Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 June 2020

Memories of Ishbilia through the ages

Arts Editor and filmmaker Samia Badih shares her memories of Ishbilia, the cinema where she saw her first film and screened her first documentary
Ishbilia Theatre and Arts Hub is in the heart of Saida, Lebanon 

I was 11 years old when I went to the movies for the first time. It was to see 1996’s The Rock starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. I vividly remember going with my older sister: the plan was that once we got there and bought our tickets, we would split up, each join our own group of friends for the duration of the film, and reunite again at the entrance of the theatre after the credits rolled. Back then, there were no seat allocations and it didn’t matter how old you were to get in.

This experience was at ­Ishbilia, a theatre that was a big part of my childhood.

It wasn’t until I was well into my teenage years that the theatre became less popular, eventually closing in 2006. But then, thankfully, Ishbilia opened its doors again last year, and the best theatre in my home city of Saida, Lebanon, was back in full force.

I am now a filmmaker and my Ishbilia experience truly came full circle last month when I went back for the screening of my own documentary Rasheed.

The film tells the story of my uncle, also from Saida, who was killed three years before I was born, in an Israeli air strike. I couldn’t believe that, 23 years after watching my first film in that theatre, I was – this time without a chaperone – sitting with my childhood friends again, in the same seats, but to watch my own film.

I felt so proud, and the moment was all the more special for the fact I was in Ishbilia. The place looked almost exactly the way I remembered it.

The owners had purposely kept the theatre’s look and feel the way it was when it first opened in the 1980s, but they did add a modern social space and renovate the entrance.

Samia Badih with her childhood friends in Ishbilia following the screening of her film.

I asked my sister what she remembers of the theatre, and she was a little nostalgic. “Growing up in Saida, Ishbilia was the only movie theatre that we kids went to,” she told me as we spoke across continents, she in Toronto and myself in Abu Dhabi.

“In my generation, the movie theatre was the only place where boys and girls could meet, of course, behind their parents’ back,” she laughed. “They would go and hold hands in the movie theatre … it was so innocent.”

While the theatre stood through the city’s wars during the two and a half decades of its operation, it was also importantly a source of joy for Saida’s teens and the community at large. “I remember very well going to a little concert by [Egyptian] pianist Majdi Al Husseini,” my sister said as she started listing the different films she’d seen there: For Keeps (1988), Twins (1988) and Dying Young (1991) to name a few. The film poster for Dying Young is still up on the theatre’s walls.

Today, Ishbilia does not screen new big blockbuster films. It’s far from the commercial cinema it once was. It’s more concerned with engaging the community, with a focus on home-grown local artists, as well as filmmakers from the Arab world.

The two sisters who run it want to bring art back into the heart of Saida. It is a difficult task to take on, but an important one for the small city. Twenty years ago, Ishibilia introduced me to cinema for the first time. Today, it is giving the youth of Saida a much bigger opportunity than it gave my generation: by promoting local creatives it’s bringing an opportunity to not only see the art, but to be part of it.

The people of Saida are lucky to have Ishbilia back.

Updated: July 6, 2019 06:25 PM