Baghdad's Cinemas Falling Casualty to War
Few Remaining Theaters Pull In Meager Audiences With Replays of Old Films

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

BAGHDAD -- He was the libidinous modeling agent afraid of commitment. She was the tango teacher searching for love. But all their heartache was forgotten in the final scene, as he reached for her hand and asked, "Shall we dance?" while the camera slowly pulled away over their festive Egyptian wedding.

"No, no, wasn't very good," Thiah Isan said dismissively, as the lights came on in Baghdad's largest movie theater after the recent matinee showing of "The Ladder and the Snake," an Egyptian film. "It's a story about love -- some boyfriend, meets a girl, she wants to get married, he doesn't."

"I am always lonely," he added.

In the capital of this warring country, where days beat to the percussion of bombings and gunfire and nights are spent locked down under a citywide curfew, Baghdad's remaining moviegoers are all lonely souls. The showing at the cavernous Semiramis cinema, with its 1,800 red velvet seats and two balconies, attracted just 11 people, each of them sitting by themselves.

"People like me are starting to feel ashamed of coming over here. Because of the violent situation, they think you are a carefree person if you go to the cinema in such conditions," said Ali Hussein, 49, a cosmetics wholesaler unemployed since his office burned down six months ago. "But some people feel more secure here than in the cafes and restaurants, which are being blown up."

Most of the city's once-popular movie theaters have shut down for lack of business. Those that remain open save money by replaying the same films. As with art and music and theater in Baghdad, going to movies is a cultural luxury losing out to the daily killing.

"There are more stories worthy to become movies in Iraq than there is oil in this country," said Ziad Turkey, the cinematographer of "Underexposure," Iraq's first post-invasion feature-length film. "But we don't have an audience. All that we have, the movie houses, are merely buildings. They are not theaters."

At Semiramis, in central Baghdad, moviegoers used to line up off of Sadoun Street to watch one of seven daily films, said an employee who feared to give his name. Now, in addition to the Egyptian movie, there are three choices: Jackie Chan's "Thunderbolt," Jet Li's "Hero" and Wes Craven's Baghdad-appropriate effort "Scream." All were released before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The owners can no longer afford to import the latest films.

So the Semiramis shows about 60 old films over and over again. Once open until midnight, it now closes at 2:30 p.m. Only three of its 10 employees still have jobs.

"Now, no one is in the mood even to watch a movie on TV because your mind is busy and tired," said the employee. "In a month or two from now, we will definitely be closed. What else can we do? By the end of the year, there will not be one cinema left in all of Iraq."

Iraq's film industry has languished for years, first under the censorship of President Saddam Hussein, then under the post-Persian Gulf War international embargo that prohibited the importation of moviemaking equipment. The three-year-old war and escalating sectarian violence have taken care of the rest.

"We are aimless, hopeless. Nobody cares about artistic activity. The most important thing is the foolish religious activity, and the activity of killing," said Qasim Sabti, a painter and the owner of the Dialogue Gallery in northern Baghdad, one of the few remaining gathering places for artists, actors and writers. "There is only black now. No colors. Nobody believes in the future."

When actor Basher Al Majed, 44, signed on to the cast of "Ahlaam" to play a haunted former Iraqi soldier who wanders the halls of a Baghdad psychiatric ward and the city's bombed-out streets, he realized he would be risking his life.

"I personally did not sign a contract with the director to be the actor of the movie as much as I signed my own death certificate," he said.

While filming one scene, U.S. helicopters swarmed overhead. Fearing an attack, the crew waived white clothes and wrote on the ground in large letters in English: "We are a film crew," Majed said. Three months into the filming in 2004, the crew was captured by gunmen in Baghdad. The audio technician was shot in the leg, Majed said. The crew spent a week in captivity before being turned over to American soldiers at Baghdad International Airport and was eventually released.

"Ahlaam" was developed in Beirut, edited in London, and has been shown at several film festivals, though never in Iraq. At the Brooklyn International Film Festival this year, Majed won best actor, an accolade he learned about only after looking on the Internet, because he couldn't leave Iraq to attend the festival.

Majed, who spent 12 years as a political prisoner under Hussein, is now a student at Baghdad's College of Fine Arts. He said he has been reading over another Iraqi script but doesn't know if it's possible to film in Baghdad.

"The idea of carrying a cinematographic camera in the flaming streets of Baghdad is considered suicide," he said.

The desolate recreational landscape that Iraqis find themselves navigating affects all artistic endeavors. For many residents, the violence and nightly curfew mean that staying home watching satellite television programs is the safest option. While Hussein fostered an intellectually repressive atmosphere, his government also paid artists salaries to help produce their work, a benefit that has disappeared.

Artist Qasim Sabti, 53, has not held an exhibition at his gallery for more than a year and resorts to selling his work over the Internet to customers outside Iraq.

"There is an Arab proverb: 'Standing water decays fast,' " he said. "And we've started to decay -- the artists have started to live in a very narrow space."

Sabti spoke in the tree-shaded courtyard of his gallery, as other artists drank lemon tea at white plastic tables under slowly twirling ceiling fans. His gallery's proximity to the Turkish Embassy is his only protection, he said.

"We need a special dialogue, a special message, to tell the others what happened here," he said. "By art, by culture, by sport, not by killing. We are not Bedouins in the desert, we are not guards of oil, we are the people of the two rivers."

At another table sat Karim Wasfi, director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and the son of one of Iraq's most famous movie stars. His orchestra has endured similar hardships: destroyed concert houses, canceled performances, musicians regularly missing rehearsals. But he remains hopeful, and even plans to start a weekly concert series.

"I hate to use arts and culture for a tool, but it is a tool, you know, considering the situation right now. And I want to use that to give a chance, give hope, and somehow participate in the cultivation of refinement of the society," said Wasfi, a cellist educated at the Indiana University School of Music. "People are hungry for it, they are in real need, they are eager to be part of this process. Even by only attending, by participating, by being an audience, by coming and listening to music."

"I know my cello will not probably stop car bombs," he went on. "But I will still think the sound of the cello, and the sound of the orchestra, and the civilized sound of music, could be, should be, stronger than the sound of the car bomb."

Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.

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