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22 Jun, 2009 08:58

Go West: a boost for Syrian cinemas

Syria has less than forty cinemas across the country, but they're virtually empty. Owners blame the decline on the long and strict censorship process and the high taxes levied on imported films. But could this change?

Many Syrians choose to stay at home and watch soap operas or pirated DVDs but a Western-style makeover might mean it's not 'the end' for the country's cinemas.

As Mouhamad starts up another day’s fourth showing of Trend Group, a 1970s Indian classic, he notes that there hasn’t been a full house at the al-Sufara Cinema for 20 years.

This movie hall has become a haven for passers-by seeking refuge from Damascus’ scorching sun, for homosexuals hiding from prying eyes and for soldiers trying to snag a few hours’ rest.

Until recently, every imported film screened here had to go through Syria’s National Film Organization. Most owners say the tortuous vetting process and the high taxes levied by this body are at fault for the decline in audiences.

Posters advertising Hollywood blockbusters past their sell-by date line the movie halls, and the empty auditoriums suggest that cinema-going in Syria is all but dead. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t watching anything.

Illegal DVDs with the latest releases are sold openly. Each disc costs $1. There may be less than half-a-dozen cinemas left in Damascus, but there are hundreds of DVD stalls.

However, a loss for the big screen has been a gain for the small. TV actors are the country’s top celebrities, and soaps are followed obsessively.

Syrian productions are now exported all over the Middle East. They are renowned for their use of authentic locations, and desire to engage acute social issues.

Hassan M. Youself, one of the country’s top screenwriters, says that TV has practically taken the pedestal of film.

“Here TV is not just entertainment. It has political significance. Unlike foreign films, with television we express our own identity, and escape from the siege of Western culture.”

Yet, maybe it’s not quite time to roll the credits on Syria’s cinema history. ‘CinemaCity’ is the country’s first modern duplex, opened this year on the site of what was Syria’s oldest cinema.

Its owners say their mission is to reinvent the culture of movie-going as a family outing. And comments from the public show that the new cinema may be the boost which the movie industry needs:

“This is an amazing cinema. I was astonished. I hadn't been to one for 30 years,” one member of the audience said.

“The fact that a cinema like this has been built here is a step forward for the country as a whole,” another added.

So far, other cinema owners are watching, to see if the Western-style makeover will bring back audiences. If people do return, as elsewhere in the world, it will be to a diet of popcorn and Hollywood flicks.