Still from Around the Pink House
© Your Middle East
Still from Around the Pink House
Last updated: September 23, 2014

This classic of Lebanese cinema reminds us why green grassroots movements are so important

Banner Icon A festival of Arab cinema in London gave me the opportunity to watch Around the Pink House on the big screen in a wonderfully grainy, age-ravaged 35mm projection (the cinema could have played a pristine DVD copy of the film, but true film fans will choose the battered reel over the disc anytime) and it became clear just why this gentle comedy has been so enduringly popular.

The film was directed by visual arts and filmmaking duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige and was released in 1999, as Lebanon continued to rebuild and recover from the devastating civil war which ended nine years earlier.

Action centres on an old, rose-coloured palace in a district of Beirut where two families, the Nawfals and the Adaimis, found shelter during the civil war. Occupying the empty property for over eleven years, the families had come to consider it their home until the owner of the palace suddenly arrives and tells them that, as part of the modernisation of the city, he wants to redevelop the site into a commercial centre, destroying the palace apart from its antique facade and erecting a skyscraper in its place.

"Action centres on an old, rose-coloured palace in a district of Beirut"

WITH JUST ten days to leave the property, the families do all they can to avoid being made homeless again. Letters are written, friends and relatives are enlisted to sign a petition, and a camera man is brought on board to film their campaign in the hope that media coverage will help.

As if tensions aren’t high enough, some local shopkeepers feel the redevelopment of the site could be a boon to the area and prefer the inhabitants to simply walk away with their compensation pay-outs instead. A boycott of the shops follows, and soon the community is divided down the middle of a single street, with one young man keen to resort to the force of his militia as a way of solving the problem...

Watching the film, it’s easy to see the analogy with the Lebanese civil war where external pressures split communities and turned neighbours against each other. There are also very poignant and sad parallels with the Middle East today, in particular Iraq and Syria where conflict has split both countries along sectarian lines.

Still from Around the Pink House, 1999.jpg

HOWEVER, a far more interesting parallel for me was with the protests that started in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in May 2013 and which spread throughout Turkey, a movement that germinated from a protest against the urban development plan for Gezi Park. While the escalating demonstrations took on a range of causes such as infringements of press freedom, police brutality and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic rule, it all started because a small group of locals did not want to see one of the few green spaces in central Istanbul brutalised by an ill-planned redevelopment project. People want to choose their own version of modernity, not to have one interpretation of modernity forced upon them.

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In Around the Pink House, the inhabitants of the palace don’t want to save the property just because they live there, they also love the building itself, and don’t want to see its quaint, rose-tinted facade become the token historical artefact to a trashy commercial centre. The memories of eleven years living in the house are too intimate to be stolen by big business. So what do they do? The families hire a wrecking bulldozer and take it in turns to destroy the property themselves, reducing the palace to a heap of rubble. If they are going to have their memories taken from them, well at least they will prevent those memories being used to prop up a soulless skyscraper.

THE MESSAGE of the film is the story of redevelopment everywhere – large projects forced on an area by outsiders, with locals too often unconsulted and powerless. And now that Erdoğan, in his new role as Turkish president, plans a host of new infrastructure projects including a new bridge over the Bosphoros, high speed rail and the world’s largest airport, it’s a message he would do well to heed.

Around the Pink House was screened as part of the Safar Film Festival at the ICA, London.

Rakesh Ramchurn
Rakesh Ramchurn is a freelance writer based in London.
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