Film, Theatre and Television of Lebanon
Theatre is a recent art form in Lebanon. The only traditional theatre – imported from Iran – is that of the Shia Muslims, who perform a ritual kind of theatre that enacts the passion of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in which tears are shed for the fate of Hussein and his family (ahl al-bayt). Hussein – the Twelfth Imam, revered by the Lebanese Shia – was slain in the Battle of Karbala in 680, on Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year). This theatre is also found in Damascus. Around 1910, it was translated into Arabic. Since 1930, the Battle of Karbala has been enacted every year in Nabatiya southern Lebanon, on Ashura.
With the rise of Hezbollah, this kind of theatre became more and more important. Today, similar plays are staged in other towns and villages in the region and have been opened to spectators from other regions and other religions. Professional actors and directors have tended to replace the former amateurs, certainly in Nabatiya.
Western-style theatre was first introduced in the 19th century, when a rich merchant, Marun al-Naqqash, commissioned a performance of Molière’s play L’Avare (‘the miser’), which was entirely sung. For a long time, this was the dominant form of theatre and several artists still mix music, song and performance. Ziad Rahbani, for example, now mainly known as a singer-songwriter, started out as a comedian.
One of the foremost playwrights and directors is Elie Karam. Born in a Muslim part of Beirut to Christian parents, he fled the civil war to Austria and Canada, where he studied dramatic arts. After the war he returned to Beirut, where he wrote and directed several critically acclaimed plays exposing controversial issues in the Middle East. His latest production, Tell Me About the War and I Will Love You, won several prestigious prizes and was staged at the renowned Avignon Theatre Festival in France in 2010.
Cinema is a popular art form in Lebanon. For such a small country, Lebanon has produced many film directors. Ziyad Doueiri, Ghassan Salhab, Nigol Bezjian and Samir Habchi are among the best known. Maroun Bagdadi, Bourhan Alaouie, Rafiq and Heini Surur are seen as the forerunners of contemporary Lebanese ‘art cinema’. Many film directors spent the civil war abroad, where most of them learned their trade. The civil war and its aftermath are very present in their films, although the directors – perhaps because they spent a long time outside the country – mostly do not identify themselves with one party. They prefer to describe what war does to people.
The younger generation of film directors (Randa Chahal Sabbag, Nadine Labaki, Youssef Fares, Assad Fouladkar, Danielle Arbid, Philippe Aractingi, Khalil Joreige) tend to focus on different themes, often relating to the difficulties of daily life.