When the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996, all forms of movies, television, and videos were outlawed, along with many other things, for everyone. Theaters were quickly abandoned, left to decay and sometimes destroyed. When the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, they did more than just liberate the country from the Taliban’s rule. The country's cinemas also reopened.
In 2009, while photographing the Mr. Afghanistan body building competition at the Old Cinema Park in Kabul, 34-year old photographer Jonathan Saruk took note of the building hosting it. “It was really dark and really gritty and had a lot of character,” Saruk told The Daily Beast. “I became curious to see what it was like as a functioning movie theater.”
Over the next three years Saruk set out to capture the cinematic aspect in the daily lives of Kabul citizens compiling the moments that he captured for his first published book, The Forgotten Reel, partly funded by Kickstarter.
At the time of the Mr. Afghanistan competition, Saruk had already spent over half a year embedded with troops documenting the ongoing war efforts in Afghanistan. But he had grown tired of his daily routines and wanted to experience something different—he wanted to capture civilian life outside of the tightly controlled environment of military bases. “You only get to see so much when you’re embedded,” he described. “Your contact with the civilian population is very limited.”
“The collection of photographs,” Saruk stated in his Kickstarter video, “provides a window on cinema culture in Kabul and illuminates a side of Afghan life generally not seen from the media, which for years have saturated us with images of war.” The campaign surpassed its goal ($15,000) by over $8,000, with 205 backers.
Even with faulty projectors and seats that were falling apart, Afghans seemed very excited when the cinemas reopened.
While attendance is generally low during the week, on Fridays the crowds really begin to gather, creating an energetic and social environment, said Saruk. “People are yelling across the room, smoking cigarettes, talking on cell phones”—things people would never do here in the United States. But, that’s what makes the experience so unique.
The images that Saruk captured perfectly convey that essence. The song-and-dance numbers popularly associated with the Bollywood genre cause the spectators to actively participate, often times getting on stage to join in on the choreography. “I got some really great shots of these boys dancing. There’s a woman dancing on the screen and two boys dancing below with the music. It was really one of those ‘whoa’ moments.”
For the most part, people were okay with Saruk moving around and taking photos. Only once did he have someone confront him after he took their photo. The two men demanded that he delete them, which he did.
Attendees are most always men. Not once, in the dozens of visits that he made, did Saruk see a woman at the theater. “I got various responses,” Saruk said when asked why women didn’t visit the theaters. “Some people said it was because of security and some said that they simply preferred to watch films at home.”
The majority of the films being projected are of Indian or Pakistani origin. In the more traditional sense of Afghanistan, men’s contact with women is almost non-existent outside of the family until they are married. In public, women cover every inch of their body with fabric, leaving the most minimal skin showing. Even the exposed skin of women on public television is blurred out.
Bollywood films allow for skin and sexuality, which is a big departure from the more conservative Islamic culture. The man get riled up over the images of women that project onto the big screen, whistling and yelling at the flirtatious, skin and bust-showing female characters and cheering the leading man.
Capturing these moments Saruk “provides an alternative narrative to the life in the violence-plagued city, where going to the movies, for many, is an escape from the harsh reality outside.”
‘The Forgotten Reel’ is available for purchase directly from the artist.