Before the Civil War, Lebanon is claimed to have been “slowly building a reputation as a cinema centre in the Arab world, rivalled only by Egypt. This privilege would end with the war, and Lebanese cinema was transformed from an industry to a collection of films made by disparate filmmakers working independently.” (Khatib, L. 2008) When the war began most of the Lebanese filmmakers started to make documentary films about it, but with the spread of violence, brain drain, lack of access to quality filming equipment, closure of studios and theatres, censorship and a decrease in funding had a heavy toll on the sector. With the formal end of the conflict, the early 1990s saw the creation of films that dealt with the subject of the Civil War, most of them funded by European countries. Later, subjects related to confrontation of social taboos started to appear. In the last decades, Lebanese cinema has become increasingly bigger and more structured.
A number of Lebanese filmmakers have succeeded in reaching popularity and appreciation among the international public and festivals, not only in the Arab World. Movies directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Ghassan Salhab, Georges Hachem, Ziad Doueiri and Nadine Labaki have been screened in theatres all around the world and competed in major film festivals. Among the latest successes, Doueiri’s The Insult was nominated at the 2017 Academy Awards representing Lebanon and Labaki’s Capernaum won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and has been nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Film category of the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards.
Despite their worldwide success, Ziad Doueiri’s movies stir lots of controversy, especially in Lebanon. When the director decided to shoot The Attack (2011) in Israel, it drew widespread condemnation from Arab countries and ignited a fierce debate over the way Arab artists should deal with politics, Israel and historical memory. Eventually, all the Arab League’s members, including Lebanon (which had previously cleared the film for the country’s movie theatres), boycotted the film. Also The Insult has aroused controversy in Lebanon, with a number of people calling for its boycott. The movie has been accused of supporting Christian propaganda and offering a revisionist history lesson. Pierre Abi Sa‘b, for example, deputy editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, wrote in an op-ed that the movie conceals “a dangerous and worrisome ideological project” and – with The Attack – “is offensive to the Palestinian cause, in collusion with its enemies”. At the heart of the polemic, is the 1975 massacre perpetuated by the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Maronite Christian town of Damur, which portrays Palestinians not only as victims but also as responsible for atrocities during the Lebanese civil war.
The instability of the Syrian market has resulted in multiple producers relocating to Lebanon and UAE and being housed in their respective media zones. According to the Arab Media Outlook 2016-2018 report, despite the uptake from the Gulf countries, Lebanon has also become a key hub for format shows development, typically created by the Dutch house Endemol (ie Deal or No Deal airing on MTV) and the British company FremantleMedia (ie Star Academy of LBCI), not the least due to its broadcasting relations with Dubai and its resident industry talent.
The contemporary Lebanese theatre scene was reborn in the late 1960s, in a context of revolutionary upheavals related to the Arab defeat against Israel in 1967 and to May ‘68. The country’s theatres include: al-Madina Theatre in the Hamra district of Beirut, an elite theatre that also offers an innovative programme. Douwar el-Shams (The Sunflower Theatre) is a pioneer in the field of shows for children (puppet theatre, in particular) and has been recognised throughout the Arab world and even in Europe.
Some companies (ie Collective Kahraba, Zoukak Company) work to bring performances to areas that never access cultural activities, making them free of charge to ensure accessibility to the largest number of people. Zoukak Company, in collaboration with local and international organizations, leads a wide number of psychosocial interventions based on drama therapy, targeting various groups of populations in marginalized contexts, such as abused women, youths and children, incarcerated youths, disabled children, foreign domestic workers, migrants and refugees. (For example, in November 2018, after a theatre workshop, they staged a performance with Lebanese former political prisoners in Syria).
After the Civil War with the concentration of cultural life in Beirut, the rare cultural spaces in the South of the country were left to wither away. The cities of Tyre and Nabatieh remained without a single cinema or theatre. However, Palestinian-Lebanese actor and director Kassem Istanbouli has conceived the ambitious project of reviving the tradition of theatre and cinema in the South of Lebanon. The Istanbouli Theatre opened in Tyre in 2013 and soon proved so popular that a year later it moved to the premises of al-Hamra Cinema, Tyre’s most prestigious pre-war venue. In 2015, Kassem Istanbouli restored and reopened another cinema in Nabatieh. The Istanbouli Theatre has hosted performers from several countries. All events, workshops and drama classes are free of charge. The major challenge facing Istanbouli is attracting a diverse audience. “People don’t know about theatre,” he said in an interview to India Stoughton. “They’re not used to going to the cinema, to concerts. We need to change this… It’s important that we do theatre in the street [because] if there’s no public, there’s no theatre.”
Wadih Sabra, composer of the Lebanese national anthem, founded the Music School in 1910. It became the Lebanese National Conservatory in 1929, the first of its kind in the Middle East. Since the middle of the 20th century, the crown jewel of Lebanese music has been world-renowned Fairouz (born in 1935), a living icon and the voice of the Arab people. She and her collaborators, composers Assi Rahbani and Mansour Rahbani, rose to prominence at a time when Lebanon was finding its national identity, following the end of French rule in 1946. Other long-established figures, such as Sabah, Majida el-Roumi etc, not only have dominated the national scene, but have been followed and admired all over the Arab World.
In the post Civil War period, Lebanon has continued to export popular music to the rest of the Arab World. The 1990s and 2000s saw the rise of Lebanese pop divas such as Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe and Elissa. These singers, with their racy videos and suggestive lyrics, have received divisive judgements and often aroused controversy especially in more conservative milieus (in 2003 there were protests in Bahrain when Nancy Ajram made a concert). The coverage of their love lives, appearance (and plastic surgery) by entertainment media made them ubiquitous figures in the Arab world, very popular among teenagers and young adults. Nowadays, new bands are trying to merge their traditional identity with a foreign and more globalised taste. These musicians can be considered “alternative” in relation to the former “more commercial” pan-Arab pop scene constantly reproduced by Saudi satellite TV stations. Who Killed Bruce Lee is an alternative Lebanese rock band currently based in Germany. Yasmine Hamdan (who has started out in the popular duo Soap Kills) is now based in Paris and as a singer has enjoyed big success in the European and Arabic music scenes. Probably one of the most successful bands is the indie rock Mashrou‘ Leila whose lyrics tackle taboos and controversial themes of Arab societies, and highlight Lebanon’s fragile and dysfunctional political life. There is a great variety of confessional backgrounds among these musicians, however the majority of them belongs to upper-middle-class families, and many were educated at international universities or art institutes in Beirut. They support civil society activism and campaigns, opposing reactionary cultural, social, religious or political values, but all too often reach mainly cosmopolitan, educated urban elites or foreign audience. In 2014, Mashrou‘ Leila featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, but as scholar Andrew Hammond points out: “[the] Western interest [...] was in part a consequence of the Arab Spring, which was interpreted to some extent as the revolt of modern Westernized youths against an old, more ‘Arab’ order. The avowed homosexuality of the lead singer Hamed Sinno seemed to fit the theme” (p 30). In different occasions, the band has been criticized, banned from concerts and attacked. In 2016, Mashrou’ Leila was not allowed to perform in Amman, Jordan, due to the content of the song’s lyrics. In 2019, the group was victim of a boycott campaign launched by Lebanese religious leaders and a subsequent ban for the group to participate at the Byblos International Festival. The accuse moved by Christian religious authorities comes from considering a song produced in 2015 as offensive to Christianity. Solidarity and support were shown by many among the fans and artists, even by the most famous Lebanese artist Marcel Khalife.
Lebanese religious leaders are often treated as authentic representatives of their sects and are given broad powers over religious affairs. However, their leadership is not organic, nor are they necessarily popular, as these individuals are selected by clerical and political elite institutions, not by popular mandate. There are a number of Sunni Muslim religious leaders in Tripoli, Sidon and in some neighbourhoods of Beirut who enjoy a certain degree of popularity, but none of them has emerged at a national level. On the other hand, also among the Maronites there are emerging figures that have influence on TV (ie Télé Lumière), whilst Manar TV offers broad coverage to Shiites preachers. Lebanese high-profile religious leaders often use their platform to influence their followers for or against specific policies and/or politicians. For example, as reported by scholar Alexander D. M. Henley, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi caused stirs in March 2011 and again in May 2016 by staging dialogues with Hezbollah; also shaykh Abd al-Amir Qabalan, at the time deputy head of the Higher Shiite Islamic Council, used his ‘Id al-Adha sermon in October 2013 to call on Hezbollah to surrender its weapons to the state and to stop sending fighters to Syria.