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Afghanistan: Film archive weathers coups and car bombs, but threats remain

While the Taliban had plans to turn it into a weapons museum, Afghanistan's national film archive is attempting to save documents by digitizing a collection dating back to World War II.

By Staff Writer / January 21, 2010

Siddiq Barmak (left), a filmmaker, and Latif Ahmadi, head of Afghan Film, inside Afghanistan’s film archive.

Ben Arnoldy/The Christian Science Monitor

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Kabul, Afghanistan

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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On two occasions over the past decade, Afghanistan’s national film archive almost went up in smoke. The collection of 2,000 canisters contains the only known copies of some Afghan feature films, documentaries, and newsreels dating back to World War II.

First the Taliban government tried to burn the archive and turn it into a weapons museum. Archivists risked their lives to hide films in ceilings, air ducts, and closed-off closets. Then the Taliban insurgents recently came within yards of inadvertently blowing it up with a car bomb targeting foreign troops in Kabul.

For want of an apparatus called an editing table, Afghan Film archivists have been unable to make digital backups of the films. France offered to house the archive, but the Afghans were leery of something going wrong in transit. Finally, the Spanish archive in Madrid has stepped up to buy and deliver an editing machine. The films should be digitized within two years’ time.

But the originals still are at risk, both from a lack of proper air conditioning in the archives – which would cost a few hundred thousand dollars – and the nearby foreign base.

“These forces [should] take their compound and move it outside the city. It would be safer for them and safer for residents,” says Siddiq Barmak, an Afghan filmmaker famous for the movie “Osama.”

One documentary in the archive, he says, contains footage of a cross-country trip made by the minister of education in 1965 to determine where people needed schools built.

“It’s a mirror for us right now about how poor the people were, how they needed schools and clinics, and how they were making makeshift hospitals,” says Mr. Barmak. “And when you compare it to today, nothing has changed. The only difference is, now they have Kalashnikovs.”

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