BY R. BENEDITO FERRÃO
I would know it anywhere. Though I hadn’t seen it since my childhood, I immediately recognized it from the image that flashed on the screen. It was Al Firdous Cinema.
Later, I tell Dr. Hend Alawadhi, my co- panelist at the conference we’re attending in Abu Dhabi, that her presentation brought back a flood of childhood memories. My parents would ask me what I’d say if I were ever to get lost. So integral was the cinema to my sense of belonging, that I responded: “I’ll tell whomever finds me that I live near Firdous.”
I remember the neon Arabic letters that would flash in sequence on the exterior walls of the cinema. Seeing them would signal to me that I was minutes away from reaching our flat – my family’s first and only home in Kuwait, where I was born. But more than this I remember the first time I ever saw a movie there.
Curtains parted and the screen lit up. It was magic to a little boy’s eyes.
From Alawadhi’s research on Kuwaiti cinema halls, I learn that Al Firdous had survived the Iraqi invasion of1990. Despite the building being shelled, the concrete screen on which films were projected didn’t give out. It became a symbol of resilience. I feel a pang of sadness when Alawadhi shares with me that the cinema was finally pulled down just recently. A part of my childhood had disappeared even though it was so long ago in a place so far away.
Al Firdous wasn’t the first place in which I’d seen a film at a public venue, however. My introduction to the spectacle of movie-watching happened at a drive-in cinema. Accordion-tubed air-conditioning hoses provided respite in the desert heat, the family vehicle crammed with our sweaty bodies. And despite the discomfort, my love of cinema must have been instilled in that moment, for I still remember the film we saw. It was ABBA: The Movie (1977), a docudrama made at the height of the Swedish band’s popularity. This was also when the critic in me must have been birthed, for I distinctly recall it being a terrible picture.
By some coincidence, a drive-in cinema is also where I recollect seeing my first screening in America after my family immigrated there when I was a teenager. Quirkily enough, that film in Los Angeles was also connected to music: Poetic Justice (1993) starring singers Janet Jackson and the late Tupac Shakur. As far as I can tell, those drive-ins in the countries in which I lived longest also met the same fate as Al Firdous.
They exist no more.
At the end of the first cinema class I ever taught, I closed with this question to my students: “So, when did you first fall in love with the movies?” The question arose out of considering how, for a brief while, a cinema hall creates a portal into another place. Upon our return, what do we bring back with us and to ourselves?
Returning to his ancestral village from his global wanderings, Sulaiman, the aging prodigal in the Sudanese film You Will Die at 20, screened at IFFI this year, gives the ill-fated and over-protected Muzamil his first taste of cinema.
Uncertain, the young Muzamil asks if it is real. A wan smile crosses Sulaiman’s face as he responds that somewhere it might be. Baudrillard would be pleased at this lesson in simulacra…
There’s a reason I still remember my first outings to the movies in the places I called home. As a multiple migrant, born to other migrants, home has been an ever-evolving concept. What cinema did for me was to ground me in multiple worlds at once. Al Firdous may have ended its runbut, for me, its neon lights will forever be legend.
Illustration by Fabian Gonsalves. You can follow his work on instagram.com/fabskribbler
Read more from The Peacock: Issue 9 (2019) here: