TRIPOLI (Reuters) - In the basement of an art gallery in central Tripoli, young Libyans seeking an escape from violence and disorder watch an American movie classic screened using a simple projector and laptop.
They may feel they have plenty to relate to in James Dean’s teenage character as he battles society’s constraints and institutions in “Rebel Without A Cause”.
Nearly two years after the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s progress towards democracy has been stalled by political infighting and the growing boldness of some of the powerful rebel factions that helped end his 42-year rule.
“It’s now part of our routine. We wait patiently every week for the next screening, as these movie classics are unavailable on television channels,” said Mohammad Nattah, a 23-year-old medical student.
“It’s free and our way of escaping our current reality.”
Every week, the young crowd files down the stairs to the lower level of the Art House, where rows of white, plastic chairs are lined up facing the wall that serves as a screen. Latecomers miss out on the unglamorous seating and make do with the floor.
The programme ranges from Hollywood mainstays like “The Godfather” to “Ahlaam”, a film about the Iraq war, told from an Iraqi point of view. The films are shown with Arabic subtitles.
Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture, a registered non-governmental organisation, advertise the free screenings on their Facebook page and in a booklet distributed at selected locations in Tripoli but say they try to maintain a low profile for the events. Libya’s biggest political party is founded on liberal values, but society is deeply conservative.
Sharia (Islamic law), for instance, is taken for granted. The difference, say members of the audience, is how it is interpreted, although strict attitudes tend to prevail.
In Libya’s capital, unrelated men and women are rarely seen mingling in public, in keeping with traditional Islam, and the most radical groups are opposed to cinematography altogether.
This week’s “Rebel Without a Cause”, a 1955 film about a conflicted teenager who gets into trouble and is misunderstood by his parents, is especially poignant for the audience, whose ages range between 18 and 30 years old.
In one corner of the basement, a couple that missed out on seats lean against the wall, his arms around her, behaviour unheard of in public places in the new Libya.
Discussion after the film is encouraged. The founders of the cinema club want to revive the Libyan film industry and hope debates about classics will help achieve this goal.
“I was astonished to discover there is a young generation that understands and appreciates this art,” said Khaled Mattawa, the Arete Foundation’s president and a well-known Libyan poet who teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan in the United States.
“My idea was, we have a projector, we have the films and the walls of course, so why not make this place our cinema? When we started, we just didn’t expect to have so many fans.”
Mattawa, who is spending time in the capital teaching at the University of Tripoli, argues cinematography is one of the most democratic means of expression because it reaches out to a broad spectrum of people.
“Art is the process of learning a culture of co-existence,” he said. “Films lead to novels, and novels lead to philosophy.”
Going to the cinema was among the many activities that Gaddafi outlawed for periods of his dictatorship to protect his regime from what he regarded as the threat of cultural invasion.
Hundreds of media outlets, artists and musicians sprang up when Libya was freed from his rule. But with security across the country again starting to deteriorate, some in the audience worry that Libya is moving in the wrong direction.
“Even though this movie was filmed in the 50s... the production quality is very good compared to what Libyan film makers are able to do in 2013,” said Turkia Bensaoud, a woman in her early twenties who works for a charitable agency.
“The quality of life presented in the movie is also very good compared to us today. That’s why we keep asking ourselves - are we moving backwards?”
While recent film festivals in the capital and in Benghazi, Libya’s second city in the east, have proved hugely popular, they have also been targeted by Islamist militants.
The festivals have mostly screened films made in the region, with many produced by Egypt’s well-established movie industry, but also from Iraq and several African countries.
In a recent example, Tripoli’s movie festival held at the Radisson Hotel a couple of weeks ago was cut short on its third day after receiving bomb threats.
“Perhaps this activity will upset those who do not want us to live with other cultures, but we have to take a chance and enjoy the freedom for which we Libyans fought,” said Bensaoud.
Editing by Jessica Donati, Mark Heinrich and Sonya Hepinstall