It’s a sight that’s common in theatres around the world on any given evening: nervous performers cram in one final run-through, while the crowd mill about outside as the sun begins to dip beneath the horizon.
However, it’s not been seen for years at the historic theatres and picture houses in Lebanon’s second city Tripoli, a place more recently known for intercommunal violence and some of the worst poverty levels in the country, which continues to battle an economic crisis.
In Tripoli’s Ottoman-influenced Al Tal square, one of those arenas — the Cinema Ampere, also known as the Cinema Empire — has finally reopened 28 years after it closed its doors, bringing a cultural boost to a city that has often been unfairly maligned by the rest of Lebanon.
First built in the 1940s, the Ampere’s faded facade has now been repainted a rusty brown and its interior brought back to life. Black-and-white photos of stars from the golden era pepper the walls, as do old movie posters, film reels and new pictures of the next generation of actors and actresses.
“Tripoli, in the golden times — the '60s, '70s and '80s — was the city of the cinema,” says Kassem Istanbouli, the actor and director who has led the transformation of the Ampere.
It's believed to be the last of five historic cinemas that still stands in the Al Tal square, which encircles a clock tower given as a gift by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the early 20th century. Many theatres in Lebanon have been abandoned and fallen into disarray.
To mark its reopening, Istanbouli has helped organise a four-day international theatre festival with performers from Lebanon, the region and around the world.
“It's a personal dream, but also a dream for the city, a dream for everyone to have this space, to have arts for everyone,” he says.
The Ampere is not the first theatre he has brought back to life. Originally from southern Lebanon, and head of the Tiro Association for Arts, he's also restored abandoned spaces in Sour and Nabatieh.
It took months of difficult endeavour to refurbish the Ampere, Istanbouli says. It smelt bad and many said it was “impossible” to restore.
“You see how beautiful this space is. It has a history. It's not like any building," he says, while acknowledging the memories contained inside.
And, he doesn't want the theatre to be solely for arts performances, but also training and there are plans for a small museum and library.
For Istanbouli, part of his motivation is connecting the divided Lebanese nation and giving Tripoli a cultural centre. He describes the theatre as a “space of freedom”.
“We have different religions, different nationalities in this country. We are all together, we are human, we are all from this land. We don't believe in borders. We share humanity, we share beauty, love, emotions together when we are watching cinema or movies,” he says.
“We share the same pain. The people who have pain in the south, it's the same as people in the Bekaa or in Beirut who are in pain, who have no food in their house. We all need hope, and this is a space of hope.”
A devastating economic collapse, which first became apparent in 2019, has plunged much of Lebanon into poverty, with the local currency losing more than 90 per cent of its value. There are widespread shortages in basic necessities including water, fuel, medicines and bread. However, even before the crash, Tripoli was already suffering. Istanbouli believes the theatre will be something good and add to the “beauty” of the city.
“This is what we need in Lebanon. All that's happened for many years, the civil war — why? People hate each other, kill each other. For what, for nothing?" he says.
“By arts and by culture, this is a way that we love each other. We meet together, we understand each other.”