Over the last week, Afghan media has been filled with reports, videos and pictures of the destruction of the Cinema Park. Amid the daily loss of life, the spiraling crime rates and various political machinations, people turned their attention to the sudden loss of a landmark many of us had heard about but few of us had ever paid much attention to.
To put it simply, we just took it for granted.
Then suddenly, came the pictures of the bulldozers and demolition crews tearing out the seats, razing the structure and ripping the screen from the walls.
Though few of us stepped foot in the building that had grown rundown and disheveled due to decades of inattention, the destruction conjured up the stories of parents. The young couples sitting next to each other to watch the latest productions from Afghanistan, India, Iran and Hollywood. The times when Pakistanis journeyed across the Durand Line to view the Indian films their own country wouldn’t allow them to see.
As one friend put it, “What does this say? That the memories of our parents’ generation are gone, and they’re not coming back.”
But as the week progressed, the situation went from tragic to frightening, as on Tuesday evening, footage of the Director of Afghan Film, Dr Sahraa Karimi, tearfully saying she had been forced out of the building — with physical force — made the rounds online.
Suddenly, the destruction of a 70-year-old movie house went from being about the loss of a cultural landmark to a matter of democracy.
An educated woman — with a PhD in Film — was exercising her democratic right to protest, and rather than being heard out and given the opportunity to show her discontent with the situation, she was forced out by Police.
Throughout the last year, the government has been invoking “the gains of the last 20 years” as something they refuse to compromise as part of the peace process with the Taliban, but isn’t the right to free speech and assembly one of those gains?
The sad truth is this isn’t the first time that people’s right to assembly has been impeded. Have we forgotten the containers that were stacked around the city of Kabul to keep protesters from getting near the Presidential Palace over the last five years?
Just as worrying is the online rhetoric among those who see the cinema as “just an old building.”
Rhetoric that has ranged from misogynistic statements against Dr Karimi to calls for her firing for expressing opposition to a government decision and even saying “opposition to the decision of the government is illegal and a crime.”
All of this occurred in the Islamic Republic, with a constitution that is meant to protect the freedom of speech and assembly.
More than this, though, the loss of the Cinema Park — without ever giving Afghan Film the opportunity to rehabilitate it — is yet another blow to Afghanistan’s cultural history. Seeing the theatre as merely another old building is another way of disconnecting us from our past.
It’s also an affront to our once active and inspiring film industry that saw a small, but dedicated group of filmmakers working against all odds, including active war, to tell their stories full of legendary loves, immense losses, pervading classism, suffocating greed, bitter rivalries, the fight for freedom and glimpses of hope.
Many of these films were screened at the Cinema Park, but the filmmakers were barely given a chance to save it. Even worse, when Dr Karimi asked for the chance to rehabilitate the cinema she was turned away, being told the Kabul Municipality has “bigger plans” for the site.
Turning away Dr Karimi’s plan was yet another blow to a city that has had to deal with the ongoing violence and now a global pandemic while having very few public spaces and even fewer spaces that provide entertainment and recreation to families and young people. There are now entire generations of Afghans who have never had the chance to watch a movie on the big screen in their own country. Those who cannot afford to travel abroad have never been able to experience the sense of camaraderie that comes from watching a film in a shared communal space where everyone laughs and cries together. More than anything, film, especially in cinemas, brings people together and at a time when politicians are quick to sew divisions along ethnic, linguistic and class lines, we need those brief senses of community more than ever.
As Pedro Almodovar, the famed Spanish director, said: “Cinema can fill the empty spaces of your life and your loneliness.”
Yes, movie theatres across the world were struggling long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, the streets of Kabul, Jalalabad and Herat are full of bootleg DVD stores, but we were never given a chance to see how a rehabilitated, modern movie house would fare in today’s Kabul. Instead, the bulldozers came rushing in and Dr Karimi was forced out of a building she tried to save not for herself, but for all artists in Afghanistan.
In his landmark novel, Native Son, Richard Wright describes the experience of his protagonist, Bigger Thomas, a poor 20-year-old black youth in Chicago, watching a film in the cinema by saying: “In a movie he could dream without effort; all he had to do was lean back in a seat and keep his eyes open.”
This week, though, those chances at dreaming without effort have been taken from Kabul.
The bulldozers came and soon, everything faded to black.