Beirut's The Egg: Lebanon's abandoned cinema building comes back to life amid protests

A long-abandoned building in the city has returned to life during recent protests

Demonstrators stand on the rooftop of the "Egg", an abandoned cinema building in Beirut, Lebanon, October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis     SEARCH "LEBANON EGG" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
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For much of the past 40 years, the domed building known to the Lebanese as The Egg has stood abandoned, a victim of the civil war, like so much else in downtown Beirut. But now, amid unprecedented mass protests that many Lebanese have dubbed their "revolution", the famed landmark has been returned – at least on a part-time basis – to its original purpose: a cinema.

Last week, a crowd of Lebanese residents gathered in the dark of the bullet-marked, concrete building for a night of film screenings, something that only 16 days before (prior to the mass protests) many would have thought impossible.

One of those people was Afram Chamoun, 20, a graphic design student from Beirut who grew up hearing stories about The Egg from his parents and grandparents, but never thought he'd see inside it for himself – let alone be watching films there. "This was supposed to be a cinema, but in the civil war it got destroyed. So being here, it's kind of overwhelming," he says. "There are no words to describe it."

Demonstrators attend an open discussion in the "Egg", an abandoned cinema building in Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis     SEARCH "LEBANON EGG" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Film screenings at The Egg have attracted young people who have seen listings promoted via social media. Reuters

Before anti-government protests broke out on October 17, the 1960s Brutalist building had been closed off to the public, with metres-high hoardings surrounding it. But within 24 hours, protesters had gained access to the structure and were walking around it in awe – even climbing on to its roof via a rickety and rusting set of metal stairs. Since then, the building has been reclaimed as a public space, with political graffiti now adorning its previously blank grey walls and a steady stream of mainly young people drifting in and out of it, seemingly at all hours of the day and night.  

The Egg has not been immune to Beirut's reputation as a city where culture and politics seems to seep out of every wall: in the past two weeks the once-empty shell has played host to events as diverse as academic lectures and late-night parties. And, of course, film screenings. One of the seven organisers behind the film night, which ran from 7pm until midnight, said the idea originated on a Facebook page for the now defunct "Eggupation", a project that initially aimed to use The Egg as a space for political debates and "teach-ins", but eventually fell apart amid accusations of elitism.

Yasmina Chahrour, (L), 17, a demonstrator, draws on a wall of the "Egg", an abandoned cinema building in Beirut, Lebanon, October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis     SEARCH "LEBANON EGG" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
A demonstrator draws graffiti on a wall of The Egg. Reuters

"One of the things we wanted to do is make the cinema a place for anybody to come to from the streets and have a space to kick back, relax. Not totally disengage with the revolution. And this is why we picked politically inclined films, but [shown] somewhere they could relax," says Ayman Makarem, 25, a writer from Beirut.

Makarem and the other organisers thought carefully about which films to screen. They had originally wanted to show those that were either banned or censored, but after some debate, settled on a selection with "political or revolutionary themes" that were largely Lebanese and included work by both male and female filmmakers.

Then, armed with little else but a projector, generator and speaker (all donated), they set up shop, using one of their own laptops to play the films and tarpaulin as a screen. The line-up eventually included three shorts (Ely Dagher's animated Waves 98, Fadi Baki Fdz's mockumentary ­Manivelle: Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow and Tariq Keblaoui's fictional Al Hmar, which was written by Makarem) and two documentaries (Dahna Abourahme's The Kingdom of Women: Ein El Hilweh and Randa Chahal Sabbag's Souha, Surviving Hell).

One feature film was removed from the programme because the group wasn't able to find a version with Arabic subtitles – something that was very important to them. "A big part of the issue that people had with Eggupation was that it was incredibly elite, academic and exclusive. And a part of that is having things in English because it's obviously targeting a very elite crowd," Makarem says. "Accessibility was key for us."

Lebanon's older generations were noticeably largely absent from the film night. Much of that probably had to do with the timing, the fact it had been largely promoted on social media and the element of risk involved in entering what is a dilapidated and privately owned building. 

For Ayla Mardini, 22, an architecture graduate, the site was a good representation of how, for many Lebanese, the recent protests have marked the real end to the 1975-1990 war. "The Egg was used or being built before the civil war and then it stopped being used, it stopped being considered. And now we're using it again. So it's a huge representation of the country being non-sectarian and all the people of different religions going together in one public space and just appreciating art," she says, adding that she feared the structure could be taken away again if Lebanon returned to "normal".

For now, though, The Egg remains open to the public and the organisers of the film night hope to arrange further screenings there. Meanwhile, Ayman is working on putting on a "Theatre of the Oppressed" in the space, with participation from members of the audience – turning them from passive spectators to active actors, in both life and art.

The Lebanese national colours decorate the Dome City Center known as "The Egg" in downtown Beirut on November 5, 2019.  Built in the 1960s, "the Egg", Beirut's iconic cinema was to be part of a multi-use complex, before Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war damaged the building and scuppered development plans. After the conflict ended, it was threatened by a privatised post-war reconstruction process that levelled architectural landmarks in central Beirut, replacing them with glitzy high-rises. Solidere -- the controversial company in charge of developing much of the area, including the Egg's environs -- limited public access to the space, although it briefly hosted underground festivals and parties in the 1990s.
 / AFP / Patrick BAZ
The Lebanese national colours decorate building known as The Egg in downtown Beirut. AFP

Outside The Egg that night, a group of policemen were leaning against their patrol car, part of an increased security force presence that has been a permanent fixture downtown since the start of the protests. Looking up at the building in confusion, they asked what was going on inside. When told it was a cinema, one of the men responded animatedly, saying, "No, no, that was before". But when told again that, yes, there really was a cinema inside – albeit rather a makeshift one with concrete steps for seating – the men seemed speechless.

"Wow," a second one said eventually. "I'll have to go up there and take a look. Another day, inshallah."