Nélida Nassar 01.12.2016
An avid collector of cultural, political and war posters, Abboudi Abou Jaoudé has assembled the most substantial and significant holding in existence of vintage movie posters from Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world, along with numerous pieces from Europe and America. During my tour of those items he has on permanent display, we discussed the posters, their designs, which genres are the most popular, and how he goes about collecting them.
Abou Jaoudé grew up in Beirut, and his father, a film aficionado, instilled his passion in his 6-year old son. After completing high school, he started working in publishing, where he is still active as owner of the Al Furat publishing house. At the same time, in the late 1970s, he decided to follow his collecting passion having realized that it was one of the only ways he could own a piece of the old movies he so loved. Abou Jaoudé went on to build a large, quirky collection of posters of international and local movies.
Collecting movie posters in the Arab world, and in Lebanon in particular, is a relatively new phenomenon, and for the longest time, no one was doing it. Even the major studios in the US and Europe did not save the posters for their own films. This situation began to change in 1977 with the release of Star Wars, when the poster for it became as iconic as the film itself. It was in that same year, in the midst of Lebanon’s war, that Abou Jaoudé started scouring the movie houses in Beirut and the country’s other cities, as well as across the rest of the Arab world. At a modest cost he was able to hire people to scout and acquire the posters as soon as they were removed from the walls or stands, and he also collected a lot of promotional ephemera about each new release. In the process he discovered, stacked in the drawers and closets of various theaters, posters dating as far back as 1933 and photographs from as early as 1929, and much of this material is now part of his collection.
The first poster he acquired was Yousef Chahine’s Rings for Sale, 1965 film about the national singer Fairouz, and his most valuable one is White Rose, 1933 by Mohammad Karim. Nowadays vintage movie posters are highly collectible, especially those for films released before 1940. Few of these early ones survived because cinema owners were obliged to send them along to the next theater showing the film, which resulted in irreversible damage. Vintage film posters were long ignored in the authoritative historical narrative of graphic design, but during the last twenty years they have been re-evaluated and are now celebrated in a plethora of books, articles, and on-line blogs analyzing their history and unique visual sensibility. In the process they have been the source of a number of surprising insights regarding some familiar films.
Arab cinema started in Egypt with a limited number of silent films dating back as early as 1896; the first full-length movie was released in 1927; and Egyptian film became a regional force with the coming of sound around 1930. Lebanon’s movie industry began in 1929 and was always heavily influenced by its Egyptian counterpart. Since 1950, however, Hollywood, I would argue, has exercised its hegemony over the global circulation of films and their associated printed material culture – from Cinecittà to Bollywood, Cairo and South America. It imposed its advertising design in the marketing of films worldwide, including such details as the number and size of the posters produced for films. The posters were generally issued in a marketing set including “one-sheet” poster portrait format (27” x 40” or 68.6 cm x 102 cm), two display aka half-sheets (22” x 28” or 55.9 cm x 71.1cm), two inserts portrait format (14” x 36” or 35.6 cm x 91.4 cm), one lobby card set (11” x 14” or 28 cm x 36 cm) also 8” × 10” (20 cm × 25 cm) before 1930, window cards (14” x 22” or 35.6 cm x 55.9 cm) and an 8-page press booklet. Bigger posters assembled from sometimes separate pieces consisted of three sheets, six sheets, or, occasionally, even twenty-four sheets, these latter being billboard size. A smaller variant of the one-sheet poster, the lobby card set, usually included a title card and eight cards depicting notable scenes from the film. This material was more widely available than the posters because theaters were allowed to add their names to the cards and keep them. Two one-sheet posters was pretty much the standard, except for blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind – for which the studio issued three or four different poster designs.
Today, Abou Jouadé’s collection has swelled to more than 20,000 vintage pieces, including 2,000 posters from the USA, 240 from Italy, 200 from France, 3,000 from Egypt, 120 from Syria, 14 from Iraq, 32 from Tunisia and 12 from Algeria and Morocco and other items such as lobby cards (called “cartoona” in Arabic) as well as ads. The Lebanese and Arab film industry only partially followed Hollywood’s taxonomy, because of lack of resources. Thus the portion of the collection devoted to the former consists mostly of single sheet posters (70 cm x 100 cm, a few inches shorter than their US counterparts), some 6-sheet examples, along with thousands of other pieces – mostly lobby cards, press books, single column advertisements, and press reviews. Abou Jouadé also collects all manner of ephemeral film-related photos: stills, location snaps and head shots. Despite the size of his holdings – and to his chagrin – memorabilia from many films has so far eluded him and he is still actively seeking it. For the last two years, he has been preparing the world’s first Lebanese film poster exhibition, which will reflect his fifty years of collecting and be accompanied by a 536-page book entitled “Tonight, Cinema in Lebanon, 1929 – 1979.”
The timing of this exhibition is propitious, as it coincides with the recent auctions throughout the year 2015 of the 196,000 posters in English owned by American collector Morris Everett Jr., which constitutes the world’s most complete collection of its kind. Abou Jaoudé picked 1979 as his cutoff, because up to that date modernism permeated design and thus movies posters and ephemera were somehow more graphically interesting than in later decades. He makes his buying choices based to some extent on design per se, but also on the actors and directors involved. He also tends to pick something that he has some visceral connection with, whether the subject matter of the film or some other aspect of it or its poster. Over the years, his interests have evolved to include Western posters, but usually only when the artwork appeals to him and is from a film that he knows and like.
Successful Lebanese movies were usually released with several different poster designs, some of which were printed in vivid, solid colors, while others were produced with the subtle shading effects of chromolithography. Their design and printing took place in either Beirut, Cairo or Italy. It is also noteworthy that Beirut in the 1960s enjoyed a freedom of expression and a minimum of censorship that led Egyptian actors to come there and act in on average of 20 locally made films per year, which also reinforced the permeability between these cities. Lebanese posters may usefully be divided into five categories: musicals featuring established singers, dancers or comics; love and romance films; adventure and science fiction films; foreign adaptations; and documentaries, along with and couple of odd pieces, such as one about a saint and another about The Broken Wings by Gibran Khalil Gibran, none other than the author of The Prophet. The love and romance category was the most popular narrative genre based on attendance and revenues as well as several socio-cultural-anthropological considerations.
It must be admitted that from a graphic design standpoint, many of these posters are not very interesting; in particular they lack arresting images. Essentially, they are kitsch represented in a wide variety of artistic styles that cost a lot of time and money to produce. They fit in with the overall trend of Hollywood posters, inasmuch as they feature a painterly or an illustrative style, a traditional centered layout, and hurriedly hand-drawn typography (which is a far cry from the precise and exquisite rendition of Arabic calligraphy used in books and innacubula). Some science fiction posters depict the stars in superhero poses – wielding huge guns and girls in tow – a filmic fantasy version of pseudo-empowerment.
Produced in accord with what the studios’ marketing departments thought would best sell the films, the posters are dominated by large head shots of actors or close-ups. The quality of their design clearly suffered from the economic imperatives of the film industry, where selling the product was the overriding concern. Artists only, not the poster plasterers were able to claim authorship by signing their posters along with the publishers. Among them were Abd el Aziz, Gassour, Marcel, Ragheb, and – by far the most creative one – Vassiliou, whose layouts featured a big image of the movie’s star commensurate with the latter’s ego. His graphic style was informed by the work of the famous Italian film poster designer Marcello Dudovitch. International collaboration between artists and publishing houses abounded, as in the case of the Egyptian Gassour and Dar Hani in Beirut, among
Studios sometimes spent more on the posters than they spent on the films because in many cases the latter were quite mediocre or poor. One wonders if there is a significant difference in the posters designed for A and B movies? One could argue that Arabic-language movies for the greatest part – as was the case in a large number of those from Hollywood – are B movies whose lack of broad appeal obliged studios to find another angle, another way to sell the films. Thus they turned to the use of lurid, exploitative artwork. Abou Jaoudé’s collection provides the material to open a large new field of research in visual communication, in particular for a comparative study of the design paradigms which were most prominent in the various movie-producing countries and various languages in which their film were released.
Abou Jaoudé advises the new collector to buy posters and memorabilia that are within one’s budget and that one really enjoys looking at – and only those. Staying away from speculation as much as possible is, he believes, the healthy way to start. Condition is a major concern for all collectors, as posters were generally shipped to theaters flat, folded once length-wise and three times across. Thus one often has to deal with creases and losses in those areas, though obviously one should avoid as much as possible any significant damage to the most important parts of the image, like the stars’ faces. Unframed paper easily becomes brittle, yellowed, or faded. All the same, some posters are so rare that one may want to acquire them no matter what condition they are in.
We must be grateful that Abou Jaoudé’s passion led him to systematically collect, and thus to preserve, so many of the film posters from Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world; for once this ephemeral material had served its purpose, it was generally discarded. And if by chance it was saved, it was easily damaged. Abou Jaoudé has painstakingly gathered these disposable pieces and protected them. His comprehensive archive of the local film industry captures much of the film history of Lebanon and other parts of the Arab world, including their contributions to communication design. His place in the history of collecting appears to be guaranteed, for during the last few years Yale University has
relied on his expertise to create its own collection of vintage Arab film posters.
The rich material in this collection gives rise to a number of intriguing questions. Why are women systematically portrayed as objects of desire in these posters? Why do the films in the love and romance category have so many similar sounding titles? Can one argue that the imagery in Lebanese film posters displays specific Levantine cultural characteristics which differentiate it from that found in the posters of the other Middle Eastern countries? And if this is so, what are its links to the dominant visual narratives of the period – whether French, Polish, German, British, or made in Bollywood or Hollywood? The collection, together with its exhibition and book, represents an exceptional opportunity for fundamental research into and a critical evaluation of a major strand of modern Arab culture.