12/05/2013

In Alexandria, another cinema bites the dust

In a city of cinematic firsts, art deco cinema torn down to build a shopping mall

Industry, Egypt

In Alexandria, another cinema bites the dust

When architecture students Ghada Essam and Muhamed Nabeel sneaked through a fire exit into the old Rialto cinema in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria early this April, they were shocked to see that it had been almost entirely gutted out from inside.

"Rialto Re-Born," announced a sign on the building's facade on the main street, just a 15-minute walk away from the Mediterranean Sea. Members of the local community thought that the art deco cinema would be renovated to fit more screens, just like the Metro up the road. But behind the front wall, nothing but part of the old cinema's staircase and stage remained. The two amateur filmmakers decided to film.

On April 22, when a bulldozer tore down the building's facade, revealing the rubble behind to surprised Alexandrians, they posted their short film Rialto Re-Born online. The real estate developers were now promising a shopping mall with a multiscreen cinema instead, but they saw - and wanted others to see - yet another example of modern urban development encroaching on the city's cultural heritage.

"It's part of our collective memory," said Nabeel, who even aged just 24, remembers skipping school with friends to attend the second-class cinema's cheap matinees.

On his Arabic-language blog Walls of Alex, architect and academic Mohamed Adel Dessouki compares the Rialto's demolition to that of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso

The Rialto appears on a map of the Mediterranean city as early as the 1920s, he told Euromed Audiovisual. This means it would have been built in a time when the cosmopolitan city bustled with Egypt's first filmmakers and actors, before most moved to the capital, following Egyptian economist Talaat Harb founding Studio Misr in Cairo in the mid-1930s and German bombs falling on the city in 1939, according to the Alexandria Library's fascinating online resource on cinema in Alexandria.

The Rialto was knocked off a heritage list of protected buildings in 2007 but remained part of a conservation area, according to Dessouki, and, as such, any plans for the cinema's development should have been submitted to Alexandria's heritage committee for approval, but to his knowledge this was never done.

It's the latest case of an old Alexandrian cinema disappearing off the map. In a city whose first screening of a Lumière film was held as early as 1896 and whose first cinema opened in 1897, very few old cinemas, once flooded with Greek, Italian, French, and Arabic speakers, survive to this day. Over 31 have been demolished and others have been turned into warehouses or wedding halls, says Alexandria-born novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, who already in 2006 wrote a poignant article about it.

Only about seven are still operating, and all have been renovated with more screens to boost profit, except for the Radio cinema near the city centre's tram station, according to Dr. Mohamed Awad, head of the Alex Med heritage project at the Alexandria Library.

A quick search online shows that most of these surviving cinemas have moved with the times, now showing the latest Egyptian comedies and dramas, while the popular Amir also shows Hollywood blockbusters and is even equipped to screen 3D.

But what does the future hold? Last year, after launching his blog, Dessouki also co-founded Save Alex, a civil society initiative partly to save Alexandria's built heritage from increasing demolition. Despite its sit-ins having successfully prevented the destruction of several historical villas, its passionate participants were sadly unable to save the Rialto from demolition, simply because they had no idea that it was about to happen. 

But Dessouki says that there is now a rumour that the Rio cinema, unfortunately also not a listed building, might be next. "We are trying to raise the issue," he said.

The fate of Alexandria's few surviving old cinemas may be uncertain, especially in the era of illegal downloads and digitisation, but today local art is finding different venues. In a seaside city most recently portrayed in Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Abdalla's Microphone, grassroots initiatives, such as Save Alex or even the older artist collective Gudran, are striving to preserve and add to the city's artistic legacy.

And thanks to Gudran, at least for now a tiny part of the Rialto lives on. Next to the now demolished main building, several years ago, Rialto's former control room was converted into an art space called El Cabina. And an underground room once used for the cinema’s air conditioning system has been turned into a jamming space for local musicians.

 

Alice Hackman

 

Mohammed Nabeel and Ghada Essam's Realto Re-Born

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