Face-to-face: Mike Haroun, Haroun Studios, Lebanon

Face-to-face: Mike Haroun, Haroun Studios, Lebanon
Published: 30 October 2019 - 8:38 a.m.
By: Nikhil Pereira

The world is witnessing a boom in content like never before. We are witnessing changes in resolution, and patented innovations on a day-to-day basis. Today, we are able to see more pixels per inch than ever before through 8K resolution content, — and screens on which to watch it — is becoming more and more accessible.

But it’s not always about new content, and Lebanon’s Haroun Studios is shining the light on content from the past. “Recently, while going through our warehouse, we discovered a lot of old reels, which contained movies that were shot a long time ago. Some of them were trailers and many were reels from full-length movies. The treasure trove included movies from Lebanon, along with movies from Syria, Egypt, Turkey and one movie from India,” Mike Haroun, managing director of Haroun Studios tells DSME.

The studio founded 1940s by his grandfather Michel Haroun, making Mike the third-generation manager of the family business. He credits Haroun Studios as one of the factors for popularising the movie landscape in Lebanon in the early 1940s.

Michel Haroun received plenty of honour and accolades, including recognition from the government, for his first production for Zouhour Hamra (Red Roses). “The film was a big hit and is widely credited as one of the first films to come out of Lebanon. My grandfather also received a Gold Medal from the then president of the Republic of Lebanon in 1959 for his efforts in movie production and cinema.”

Zouhour Hamra was captured using a camera that was purchased from a French lieutenant who was departing from Lebanon after the country’s independence. The success of the film inspired several other filmmakers in and around the country to produce their own movies.

Over the next 70-year period, hundreds of films were made, initially shot on black and white and eventually moving to colour. “Since these movies were produced by independent filmmakers, there was no mechanism in place to safeguard them on a state level. These movies are part of the cultural heritage of the country.”

Approximately 250 movies were produced from 1940 to 1990, most of which were shot in Arabic. “This included joint productions between Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, the latter was the most active during that time period.”

Mike took over Haroun Studios in 2000, after spending two decades in the United States of America, where he studied chemical engineering. After returning to Haroun Studios, he renovated the facility and the business, and bought new technology which included equipment such as laser engraving, film scanning and digital mastering.

Since stumbling on the treasure trove, Haroun Studios has become a specialist in scanning films, rendering old movies, and restoring them.

Mike says: “We have about 160 to 200 films that have gone through our labs. A lot of these movies are not complete; sometimes we find duplicates of the same reel and sometimes we stumble into complete prints.”

Haroun is following an intricate procedure for restoring the old reels, doing it frame by frame. In addition to the latest scanners purchased from Europe, a special scanner has been developed by Haroun Studios which is used to scan negative films in particular.

“You get better results if you scan it scene-by-scene as compared to running it as one throughput on a regular scanner.

Since inter-negatives were not used in Lebanon, the original negatives vary substantially from scene to scene. This new process gives the user the ability to adjust the scan parameters for each scene before proceeding to the next scene.”

With regards to scanning old films, Haroun Studios is following a workflow which involves digitising them into electronic format. Following a physical inspection, slices of damaged film or broken teeth are repaired. The film is then washed in specialised washing machines to remove dirt and chemicals.

“Once the film is scanned into the digital format, we process it digitally using software that is able to clean the image further. It also opens the possibility for us to colour correct and colour grade as well as enhance the image quality. Once this is done, keeping in mind we are working in 4K, we export the films in high resolution,” he says.

Haroun and his studio are taking no half measures in this process and are doing every bit of the restoration in a manner that brings out the best quality of the footage.

Remarkably, Haroun Studios is carrying out all the restoration work with no external funding, which makes the painstaking efforts even more commendable. “When we found these reels, we were faced with the task of preserving this valuable heritage. The government in Lebanon provides no financial support for activities such as this,” he reveals.

A wider view

The chunk of history discovered by Haroun and his studio was evidence (not that it was needed) of Lebanese cinema’s rich past. Together with the Egyptian film industry it forms an important part of the Middle East’s legacy.

Despite the many challenges the country has grappled with in recent times, filmmakers continue to channel their creativity on the big screen: “The movie industry has picked up recently in Lebanon and there are several local companies producing movies for Lebanon and the Gulf. Compared to previous years, this activity has picked up steam recently, with a new movie being released every two months on the average compared to one movie per year in recent years.”

Haroun credits this drive to a direct response of the public getting tired of watching the “same movies over and over again”. There’s an inherent desire to watch indigenous movies that are not produced by Hollywood, he says.

He expects a further upstaging of the local film industry with the advent of digital technology and workflows. In the past, producing a film was expensive as stakeholders had to spend a lot of money purchasing negative film, followed by processing the film and, printing, editing and distributing it. “Nowadays, all of these processes are done on computers and filming is done using digital cameras. This trend will continue in the future since there is a market for it locally and the Lebanese people are inherently creative people and will always come up with new ideas for their movies,” he adds.

Haroun is also delighted with the GCC and the efforts that have been put in place by local governments to support filmmakers. He says: “The rest of the region is promising, especially in the UAE where the government is in favour and wholeheartedly supports local production by giving several incentives to productions done in the country. A lot of Lebanese companies work in the UAE and are active in TV production and related activities.

“KSA is another promising market where the recent proliferation of movie theatres is mind boggling. There are movie theatres being opened every few weeks and the new facilities have international standards. Movie productions have also started in earnest. We worked on a Saudi production about two weeks ago and we were impressed with the quality and the production value of the movie. It’s currently being released in the region and we expect that it will do well. Coming from a country that recently opened its doors to movie theatres and production, we find this to be quite impressive.”

Means to an end

Closer to home, Haroun has opened dialogue with government officials from different departments who have lauded the efforts being put in by Haroun Studios. “We’ve met people on several occasions but the general consensus is that they don’t have the cash to support such an activity. However, this does not stop us from having hope that things may change in the future.”

Haroun admits motivation can be hard to come by especially when resources are run thin with a blurry means to justify the end. He takes a philanthropic approach to the matter. “The painstaking efforts will benefit the generations to come because [if it’s not done] the films will soon get destroyed. You cannot keep a film shot on acetate for too long; it eventually goes away. Someone needs to digitise it.”

While uncovering all the treasures, Haroun also uncovered plenty of unseen original war footage which the studio is in the midst of digitising. In the meantime, a lot of movie trailers have been uploaded to its YouTube channel. “We do this using our own funds so the frequency of uploads on YouTube is not as igh and, we do as much as we can when we can.”

Apart from digitising and restoring films from the past, Haroun Studios provides all services related to DCP mastering, subtitling, and archiving related to feature films.

Haroun says in conclusion: “It’s an ongoing process, we are still going through the stack, finding new reels and movies along the way. We are digitising them, which takes a lot of time and it’s quite tedious. It requires commitment and perseverance. It gets to a point where you say ‘I’ve had enough of this, I want to quit’”, he laughs.

“The eventual goal is to have a public institution or an NGO that can make a commitment to preserve these movies — they constitute a part of the country’s cultural heritage. If we can get help, it will be great,” he concludes.

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