When Scheherazade told the story of the many adventures of Sinbad the Sailor in “One Thousand and One Nights,” she concluded the tale by stating that while Sinbad lived on for some time after he returned home safely from his last voyage, death, “the terminator of delights and the separator of companions,” prevailed inexorably over his human frailties. It was Sinbad’s death, rather than his return home, that marked the real end of his lifetime of adventures. Scheherazade, the mythical storyteller, informs us that a decisive end will indeed befall all stories and sagas, regardless of how exciting and engrossing they may be. And such was the case for the Baalbeck Studios, as despite its stories and adventures, its final days and hours were slated to tick down into oblivion, with no tears to be shed, no eulogies to be given.
Starting in 1963, Baalbeck Studios was a thriving and active presence at the intersection of Lebanon’s progressive and booming, yet disparate, business and arts sectors. For decades, Baalbeck Studios was the source of many of the visual and audio tracks experienced and “consumed” in Lebanon, as well as in other Arab countries such as Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. Commercial, documentary, and feature film directors, producers, and editors, along with singers and voice-over artists, all flocked to the Baalbeck Studios to collaborate, record, and experiment with its equipment and laboratory.
Yet despite its formative legacy of the Baalbeck Studios, by the end of February 2010 the facility was slated to be demolished, and the contractor hired for the project by the building’s caretaker had been given carte blanche to dispose of its contents. In the final hour, UMAM D&R, dedicated to collecting Lebanon’s memories and archives, intercepted to salvage the remaining analog film and written materials. The organization saw the vital need to act quickly and intercede to prevent the Baalbeck Studios death from going unnoticed, thus preserving the legacy of the seminal institution in light of an absence of Lebanese state efforts to salvage such items of the country’s history.
For the past thirteen years, UMAM D&R has been preserving, processing, and organizing significant amounts of document and leftover film archives. In partnership with the Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin a project was conceived to digitize the analog film elements and paper documents also with the aim to make the material accessible for research purposes in the future. Funding for this extensive digitization project was provided by the German Federal Foreign Office's Cultural Heritage Program in 2022 and 2023.
This film material, primarily black and white and often without corresponding audio, consists of fragments from newsreels, commercials, trailers, and a few feature films and provides a mesmerizing medley of snapshots of pre-war Lebanon in the 1960s and 1970s. After digitizing and analyzing the delicate and fragile material, UMAM D&R and Arsenal have been able to piece together works by both well-known and lost-to-history producers and directors, preserving a contrasting mix of legacies of modernity and tradition, weddings and protest marches, and ancient ruins and parliamentary sessions. As Scheherazade’s storytelling has preserved the stories of Sinbad the Sailor well beyond his death, so have UMAM D&R and Arsenal preserved the stories of the Baalbeck Studios beyond its closure.