Lights of Kabul cinema get turned back on

CHANGING TIMES: A large crowd descended on Bakhtar cinema Monday for the first showing in a city long deprived of entertainment -- but when the doors opened, it was still a men-only show


Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 5

Every night for the past five years Mohammad Safar has closed his shop and faithfully manned his post as an unpaid security guard at Kabul's abandoned Bakhtar cinema.

Under the rule of the Taliban militia, who regarded movies as a western venality and closed down the Bakhtar cinema on their second day in power, it was a thankless job. Officials from the feared ministry of justice across the road would peer from their office windows to check the doors were always padlocked.

Suddenly on Monday morning, however, the frail Safar found himself trying to hold back a crowd of more than 1,000 filmgoers desperate to celebrate the return of celluloid culture to a city long deprived of entertainment.

"We were kept in the dark, now we are in the light," said Safar, 62. "Our country is once again liberated and we have entertainment again and for that we are happy."

The crowd stormed the cinema to catch the first show in town since the Taliban fled the capital last week. Uroj, which means Ascension, is a suitable tale about heroic Afghan mujahidin fighters defeating drunken Russian soldiers in the mountains of the famed Panjshir valley.

A poster for the movie shows a raging blue-skinned mujahidin warrior and other fighters kicking out at defeated Russian soldiers.

A beautiful woman, her face partly covered by a white veil, looks on.

Police beat back the crowd before the 10am showing and arrested two men. Inside the cinema, with its broken wooden chairs and peeling white screen, cheers greeted every mujahidin success. Hoots of derision were hurled at Afghan communist sympathizers.

Hundreds more returned for the afternoon performance. "There was a great rush to get in and during the film they were clapping and cheering," said Amanullah Khan, Safar's son.

The day after the Taliban seized control of Kabul in September 1996 the cinema was closed down. Sultan Mahmood, the cinema manager, crept away with 50 films, which he hid for five years.

On Monday, as he wandered through the dusty lobby of his newly opened cinema, he was grinning. "People have had no opportunity for entertainment for five years," he said. "I am happy they are back here."

Yesterday's screening was to be a Bollywood release called Elan: The Road To War, catering to the huge fascination with Indian films among Afghans.

The cinema's deserted lobby is still decorated with posters of the Indian classics on show in the months before the Taliban arrived.

Among them is a poster for the film Mohra, a Bollywood action movie which was showing the day the cinema was closed down.

"Films are not against Islam because they give lessons to the people," Mahmood said. "The ban imposed by the Taliban was for their own political gains. They were trying to hide their faces so they banned every type of photograph and film."

Monday's movie, directed by Afghans, starring Afghans and shot in their own country, heralds a renaissance in Afghan film making but also carries its own message.

"This film projects the disunity among the mujahidin so people will see it is not good for Afghanistan," Mahmood said. As the old breed of Afghan warlords emerges in the wake of the Taliban's collapse, the timing of the message could not be better.

Seats for the screening were 3,000 Afghanis (US$0.70). Women, however, were banned. Even under the mujahidin government, which ran the country for four years before the Taliban arrived, women were forbidden entry to cinemas.

Many Afghans have secretly watched films at home for the past five years, often Indian classics but also Hollywood hits. For many young men Monday's show was their first trip to a cinema and some wanted to see a more optimistic message.

"It was the first time I have ever seen a film and I loved it," said Omaid, 17, from Kabul. "But now I would like to see a film about brotherhood and peace in Afghanistan."