Palestine’s disappearing cinemas

The projection room at al-Assi cinema.

One by one, Palestine’s classic cinemas are being erased.

Municipal bulldozers razed Nablus’ al-Assi cinema in late June after the abandoned property was purchased from its owners.

It was the second Palestinian cinema in the West Bank to be demolished in less than a year, after Cinema Jenin was razed last December.

Al-Assi, which opened in the early 1950s, was shuttered during the first intifada in 1987 and reopened a decade later. A few years later, during the second intifada, it closed for good.

There are currently only two dedicated cinemas in continuous operation in Palestinian cities in the West Bank – Cinema City, opened in Nablus in 2009, and Palestine Tower, opened in Ramallah in 2014.

Other cinemas throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been shuttered – some of them demolished – and others turned into wedding halls or garages. Some Palestinian cities have never had a proper movie theater.

The golden age of Palestinian movie-going peaked during the first half of the last century. Before the dispossession of Palestine and the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, cities like Jaffa, Haifa, Akka and Jerusalem were famous for their cinemas that symbolized modernity.

Ahmad Al-Bazz is an award-winning journalist, photographer and documentary filmmaker based from Palestine and a member of the Activestills collective.

Al-Assi cinema was named for the family which owned it. It was the second of three cinemas established in Nablus. In 2009, a fourth cinema, Cinema City, which is still in operation, was opened. Other informal theaters are said to have operated in the city during the 1930s and the ’40s, such as al-Zahraa and the Taj Mahal, which screened films in cafes or on rooftops. For the past 15 years the outdoor yard and the main screening hall of al-Assi cinema, located in Nablus’ bustling city center, have been used for parking.

The main screening hall at al-Assi cinema. According to Ribhi Hamad, its former manager, part of the space was designated for families only and men and boys were seated in a separate area. Ahead of the cinema’s demolition, the Nablus municipality determined that the building was liable to collapse at any time. It told the public that the building wasn’t worth saving because it lacked cultural or historic value.

Ribhi Hamad, in al-Assi’s main screening hall, said: “I spent most of my life here, starting with a part-time, simple job at the age of 10, until I administered the property as its managing director. I feel sad for its destiny, but such is life.” Hamad pointed to the Israeli occupation as the main factor in the demise of cinema culture in Palestine. “Right now, it’s impossible to go back, even if the two other cinema halls of Nablus were restored. Societal attitudes and new technologies are the main obstacles right now,” Hamad added.

The Israeli military raided al-Assi several times during the second intifada as it battled Palestinian fighters in the city center. Al-Assi’s main screening wall was shelled by an Israeli tank, according to Hamad.

Al-Assi cinema had three floors containing a main screening hall, in addition to some other smaller rooms which were used as wedding spaces.

Film reels were rented mainly from Amman and Cairo for screening at al-Assi. Some other reels were bought from Israeli companies, according to Hamad. Some of the reels were exclusive to al-Assi, while others were shared with other cinemas in Nablus. “There was a bicycle which we used to transfer the reels from one cinema to another after the end of each screening,” Hamad said.

Egyptian films were most popular among older people and families, while American movies, Westerns in particular, were the most popular among young people, according to Hamad. Some in Nablus frowned upon the cinemas, saying they showed immoral films and spread negative values.

Thursday nights, the beginning of the weekend in Palestine, were al-Assi’s busiest time. The cinema also drew large crowds during holidays. “There were not many choices for leisure time, that’s why the cinema was one of their main destinations,” Hamad said.

The former site of al-Assi will be used to build a shopping mall and parking development costing $10 million.

Some in Nablus welcomed the demolition of al-Assi, considering it wasted space in the city center, while others, particularly those who used to watch movies there, have expressed sadness over its demise.