GAZA CITY: Every day tens of thousands of Gazans on foot or in cars pass the boarded-up and shuttered Al-Samer Cinema on the main street of Omar Al-Mukhtar.
The golden age of going to the movies in Gaza has long passed and there have been no screenings since 1987, when cinemas shut down after the first Palestinian intifada or uprising began.
Samir El-Efranji, 75, used to work at the Al-Samer, which opened in 1944. He reminisced about the public’s excitement while sitting in front of his television to watch an old Egyptian film that he screened in the cinema in the 1970s.
“It was a golden age when the cinema was operating in Gaza. We worked all day and the audience was unique,” El-Efranji said. “Sometimes the overcrowding was bad, but that was before the outbreak of the first intifada.”
Palestinians were most interested in films brought from Cairo when Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip after 1948, he said. From 1967 and the Israeli occupation, Chinese and American films were brought in from Jerusalem.
“With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, some cinemas did reopen, but political differences with the Islamic parties led to their closure again until now,” said El-Efranji.
He started work for the Al-Samer cinema as an accountant. He then managed his own cinema, the Al-Nasr, from 1983 until 1987. There used to be 10 cinemas in the Gaza Strip — six in Gaza City, three in Rafah and one in Khan Younis.
With the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, any hope of reopening the cinemas faded while the Islamist party clamped down on activities it said were incompatible with Islam.
Some artists and institutions have tried to organize their own screenings in halls, but they often face severe restrictions on bringing in films. Exceptions include films relating to the Palestinian cause, such as “Paradise Now,” the 2005 film directed by Hany Abu-Assad, a Dutch-Palestinian director, that was nominated for an Oscar.
Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade for the past decade while the ruling Hamas party remains bitterly estranged from the opposing Fatah party.
The thirst for cinema has not diminished, even though entire generations have never viewed a film in a cinema. Some have seen movies when traveling to neighboring Arab countries, but television has been the only viewing option for many. Gazans also watch Arabic-language and foreign movies downloaded on the Internet or from discs.
“I have never in my life seen a movie in the cinema and I hope that I have this opportunity soon,” said Mahmoud Al-Saadi, 23.
But others seemed to agree with Hamas and said cinemas might violate prevailing customs and traditions. “Opening a cinema means allowing the mixing of the two genders and opening the door to various kinds of moral corruption,” said a friend of Al-Saadi.
Khalil Al-Kurdi, 57, would like to see a cinema reopen in Gaza and recalled watching movies in Rafah. “I made many friendships outside the cinema and I pity the young generation for not having a chance to watch movies inside the cinema.”
Rawan Al-Louh, a 21-year-old student, saw two films in the cinema when she traveled to Egypt with her family. “I had a strange feeling the first time I went in,” she said. “At first, it was not the film that caught my attention and I watched the audience.”