind and even worrying pace for the future identity of the country – the challenge of Lebanese filmmakers in the nineties consisted first of all in recovering memory, in a country that showed a strong will to remove. R. Chahal Sabbag moved in this light and with Ḥurūbina al-ta᾽iša (1995, Our imprudent wars, awarded at the Third Biennial of Arab Cinemas in Paris in 1996), he welded a double memory: the images of Beirut during the war (shot in 16 mm) and those (shot on video) of his family. A tenacious effort against the temptation of collective amnesia has also characterized the new generation of filmmakers who, in more than one case, have managed to obtain considerable success at home and with international critics. Among these, it should be mentioned in the first place Ziad Doueiri (or Daouri, former assistant of Quentin Tarantino), who in the intense and autobiographical West Beirut (1998) returned to the events of April 1975 and to the youth of a generation overwhelmed by the outbreak Of the war. Skillfully mixing drama and generational comedy, in a soft and enveloping style, perfectly adhering to the gaze of adolescence, the director evoked his past through the exploits of three friends, two Muslims and a Christian, following their growth in the years of conflict: at the beginning the war is just a game for them (like crossing the dividing line between the two parts of the city, or the exciting discovery of violence, sex, but also the love between children of different cultures and religions); but soon everything becomes extraordinarily sad and complicated, as tension and hatred begin to divide their respective families. Beyrouth fantôme (1998) by Ghassan Salhab moves between memory and disenchantment, where the protagonist, after an absence of ten years, during which he had disappeared assuming a new identity, returns to Beirut to see the irremediable loss of affections and friendships, a theme that will recur in the subsequent Terra incognita, presented in 2002 in the UN certain regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. R. Chahal Sabbag has gone back in the years who set his Civilisées (1999) in Beirut in 1981, offering a portrait of the spirit of the time, in particular of the lower classes, especially immigrants who remained in the city to guard the luxurious buildings abandoned by the rich urban middle class took refuge in Europe.
The surreal touch of the director in describing the daily reality of the war, its violence and absurdity, and the deliberately provocative and obscene charge of the film, were the basis of the relentless censorship. Despite, or perhaps also because of the Unesco prize it won at the Venice Film Festival, the film (a Franco-Lebanese co-production) was in fact amputated by 47 minutes and banned at home. But if government censorship, made up mostly of figures linked to military circles, alarms directors, even the absence of public aid to the film industry forces young authors to commute between Beirut and the European capitals in search of funding. for their projects. Only thanks to French support (Fonds Sud, CNC, private television networks such as Arté or Canal Plus) and that of Euro-Mediterranean programs, has it been possible to make a dozen feature films since the end of the war (while the production of short films and video by a large group of young filmmakers). However, despite this not very encouraging picture, Lebanese cinema has been the subject of a vast process of critical rediscovery in recent years, as evidenced by some large retrospectives.