Baghdad's silent theaters reflect a cultural darkness

The National Theater is one of the few movie theaters to remain open in Baghdad.
The National Theater is one of the few movie theaters to remain open in Baghdad. Jenan Hussein / MCT

BAGHDAD — Husham al Kanani practically grew up in a Baghdad movie theater, watching films at the cinema his father managed.

Kanani relives that time only in brief moments. He walks into the few remaining Baghdad movie theaters, buys a ticket and imagines the nonstop showings when the city's cinema scene thrived.

He leaves before the film on the screen gets his attention.

"I miss these days now," Kanani, 37, said. "But I'm still there, entering the cinema, if just for five minutes, to revive this ceremony of the past."

Most of the theaters on Sadoon Street, the strip that housed Baghdad's movie scene before the war, closed because of the violence that made catching a film after dark too dangerous a risk for most people.

The theaters that remain have a reputation for playing old American action movies with pornography spliced into some scenes.

They're open only in daytime, and the crowds they draw aren't exactly cinema fans.

"There are no people coming to the cinema looking for pleasure or fun," said Abu Nour, who manages a Sadoon Street theater. "They just come to wait for an appointment or for work to start. If I said there was one who came to the cinema to see movies, I'd be a liar."

Before the war, Sadoon Street drew moviegoers into the early hours of the morning to see films from the U.S., Turkey, India and the Arab world, Nour said.

Showings would start about noon and continue until 2 a.m., he said, with each pulling in a different audience — children at one, families at another and adults later in the evening.

Nour said if he tried to import the latest American movies now, he wouldn't break even. They wouldn't draw a large enough audience, and most people would sooner pick up the movie on the street from someone selling pirated DVDs.

"Our profession has disappeared now," he said. "In the past, cinema used to be an event for Iraqi families, but now the Iraqi families can stay home and watch movies."

On a recent Monday, Kanani reveled in back-to-back German films at a special, invitation-only showing in Baghdad's National Theater. He sat in the dark auditorium with a wide grin, soaking up the dramas.

He works in the media office for the theater, which holds daytime showings of movies and plays. He doesn't see a popular audience for the shows emerging anytime soon.

"Even if the National Theater shows a clean and suitable movie, there is no one who can come," he said.

Some Iraqi artists are trying to improve that outlook by encouraging film appreciation in small groups.

Yeahya Abrahem, an actor who lives in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, holds gatherings for artists and journalists to watch international films. He'd like to see their thoughts filter through Baghdad society and develop a wider audience for movies.

"We lost the culture in the street," said Abrahem, 32. "There are people who don't know about galleries, museums or the theater.

"We have generations who grew up in the violence and mess that's covered Iraq for more than 10 years," he said. "Now we have this generation walking in the street and driving cars who have never gone to cinema in their lives."

Abrahem wants to nurture a culture of Iraqi film production. He's trying to finish a 30-minute movie about a boy who falls in love with a girl in Baghdad's Zawraa Park, approaches her and discovers that she's wearing a suicide vest.

The boy asks, "Why?"

"To get into heaven," she replies.

"You can't get into heaven without killing us," he responds.

"I'm not against showing dangerous ideas in cinema, like terrorism," Abrahem said. "We should show this to the people. But the producers aren't ready."

Abrahem acknowledged that the Iraqi government has more pressing issues to address, but he said he'd like to see the country invest in promoting culture. If it's successful, he said, Baghdad's cinemas might rebound.

"For that we need to reeducate these people about how to appreciate cinema and galleries, to make the connection between the art experience and them," he said.

(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad.)


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