As the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s, restrictions on its citizens became increasingly severe. When the Taliban gained control of Kabul at the end of 1996, music, television, and movies were banned altogether.
But when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, those restrictions receded and culture was allowed to re-emerge.
In June 2009, while visiting Kabul to document a separate event, photographer Jonathan Saruk discovered a significant resurgence of Kabul’s movie houses, noting them as a “vibrant and remarkable facet” of life in the city.
Saruk wished to document and display a more nuanced version of life in Kabul and in Afghanistan than the visions of war, conflict, poverty, and sadness that we see on television every day, so he began to photograph cinemas and movie theatres.
“12 years ago, this scene…would have been unthinkable,” Saruk says. Today, he says, there are six cinemas like this one in Kabul.
The scene inside a movie theatre that Saruk describes is one of happiness and camaraderie. Audiences laugh, dance, sing, whistle, smoke cigarettes, and talk with each other. Seeing a movie, Saruk says, “is a respite from the harsh reality that lies outside the confines of the theatre.”
In an essay about Saruk’s work, Javed Razayee, an Afghan filmmaker writes, “Inside the theatre was safe. There were no interruptions from outside… Dramatic music would kick the movie off, and, having my ‘ham’ burger unwrapped, I would lie back, letting myself be transported to great India.”
Before, seeing a movie was nearly impossible. Now, cinemas play at least three movies a day, starting as early as 10am. Men from all over the city come to see action and adventure movies, beautiful women in skirts and pantsuits, passionate love stories, or sometimes all three at once.
Films from Pakistan, India, and the United States are projected in the theatres, like this one from the U.S., “Bride of Chucky.”
Why does it seem that only men go to the movie theatre in Afghanistan? “I got various responses,” Saruk told the Daily Beast when asked about the phenomenon. “Some people said it was because of security and some said that they [women] simply preferred to watch films at home.”
Saruk knew he was onto something when, during a screening of a Bollywood film, members of the audience got up on stage and danced along with the actors being projected. “Watching them, I realised that, in all my time in Afghanistan, I had never witnessed such an outpouring of emotion,” says Saruk.
These images and more are published in Saruk’s new book, “The Forbidden Reel,” out now on Daylight Books.
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