KABULLYWOOD – The cinema in Afghanistan

The story of the Cinema Aryub, once the most famous in Kabul, is like a movie. Opened in 1973, closed during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, reopened in 1988 after their withdrawal, reclosed by the Taliban and then opened again with the arrival of the Americans in 2001. Closed again six years later in 2007. The Cinema Aryub has gone through a lot, just as the Afghani people in the last three decades.

“We have grown up during the civil war. I was seven years old when the Taliban took over Kabul. We could no longer play  with balls or fly our kites, paint, listen to music, see films. Normal life had become a crime […]. When the Americans freed the country, we were adolescents with the strong deside to live […] Shab and I both went to university, the faculty of Fine Arts. Cultural life was beginning again, though the shadow of the Taliban still loomed over us… as if it could return from one moment to another… “

Sikandar and Shab, the main characters of KABULLYWOOD, presented in Italy at the last edition of Middle East Now, are a part of that generation of Afghanis whose life is identified with war, even if officially ended, as it seemed in 2001 with the American occupation and the overturning of the Taliban regime, which had come to power in 1996, after years of devastating civil war and chaos following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

The forced leaving of the Red Army by the Afghan quagmire, after a decade of fighting, a milion civil deaths, about five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, opened the door to the Taliban, an ultraconsertive political and religious movement, created during the years of the Soviet occupation in the madrassas, the Koranic schools of Pakistan.

Backed by the Pashtun, the main Afghan ethnic group (eleven million), the Taliban gave life to the anti-Soviet jihad, supported, armed and funded by an array of international players, whose only uniting force was to stop the Soviet expansion on the world’s geopolitical chessboard. A Holy Alliance between the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, in a crusade against the unholy Communists, with thousands of Muslim volunteers, the Afghan – Arabs, coming from every corner of the world to join the jihad fighters. The first groups of foreign fighters.

The presence of the Taliban is a total blackout for the life of the Afhgans. Their promise is to not only bring peace to the country after the fraticidial battles between the various Warlords. The purist ideals of Islam, the radical interpretation of the Sharia, public amputations and executions for transgressors, are the guidelines of the government of the students of God.

Over Afghan society, that had even enjoyed under the Soviets a degree of secularization, there fell a heavy curtain of hard and pure obscurantism. Men had to wear a beard, women the burqa. Television, music, games were forbidden. Girls prohibited from attending schools. 80% of the national culture, from museums to films, was destroyed by the iconoclastic wrath of Taliban extremism.

The Cinema Aryub, the most beautiful of the city, nine hundred seats, an area reserved for women, survived, in a bad state but not yet dead. Ready to begin again, because there is something magical about its history… Naser, the caretaker, projectionist, the soul of the Aryub for thirty-seven years.

“I was a child when I began, now I have a grey beard.” 

An Afghan version of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, an act of love for the Seventh Art, Naser saves hundreds of films from the purges of the Taliban.

In fact, something similar actually happened. In March of 1996, after having destroyed the Buddha of Bamiyan, the Taliban moved on to the national cinematography archives, intending to also destroy the thousands of films kept there, witness to the past “blasphemy” of the country, where the cinema first appeared in 1922 thanks to King Amanullah who imported for the first time a projector. Nine archivists risked their lives to save more than 6,000 films hiding them, at night, behind a plasterboard wall.

Sikandar, Shab and a group of friends decide to pay homage to Naser, to bring back to life the Cinema Aryub, to restore it and make it the symbol of the nation’s cultural rebirth.

“Ours was a real project, an act of resistance”, recounted Sikandar, certain (naively) that he would have the support of the General Hazrat for this undertaking. Namely his father. But, the real mind of this adventure is Shab, victim (predictably) of her brother, Khaled, a fundamentalist who (as per script) persecutes his sister with the threat of death, sets fire to the cinema by becoming a suicide bomber (also predictably).

“I’ll tell you something, I closed the cinema when the Taliban arrived and I did the right thing.”

General Hazrat refuses to help the two young people, to save the cinema, to condemn Khaled. Because of the fire, Aryub is once again a pile of rubble. Sikandar is alone, opposed by all, by his friends to whom he has lied about the help of his father, by his father from whom he had stolen the emeralds to pay for the restoration work, by the children of Aryub who accused him of having caused, with his behaviour, the fire that had destroyed their home.

It’s Shab, however, who pays the highest price. In a coma she will never come out of, caused by a car accident which Khaled, the fundamentalist, had been responsible for.

For her, for her project, for her love for the cinema, Sikandar must go on.

“Your father used to come to the cinema every day, he had a reserved seat with his name on it.” (Naser)

“How could you do it? Why did you close it then?” (Sikandar)

“To stop the Taliban from completely destroying it” (Naser)

Hazrat, the general, Sikandar’ s severe father, will become the demiurge of the rebirth of the Aryub. He stops Khaled about to blow himself and the cinema up and proudly (also of his son) participates in the opening. The television broadcasts it in the news, jugglers, acrobat artists,  musicians and dancers, all celebrate the event.

Freedom and culture have triumphed in Afghanistan, at least for the magic of the big screen. Fiction apart, the Cinema Aryub, actually renovated during the filming in 2016, has never opened its doors. Many workers in the film industry were hit by the reprisals of the Taliban against artists, others had to leave the country.

From the beginning of the gradual withdrawal of the Americans, despite many hopes, the cinema as any cultural life has been struggling to start up again in Afghanistan. The presence of Islamic fundamentalism, still very strong in the government and national institutions, continues to exercise a strong power in conditioning the mentality of the people and their conservatorism.

The cinema, what little there is, has paid the price of thirty years of cultural obscurantism, devoid, besides that of funds, of a film-maker group able to recount the changes in present Afghan society with its enormous unresolved questions.

The very few cinemas, mainly found in Kabul, usually project Indian and Pakistan films. Obviously, only men go to the cinemas.


Meanwhile, the Taliban advance gains ground underminig the very rocky road to national peace. The prospects of rebeginning the peaace negotiations between the government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban control command are twindling leaving the voice to those who think that the war in Afghanistan has never ended – it is only about to move onto a new act. There are no incentives for peace nor eventual military solutions as the Taliban continue to retake lost land every day. Of the 407 districts making up the country, the government controls 258, the rest are contested or in the hands of the Taliban.

No, it is not a film. It is the real life of the Afghani people.

Share your thoughts