In Afghanistan war zone, a movie theater comes back to life

An old movie theater in Lashkar Gah, shuttered by years of Afghanistan wars and hard-line Islamic rule, will soon reopen to host poetry readings and movies again. A sign of the post-Taliban times?

Lashkar Gah is typical of the conservative, war-battered towns of southern Afghanistan: few women on the streets, the constant drone of helicopters overhead, concrete blast barriers everywhere.

Yet here in the provincial capital of Helmand Province, where NATO forces just waged its biggest offensives against the Taliban in nine years, one structure near the town’s center stands as a testament to more normal times. Locals are reopening the Lashkar Gah Cinema Hall, the only movie theater in all of southern Afghanistan. For years it sat damaged by numerous wars and shuttered by Islamic extremism. Its resurrection is hoped to bring a rebirth of artistic expression in this restive corner of the country.

“In a place like Helmand, which is only known for fighting, we need these sorts of things,” says Nasima Niazi, a provincial lawmaker. “It gives a little hope to Helmandi people that there’s more to life than just war.”

Movies had been banned by the mujahedeen, hard-line Islamic guerrillas who fought the Soviets throughout the 1980s, and by the Taliban who took over afterward.

Both groups saw films as indecent, especially when they portrayed women on screen – a major offense to their conservative mores.

Even after the Taliban’s fall in 2001, film has been slow to revive. Deep-seated conservatism continues to pervade much of the south, and many of the former mujahedeen have returned to power.

Packed audiences

The theater’s main hall nowadays is piled with dust-caked, mangled chairs, and homeless men have made the corridors their home. But the Helmand government is renovating the theater and converting part of it into a cultural center that will house plays and musical performances. The British Provincial Reconstruction Team, a section of the military forces here that help with development, provided much of the funding. The theater is set to reopen next month.

As residents here tell it, the cinema’s past is a window into Afghanistan’s tumultuous history. The hall opened in the 1960s, the last era of peace, and became an instant success. People traveled for miles to watch Indian, Iranian, and occasionally American films. A big hit was Layla Majnun, an Indian take on a classic Arab love story.

“We couldn’t even understand the language, but we saw it many times,” says Sana Gul, a Lashkar Gah resident.

One of the most popular actors was Bruce Lee, whose martial arts antics captivated audiences. A ticket cost less than 10 cents, and every Friday the hall was packed to standing room only.

Suspicions linger

But years of war brought challenges. During the Russian presence, films would be ferried here by air because the ground route was often too dangerous. After the fall of the Soviet-backed government in 1992, the mujahedeen’s arrival to power heralded a new era of destruction and conservatism. They turned their guns on one another in a scramble for power, unleashing a devastating civil war that killed thousands. They also closed theaters throughout the country, deeming them “un-Islamic.”

“It was a time of chaos,” recalls resident Ghulam Farouq. “We were afraid to say openly that we enjoyed cinema. There was no government, just warlords and looters."

When the Taliban arrived in 1994, they ousted the hated mujahedeen from power, but extended their conservative doctrines. In addition to cinema, music and other arts were banned. They converted the cinema house to a station for Radio Sharia (which means “Islamic law”), the government’s main news outlet.

The effects of the era linger: Some residents today doubt if showing films is necessary or even appropriate. For now, the Helmand government plans to use the center mainly for poetry readings and performances, with only the occasional film.

Still, some hope the reopening can encourage an artistic revival in Helmand. Indeed, the first movie made by Helmandis debuted last month.

“We want Helmand to have something positive to offer the world,” says Ms. Niazi, the lawmaker, “and this is our first attempt.”

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