“When I talk about the 60s, the Lebanese say, ‘Lebanon was amazing, so beautiful.’ The Lebanese wanted to highlight the exciting things in their country. They didn’t want to deal with all their problems. They wanted to show the dolce vita if you will,” reflects Antoine Khalife, a film producer, and Arab cinema enthusiast.
While Egyptian cinema is globally revered for its dramatic storylines and eye-grabbing visuals, Lebanese cinema often fades into the background despite being equally, if not more, important for the development of Arab culture and national identity.
Beirut was instrumental in keeping the Arab film industry alive and uncensored.
In the mid 20th century, Beirut, Lebanon was instrumental in keeping the Arab film industry alive and uncensored. Nestled between Syria and Egypt, which had nationalized their film industries, Lebanon was where the creative and infinite would meet. This cultural and artistic receptivity invited a wave of talented and sophisticated Arab directors, actors, producers, and cinematographers. Lebanon became the home of the imaginative, ushering in the Golden Age of Arab cinema (along with other art forms and economic prosperity) that would define the country for decades to come.
Lebanese cinema in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies was bold, unapologetic, and even slightly erotic. One can simply skim through a few movie posters to get an idea of the aesthetic used in films of the time. Women in dresses that come above the knee, couples sharing a passionate kiss, and posters in bright hues paint a picture of an era that emphasized love and boldly celebrated a side of Arab culture most outsiders tend to forget about.
Abboudi Abou Jaoude, a “meticulous” collector of vintage Arab film posters from several Middle Eastern and North African countries including Lebanon, notes the sharp turn the Arab world has taken away from sexuality and promiscuous themes in cinema. “[Sex] was to draw people in the movie,” he says. “I have a poster from the 50s, The First Kiss. [Back] then it wasn’t a problem for actresses to kiss on camera, now we don’t want it. We can’t make posters like this in Arabic.”
But it is not just sex that defined the Golden Age of cinema. The bright colors and cheerful musicals are a point of nostalgia and national pride. Laura Feinstein of the online editorial platform “Eye on Design,” states that for the most part, films from that period were either “musicals, love/romance films, adventure/science fiction, foreign adaptations, and documentaries.” Out of all the films released during this era, the musicals are the most admired.
Out of all the films released during this era, the musicals are the most admired.
Mansour and Assi Rahbani, known as the Rahbani Brothers, wrote 27 musical plays and three musical films that are emblematic of the time. They instilled a sense of nostalgia in their viewers with their earlier works, creating “fairy tale”-like worlds that painted Lebanon in a charming and captivating light. In the late sixties, their work turned more political and less poetic — although it remained equally expressive.
Bent El-Haress, “The Guard’s Daughter” (1968) is one of the Rahbani Brothers’ most famous films. The musical stars legendary Lebanese singer and actress Fairuz. Considered one of the best Arab singers of the 20th century, she was also married to Assi Rahbani.
“The Guard’s Daughter” follows Nejmeh (Fairuz) as she becomes a thief after her father is fired from his job as a night watchman. Nejmeh is surprisingly good at being a thief and even earns the nickname “Turban Man.” Her father is brought in to catch the “Turban Man,” leading to a game of cat and mouse as Nejmeh struggles to keep her father employed while protecting her identity.
One does not need to understand Arabic to see why the Rahbani Brothers’ musicals are so iconic. They perfectly represent the joy and rhythm of Lebanon’s Golden Age. In the film, Fairuz, looking as lovely as ever with short hair, glowing complexion, and classic sixties cat-eye eyeliner, sings Tla3i ya 3aroussa (“Go Up, Bride”) during a wedding scene. Her deep and flawless voice soars as she sings, carrying the story with her.
The lyrics are subtle and poetic. Nejmeh sings of fate bringing the bride and groom together. Mentions of grapevines, jewelry, and gold imply prosperity and a time of abundance.
In the background, women in brightly colored mini dresses dance cheerfully with men in suits, including one gentleman enthusiastically balancing a ceramic vase on his head while spinning and bouncing to the melody. While the characters are technically celebrating a wedding, they are also clearly coming together to revel in the joy of being Lebanese.
Another notable film of that period is Le Petit Étranger, “The Small Stranger” (Al Gharib Al Saghir) (1962), directed by George Nasser and Youssef Maalouf and selected for the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. While most films from the era were relatively lighthearted and commercial, “The Small Stranger” takes a darker turn as it follows a young country boy and his entanglement in several violent and passionate situations in the big city. Described as “confusing” and “muddled,” this coming-of-age story is a testament to just how selfish adults can be, a painful lesson most adolescents must learn before entering adulthood.
The movie poster for “The Small Stranger” varies greatly from the standard bright colors and emotive portraits used to advertise cinema at the time. Its black and white artwork is edgy and open for interpretation. It is the perfect example of how creativity blossomed in Lebanon during the Golden Age. No topic or genre was left unexplored.
In 1975, Lebanon plunged into Civil War, putting an end to its Golden Age.
In 1975, Lebanon plunged into Civil War, putting an end to its Golden Age. The terror and despair that followed further cemented the celebratory age of cinema in Lebanon’s history books. Around 200,000 people were killed in the destruction from 1975 to 1990.
The Golden Age of Lebanon was happy, cheeky, varied, and unapologetically emotive. Lebanon’s willingness to open its arms to a wave of creatives did not just serve the filmmakers in neighboring Arab countries, it allowed Lebanese culture to be explored and celebrated through multi-faceted films, poems, and plays. While that prosperous time is decades behind Lebanon, the sentiments of its songs and films still prosper today.