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Lebanon, Cinema of

Nana Asfour
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Lebanon, Cinema of

Lebanese cinema had a fitful start. While today Lebanon boasts a number of directors whose works are shown internationally, for several decades the country had essentially no national cinema. From the 1920s until the late 1970s the majority of the films screened in movie theaters in and around Beirut were Western, Egyptian, or Egyptian-like. The Lebanese population had little appetite—or patience—for films that dealt with local issues. Between 1945 and 1955 the country produced but a handful of films (Shafik). The first Lebanese film of note was George Nasser’s Wither Now (1957) about a Lebanese emigrant to Brazil. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at Cannes but that won the director little regard back home: neither this film nor his subsequent two—a French-language film called The Little Stranger in 1962, which the French accused of being too French (i.e., too New Wave) and which was also selected for competition at Cannes, and his last one, One Wanted Man (1974), a long sociopolitical feature filmed in Syria—were given any play Lebanon (35mm from Beirut). Only a couple of Lebanese filmmakers—Georges Kahi, who made a few successful films in the 1950s and 1960s, and Mohammed Selmane, a popular-actor-turned-director who churned out several movies per year (some thirty features in twenty-five years)—were able to appeal to the local audience. They did so by experimenting with the latest film genres (Selmane made the first policier film in 1965, with an unabashedly James Bond–like leading character (Kennedy-Day) and by having their characters speak in the popular Egyptian dialect. During a brief spell in the 1950s Lebanon found itself replacing Egypt as the center of Arab filmmaking after several Egyptian directors, looking to escape the restrictions placed on them by President Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized Egyptian cinema, scurried to Beirut to make their films (among these Egyptian productions were the three films, including Youssef Chahine’s The Ring Seller, featuring the music of the popular Lebanese Rahbani brothers and starring the renowned Lebanese singer and actress Fayrouz, which were set in the Lebanese mountains and in which the actors spoke a Lebanese dialect (Shafik). In those years Lebanon saw a flurry of film production (more than one hundred feature films), and the Lebanese Baalbek Studios, founded in 1956, became the leading movie studio in the Middle East (Ginsberg and 35mm from Beirut). But after the Egyptians shuffled back to their country in the 1970s when creative conditions there improved, Lebanon’s cinematic heyday came to an end. Mediocre Lebanese films, which often used a mixed cast of Egyptian and Lebanese actors, continued to be commercial hits.

The first wave of filmmakers who could be seen as having formed a Lebanese cinema arrived in the early 1970s, when a number of young Lebanese directors, including Jean-Claude Codsi, Borhane Alaouié, and Maroun Baghdadi, returned from Europe where they had studied filmmaking. They started out by making leftist documentaries but soon embarked on feature films. But while their films gained international recognition, their works had short runs—if any—in their own country.

While in his skillful feature debut, Kafr Kassem (1973; a Syrian production), Borhane Alaouié addressed historical events in a neighboring country (the 1956 massacre of Palestinians by Israeli troops in the village of Kafr Kassem), in their first fictional films, both Sobhi Seifeddine and Maroun Baghdadi, told stories about their own country’s past. In The Resister (1975) Seifeddine focused on a young man’s white-knuckled defiance of the Ottoman ruler of his Lebanese village. Considered “perhaps the first real masterpiece of Lebanese cinema” (as noted by the Middle Eastern arts nonprofit ArteEast, which held a screening of the film), and shot before the eruption of the civil war (1975–1990), Baghdadi’s Beirut Oh Beirut (1975) (Leaman) brought the setting forward to more recent times. The film followed four young Lebanese in the wake of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, as they try to come to terms with the new realities of their country and a psychologically deflated region (its characters speak in the Lebanese dialect). It could be argued that Lebanese cinema was finally gaining steam again when the war started and that the fighting, which would soon force Lebanese studios and the Lebanese movie theaters that dotted Beirut and its coast to shut down, only hampered those efforts. But a counterargument is that the war actually provided Lebanese filmmakers with an urgent issue with which to grapple.

Amazingly, despite the dangerous conditions in the country, this generation of directors managed to produce a number of films. Baghdadi, who had studied cinema in Paris, made numerous documentaries and filmed his second feature, Little Wars, still one of the most powerful films to come out of Lebanon, during the thick of the hostilities in Lebanon. When it was completed in 1982, it traveled abroad, with stops in Cannes and at Lincoln Center’s New York Film Festival.

Little Wars centers on Soraya (played by Soraya Khoury, Baghdadi’s wife), a young woman in Beirut, and her boyfriend, Talal. Talal has gone to his home village in the Lebanese mountains in search of his father, the town’s bey, who has been kidnapped. Though the storyline clearly unfolds during the war, Baghdadi seemed uninterested in making a political film. “The specifics of the war,” as Janet Maslin notes in her review in the New York Times, “are deliberately not discussed. In fact, Mr. Baghdadi has gone to great lengths not to indicate the partisan identities of any of his characters; no one is identified as Christian or Moslem, and scenes of Talal’s mountain home were reportedly filmed in three different spots, so Lebanese viewers would not associate him with any particular region. The film presents different Lebanese personalities rather than different political stands.” Maslin writes that “the Lebanon we see in Maroun Baghdadi's ‘Little Wars,’” is not “the place we see on the news.”

The desire to create films that represent a different side to the embattled, chaotic city that the world has come to associate with Beirut was certainly a driving force for many of the Lebanese directors who emerged in the 1970s—and many of those who followed. Baghdadi and the other filmmakers, all working independently and without any local financial support or backing, managed to produce several challenging auteur feature films. In 1987 Baghdadi released The Veiled Man, a French-language film, and (Lebanon) Land of Honey and Incense; Raffic Hajjar completed three films during the war, The Shelter in 1980, The Explosion in 1982, and Fragile Houses in 1984; Borhane Alaouié made Beirut, the Encounter, from 1981. Other significant films from those years are the impressive features by female directors, representing a staunchly feminist voice in Lebanese (and Arab) cinema—Heiny Srour, Jocelyne Saab, Randa Chahal Sabbag—and the singular efforts of a few others: A Country Above Wounds, by Sobhi Seifeddine (1983), Maʾraka by Roger Assaf (1985), and Martyr by Leyla Assaf-Tengroth (exact date unknown; it was never released). Unfortunately few Lebanese got to see these films—and many did not even know they existed. The generation growing up during the war, especially, was entirely unaware that the country was producing any significant films and thus erroneously associated Lebanese cinema with the poorly made commercial Lebanese films that continued, somehow, to be produced during the war—forty-five films were made in Lebanon between 1980 and 1985 (Khatib).

In 1990, after fifteen years of combat, the Lebanese civil war came to an abrupt end with little resolution of the many issues that had plagued the country for the past decade and a half. Refusing to participate in the whitewashing of recent history that was propagated by the politicians and that soon spread among the populace, Lebanese directors offered up narratives about the war or its effects. “Amnesia is not only hypocritical and puritanical, it is also very dangerous as it can lead to another civil war, and Lebanon’s history is full of these wars,” Sabbag told an Arab journalist during an interview regarding her unflinching documentary Our Heedless Wars, where all parties involved in the fighting are taken to task. The Lebanese—or at least the Lebanese government—was not yet ready to confront these uncomfortable and still all-too-raw memories and Sabbag’s documentary—as well as her mordant debut feature, A Civilized People (1999)—though lauded abroad (Our Heedless Wars received the Jury Prize at the Paris Biennial of Arab Cinema in 1996 and A Civilized People won the UNESCO Award at the Venice Film Festival), were not released in Lebanon.

In 1991 Baghdadi’s Out of Life, the story of French journalist Roger Auque, who was kidnapped and held hostage for a year by Hezbollah in 1987, won a Jury Prize at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. (Sadly, this was Baghdadi’s last film. He died in 1993, at forty-three, while he was in Beirut preparing a new film, reportedly in an elevator accident.) But yet again neither Out of Life nor Jocelyne Saab’s Once Upon a Time, Beirut (1995), made it beyond the film festival rounds. Despite the unexpected success of a few films—such as Samir Habchi’s The Tornado (1992), A Time Has Come (1994) by Jean-Claude Codsi, and Leyla Assaf-Tengroth’s The Freedom Gang (1994)—when George Kiʾdi, film critic for the leading An-Nahar newspaper, wrote a report on the state of cinema in Lebanon in 1997, he noted: “We are continuing with no national cinema, and therefore with no memory, no image, no presence” (Khatib).

All that began to change a year later when several important new Lebanese films were shown at the Beirut International Film Festival, then in only its second year. These included Ghassan Salhab’s serious but skillful Beirut Phantom and Ziad Doueiri’s highly entertaining West Beirut. With Arabic film funding almost nonexistent at the time, the two films were mostly financed by French money. Though both films took place during the years of war, they concentrated on different generations: Beirut Phantom trailed a group of Lebanese who were in their twenties during the fighting and their enthusiastic participation in the events; West Beirut followed three spunky adolescents coming of age during the outbreak of the war. (The parents of the main character, Tarek, who is played by Doueiri’s younger brother Rami, were Joseph Bou Nassar and Carmen Lebbos, two of Lebanon’s most skilled actors; Nassar had also starred in Baghdadi’s debut film.) Salhab, who was born in Senegal and studied in Paris, would now settle in Lebanon. Doueiri, who had moved to Los Angeles to study filmmaking in 1983 and had worked as a camera assistant to Quentin Tarantino on several of his films, shot West Beirut in Lebanon and would divide his time for a while between his native and adopted cities. Beirut Phantom was well received but it was Doueiri’s West Beirut that set a new record, becoming the first Lebanese film since anyone could remember (and probably ever) to compete with the dominant Hollywood films in movie theaters (according to a market study conducted by one Lebanese filmmaker, and published in the book Lebanese Cinema by Linda Khatib, West Beirut had 76,000 viewers whereas Beirut Phantom had 4,000.) When it was released in the United States a few months later West Beirut received enthusiastic reviews across the board. A Lebanese cinema revival was underway.

Since then the war has continued to be a prominent theme in Lebanese cinema. Filmmakers have sought to tell that story—or a story within that story—through different genres: cinematic experimentation (Beirut Phantom, Falling from Earth, and Heels of War), comedy-drama (West Beirut, Zozo), and straight-up drama (In the Battlefields, In the Shadows of the City, Stray Bullet, and Asfouri). But contemporary Beirut, and the viscid residue of those incendiary years, have also been acutely addressed in such films as Salhab’s Terra Incognita (which screened at Cannes in 2002, under the category of Un Certain Regard); The Pink House and A Perfect Day by husband-and-wife team Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige; Falafel by Michel Kammoun; Danielle Arbid’s Beirut Hotel, which was banned because of its politically charged subplot; and Where Do We Go Now? by Nadine Labaki, which like her first film, Caramel—a hit romantic comedy centered around a hair and body salon in Beirut—premiered at Cannes and was released in the United States. Labaki, who is also an actress, also starred in the hit musical, Bosta, by Philippe Aractangi, the first entirely Lebanese-funded film. Aractangi went on to make Under the Bombs, one of a few films about the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. Unlike their predecessors, several of these filmmakers have enjoyed wide reception at home and abroad.

Today Lebanese cinema is holding steady. The number of Lebanese productions remains relatively low—five features film per year on average over the past few years according to Emile Eid, founder and president of the Lebanese Cinema Movie Guide Awards—but the number of directors is growing, with an equal number of male and female directors joining the scene, many of them graduates of the several film schools now found in Lebanon. The newly available regional funds from places such as Dubai and Doha have been an invaluable boon to filmmakers throughout the Middle East, Lebanon included. Recent feature debuts by new directors, such as Amin Dora’s Ghadi, Lara Saba’s Blind Intersections, Elie F. Habib’s Bébé, Mahmoud Hojeij’s Stable Unstable, and Sam Andraos’s Neswen—all from the past three years—have been considerable hits, and have been nominated for awards at the many film festivals that take place throughout the year in Lebanon. Despite the country’s undulating political and economical troubles since the signing of the peace accords in 1989, and the considerable deterrents for directors (funding, distribution, censorship), Lebanese dedication to filmmaking has been unwavering and doesn’t seem to be abating anytime soon.


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