BEIRUT: In 1998, as Lebanon was still recovering from the Israeli occupation, five university students thought of establishing the first cinema club through roaming across the country’s regions.
Naja al-Ashkar, along with the team, was still majoring in journalism back then. Al-Ashkar, who was also working at Sawt el-Shaab (The Voice of the People) Radio Station, felt the need to establish the first cinema in Lebanon in order to give room for entertainment and joy after the woes of war.
CULTURE IN TIMES OF WAR
“The main reason for establishing the club was that the country needed such activities, especially that culture is really important in times of war,” Al-Ashkar told Annahar in an interview all about “Nadi le kolnas,” meaning “a club for all people.”
The young Naja at the time, whose home was situated between Beirut Theater and Al Madina theater, near Kantari area, Beirut, was always interested in the cinematic experience of Jawad Al Assadi, Roger Assaf, and Yaacoub Mostafa.
“I used to attend most of the screenings featuring Jean Chamoun’s works, in addition to a number of the most prominent directors in Lebanese independent cinema,” he said.
Al-Askhar was especially enthusiastic about independent cinema.
“This type of cinema is hidden because it showcases the political regimes’ reality,” he says, acknowledging that it is not for the public; and to him, independent cinema, functions as an alternative to every unwritten history.
This is exactly why and how “Nadi Le KolNas” emerged, gaining its publicity from people and directors.
During the club’s first years, the five students focused on meeting, organizing, and screening films, by devotedly focusing on giving Lebanese regions access to independent cinema.
“We broke the habit of watching cinema only in Beirut, and collaborated with independent organizations and municipalities in order to bring cinema to distant rural areas,” he said.
So far, the cinema/cultural club is a hub for generations ranging from the 70s, 90s, including new film school graduates, who are not able to screen their films with the professionalism and technicalities that “Le KolNas” provides.
This photo shows part of Nadi le Kolnas' working space in one of Beirut's few heritage houses, Mansion.
ARCHIVING INDEPENDENT FILMS
Apart from screening, the cultural hub has been preserving Lebanese independent cinema in other ways in the last 20 years, through researching to find long lost films, cleaning film records, and archiving old films.
The shift, or more like the turning point, for “Le KolNas” was in 2004, when the renowned filmmaker Burhan Alawiya trusted the club with documenting and archiving his films. The whole process took around 2 years.
Other famous directors whose cinematic works were archived by “Le KolNas” were Christian Ghazi (whose works were archived in 2010), Jean Chamoun (whose archive was already found, but Le KolNas helped clean and archive in 2007).
In later years, the club was archiving films for non-Lebanese directors as well, since culture and arts see no borders.
In 2011, they started archiving Mohamad Malas’ works, who’s a Syrian filmmaker whose works are all about narrative cinema that is predominantly reliant on memory.
Maroun Baghdadi’s films, Al-Ashkar mentions, were the hardest to archive. The process took around 8 years, with the collaboration of 50 people.
This photo shows a number of preserved/archived films at Nadi le Kolnas' office.
Since most of Baghdadi’s films were outside Lebanon, cleaning/refining the films and translating them into English and French needed significant funding and hard work.
“They were rusty, yet we saved them in 2013,” he says, adding that saving his films was crucial, since Baghdadi symbolized a very important phase in Lebanon’s history.”
Between the years 1974 and 1993, Baghdadi wad dedicated wholeheartedly to Lebanese cinema. He created 23 cultural and narrative films during those 20 years, highlighting critical and sensitive issues in Lebanon.
In addition, he was one of the first Lebanese directors to receive European funding for his films, and one of the first Lebanese directors whose film was screened in 1983 at Cannes film festival.
Currently, “Le KolNas,” which turned from a club into an association, is working on Randa al Chahal’s films, in her 10th memorial.
The association’s screening choices mainly fall on independent cinema and independent filmmakers, regardless of their nationality.
“Le KolNas is now collaborating with a number of directors from the Arab world on their films, such as Daoud al Sayyed from Egypt, Qais Zubaidy from Iraq, in addition to Hani Abo Assad and Elia Suleiman from Palestine.
When asked about the challenges that they face, Al-Ashkar replies: “Everything in Lebanon was a challenge, yet people used to follow us from one region to another; so providing the cultural space to breathe became a responsibility.”
This photo, taken in the year 2015, at Al Madina Theater, shows the jury and winners at the Arab short films festival.
FIRST STUDENT FESTIVAL
“Le KolNas” were the first to initiate student festivals in Lebanon. Their festival “Arab short films” screens old films for the young audience.
The festival first started in Masrah Beirut, which was demolished in 2011, since the landlord wanted property, and the issue is still under dispute with the Ministry of Culture.
The festival’s target audience is cinema enthusiasts.
Al-Ashkar tells Annahar that “Nadi Le KolNas” is adamantly focused on having a cinema-tech, that documents and archives Lebanese cinema.
He sees that the cultural scene needs more encouragement, since culture is the solution. He did mention however, that the Ministry of Culture supported the association.
“In return, we provide the Ministry with films they ask for from our archive,” Al Ashkar said.
He added that “this generation is asking for such cultural activities, but the government should be encouraging them too.”
After all these years of filling a void that was found in documenting/archiving cinema in the Arab world, Nadi le Kolnas’ team has more expertise now.
This photo shows a public film screening that was organized by Nadi Le KolNas at the American University of Beirut (AUB)
They also began establishing cinema clubs in schools and universities, and are currently working with Grand Lycee and International College (IC).
“Li KolNas” are also organizing monthly films screenings in public schools, for the fourth year.
In addition to that, one of their most important highlights now is screening films in Zoukak Blatt’s public library and having film discussions as well.
Three months ago, “Li KolNas” started screening films at Gallery Sfeir. On Thursday, they screened one of a series of three films that were written by Najib Mahfouz and directed by someone else. The film’s screening was in parallel with an installation by the artist Rabih Mroueh at the gallery.
The 1970s film “Chattering above the Nile” “ثرثرة فوق النيل,” Al Ashkar says, reflects the faults of Arab regimes. In the film, Najib Mahfouz was predicting what is currently happening in Egypt and the Arab world ahead of time.
This photo shows the poster of the movie “Chattering above the Nile” “ثرثرة فوق النيل”, written by Najib mahfouz, and directed by Hussein Kamal.
Part of the cultural dialogue that Al-Ashkar stresses is the independent concerts the association is organizing as well, for artists such as Tania Saleh, Sanaa Moussa, and others.
When it comes to encouraging new ambitious graduates, “Li KolNas” are helping youth with technical support, in addition to helping them get jobs in production houses, or linking them to artists in the field.
They are also organizing and distributing the works of Toufic Farroukh, part of Sami Hawat’s musical works, and Omaima el Khalil, Yasmine Hamdan, and Rim al Banna.
“Nadi le Kolnas” have one of the most important musical archives in Lebanon, those of Omar Zeinni’s, and they’ve been working on his archive since 2010.
“‘Beirut through Omar Zeinni’ is a big project that we are working on,” Al Ashkhar says, adding, “So far, we have published original vinyl records including his music and a book.”
On the association’s schedule is the students’ festival in October, screenings in Hammana Art House in the summer, and most importantly, “Nadi le Kolnas’s” anniversary in September, which will be under the title “20 years of culture and cinema.”
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.