Kabul's Movie Theaters

Photographs and Text by Jonathan Saruk

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The lights go down and the projector whirs into action as Sher Mohammad, 35, begins his routine, bouncing back and forth between two projectors, winding reels, and adjusting the carbon arc lamps inside the projectors. Below him in the gallery of the Temorshahee Cinema, men sit in their Shalwar Kameez (the loose fitting pants and knee length shirts that are common in Central Asia), sipping mango juice, smoking cigarettes, clapping and sometimes even dancing together on the theater stage as Pakistani women sing and gyrate across the screen.

Only ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable in Kabul – the Taliban had banned, among other things, going to the movies. Theaters sat idle for years and fell into disrepair. But with the fall of the Taliban, projectionists like Rahmatullah Amane, 36, who had fled to Pakistan during the civil war and worked in a matchstick factory in Kashmir, put the cinemas back together in Kabul, piece by piece.

“The place was destroyed,” said Mr. Amane, describing Temorshahee Cinema in the Old City of Kabul after the Taliban fled. “We had to pick up parts and put things back together, taking pieces from all theaters.” After seeing the transformation, the new Afghan government asked him to restore a second classic Kabul theater, Park Cinema. He headed there right away. “We worked 24 hours a day to get it running. Everyone could feel the freedom and was happy,” Mr. Amane said. “It was like being born again.”

For Mr. Amane, the draw of cinema started early. “When I was 13 years old, I saw a James Bond movie, the one with Jaws. I knew then that I wanted to be in the movie business.” While at Park Cinema in Kabul's Shawr-e-Naw neighborhood, Mr. Amane began apprenticing under a projectionist. Twenty-years later he works 12-hours a day, seven days a week at the most technically advanced theater in the city, Ariana Cinema.

Today there are about a half dozen movie theaters that operate around Kabul, some of which are publicly funded, others restored by international donors. Older Pakistani and Indian films dominate the repertoire, but there are occasional American films and the rare Afghan one. Only matinees are shown and during the week attendance is low. Most moviegoers come from the large ranks of the unemployed. Young children are rarely seen at the movies, and women, while technically allowed to go, never attend. Mr. Amane blames this on the constant threat of bombings, "If security improves, they will come again."??

Until that happens though, Mr. Amane generally sees a bleak outlook for the cinema business: "The future looks dark." He says that the availability of DVD players, which allow families the convenience and safety of watching movies at home, are also hurting the business. He is even reluctant to encourage his eight-year-old son, who is eager to learn about the movie business: "I don't want my kids to go into the business."??

In most of the theaters, two behemoth Indian projectors, generally 30 to 40 years old, sit in dimly lit rooms where their servants must switch between the two, constantly changing the 20-minute-reels to prevent interrupting the film. Almost all of the machines in Kabul use carbon arc lamps to produce the light that projects the film, a technology that was mostly replaced in the west during the 1960s. Two sticks of carbon are aimed at each other and an electric current is run through them creating an arc that produces light. The distance between the rods must be constantly adjusted by the projectionists to maintain the electric arc. The rods themselves must also be changed several times during a movie. In short, projectionists in Kabul are rarely sitting still. The one exception is Mr. Amane's Ariana Cinema, which uses more modern Italian machines, thanks to a French cultural grant.??

On a recent Friday afternoon at Pamir Cinema in the Old City of Kabul, the busiest day of the week, a standing room only crowd of several hundred young men in a smoke-filled room cheer on the hero of a Pakistani film as he seeks revenge against the villain. Match-heads flicker constantly, throwing flashes of light across the darkened theater as the men chain-smoke throughout the film. Cellphones ring, and men occasionally yell across the crowded room to locate friends. On stage a young boy dances with his hands raised in the air, illuminated by the projector, as his friends in the front of the audience cheer him on. Perhaps the only other place one sees such public jubilation by Afghan men is at weddings.