Cinema Paradiso Struggles to Stay Open in Damascus

by Kathy Jones on Sep 8 2013 9:07 PM

 Cinema Paradiso Struggles to Stay Open in Damascus
Prior to the conflict, the Fardos cinema used to attract poor customers from the outskirts of Damascus. However, war has driven its clientele away and forced it to show the same films for two years.
At one time, Fardos -- Arabic for Paradise -- drew in customers eager to enjoy a movie in the centre of the Syrian capital.

But the conflict has dried up the cinema's supply of movies, and its clientele have mostly fled, or no longer venture into town for such indulgences.

The beating heart of the cinema is manager Jamal al-Sassa, who sits in a stuffy, run-down office, its walls covered with yellowing movie posters that give off a faintly musty smell.

Sassa, in his 50s, has an enthusiasm for the movies worthy of Giuseppe Tornatore's Oscar-winning "Cinema Paradiso", about a filmmaker with a passion for the medium.

"I fell in love with the cinema when I was just a little boy," says Sassa, who has run the cinema for about 15 years.

"I started here when I was 12, selling sweets, but I used to go to the projection room to see how the film reels worked," he adds with a big smile.

He sees himself when he looks at the little boy who today stands outside the cinema, selling small chocolates and other sweets to customers outside.

One of Damascus's few modern multiplex movie theatres, Cinema City, closed its doors in April as the country's conflict worsened.

It was a rare place where Damascenes could see the latest movies, and its entrance in the centre of the city is still bricked up.

"Their chic customers left the capital; no one goes to the cinema anymore," Sassa says.

The closure has had a disastrous knock-on effect for "second-hand" cinemas like Fardos, which used to buy movies from Cinema City after their run.

Now the latest films available at Fardos include 2009's Bride Wars, starring Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson, and Friends with Benefits, from 2011, with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.

"The last lot of films we bought was in 2011," when the Syrian conflict began, Sassa says.

"Since then, I've been showing four films a month," he adds with an air of resignation.

"And when I get through all 30 films, I'll start all over again."

Not only does the cinema suffer from a shrinking pool of movies, but a dwindling customer base as well.

By the end of the afternoon on a regular day in Damascus, fewer than 10 people had bought tickets.

"Cinemas in Syria were already in crisis because of the Internet and satellite television," Sassa says.

"But with the war, the poorer people who used to come to us from Damascus province are not around anymore."

Battles between rebels and regime forces have raged on the outskirts of the capital, where the opposition fighters have sought to establish rear bases.

"We used to have more than 40 people a night. Nowadays it's four at the most," he laments.

"Sometimes no one comes at all after 5:00 pm because people are afraid to go out after night falls. Before the war we used to stay open until midnight."

An air of sadness hangs over the 800-seat theatre, where just a handful of viewers watch a subtitled Western movie, one of them in the process of nodding off.

The seats are faded green, some broken altogether, and bits of rubbish are visible on the floor, adding to a sense that the place has been forgotten by time.

"Sometimes I come and see the same film. I feel good here, I can even smoke," Fardos customer Samer says.

"Some people spend the whole day in the darkened room," Sassa laughs.

His smile is brief -- it pains him deeply to see the theatre empty, the seats untouched and the films unwatched.

"I've become sick. For me, the most beautiful thing in the job is to be behind my desk and watch people's reactions to a film," he says.

"Before, I used to ask people to keep in the queue. Now, time seems to go on forever."

The cinema was opened in 1948, when the queues to see movies "were 100 metres (yards) long," as Sassa puts it.

Now the cinema's future is in doubt, with the investment needed to keep it afloat unlikely.

"Who is going to invest in the middle of war?" Sassa sighs.

But he is determined to keep his doors open as long as he can.

"I would prefer to die than see the cinema close."